Mark Cumming in conversation with Amanda Mukwashi, Chief of Volunteer Knowledge and Innovation, United Nations Volunteers (UNV). An edited version of this interview appears in print in Focus magazine.
Mark Cumming: International volunteering has changed dramatically from where it was at 30 years ago, what’s the future for international volunteering for development?
Amanda Mukwashi: It started very much with a North to South dynamic, with a focus on sending young people from countries that had colonial connections to countries of the South. That evolved into more specialised volunteer sending arrangements where highly skilled volunteers with ages ranging from 35 and 45 were sent as personnel. The next evolution involved bringing in volunteers from multiple countries from the Global North but also the Global South with the arrival of South-South volunteering and South- North volunteering as practiced by some of the volunteer involving organisations. There are lots of examples of this but the one that comes to my mind that demonstrates best how volunteering has changed with the times is that of vocational teachers from countries like Zambia working in Lesotho, offering to volunteers a context and setting that they could quickly adapt to.
Now that we are faced with very complex globalised challenges, volunteering needs to build shared values and learning that creates triangular relationships, policies and practices across countries. These experiences could be relevant anywhere on the Globe. International volunteering is no longer a one-way conversation about transfer of skills that occurs through physical proximity, but rather a relationship, where learning from each other offers a joint vision for a better world. This is done in increasingly diverse ways, through connecting local campaigns to online (virtual) volunteering.
Our problems are global. Global responses are needed that involve volunteers from all countries. The next generation of volunteers will not be technocrats, they will have a strong political consciousness, a vision for working towards peace and prosperity for all, and they will appreciate that what they do know and understand is only a fraction of what they could know and understand.
MC: What are we to make of the renewed growth of youth (under 25’s) based volunteering?
AM: When you look at the growth of the youth population, take Malawi for example where 70% of the population are young people, it’s important that there are opportunities for young people to be involved in service to others and opportunities to grow and shape the future they want. We can’t wait till they are 40 for them to volunteer. It’s not an either or. It’s a matter of right now.
There are many times of volunteering ranging from the informal to formally organised, from mutual aid to advocacy and social activism. What I am talking about is volunteering for sustainable development, and younger people have a role to play in this. For example, youth can get involved by connecting and using their tech savvy skills. An example of this was documented through youth being active across the globe after the Rana Plaza factory collapse to campaign for better labour conditions for garment workers. Providing national and international volunteering opportunities allows young people to have a role and can also contribute to tackling extremism. Including youth can be a very powerful force for change
MC: How should International volunteering organisations respond to the SDGs?
AM: The SDGs are universal, so for example climate change can only be successfully tackled by work everywhere. Similarly, health scares, such as Ebola, or resource conflicts around water and land have the potential to carry instability across borders. Action is needed in all places on these issues. There is recognition in the SDGs that people have not been in fully engaged in development agenda before. This is a breakthrough and is key, for new types of partnerships where volunteers are not only part of the means of implementation where volunteerism is also an end in itself – providing the space to be (Ubuntu).
MC: What can International Volunteering bring to the SDGs
AM: Solutions have to come from the ground, the old power relationships have shifted. Volunteers help to identify and create local innovative solutions while working alongside international volunteers. This can help scale-up ideas and bring them to wider audiences. The Ebola response is an example of this, as was the case of the earthquake in Nepal. Local volunteers in these two instances were the first responders. International volunteers were there to support local volunteers, and not just for the short-term but also in post-crisis recovery. There are many entry points. The question for me is “How ready are international volunteering organisations to further change their business models beyond creating and managing volunteer opportunities, to drawing on and supporting the large numbers of people who are already active?”
MC: Can you say more about what you mean when you say business model?
AM: Organisations need to look at how they do things and figure out how to stay relevant. They need to be looking at volunteers coming from multiple countries, be able to support their needs and to provide the terms and means for developing countries to become involved, to assist multi-country, differently aged, differently abled and multidisciplinary teams to work together to address major development challenges. The SDGs are universal. Knowledge and capacities are not the monopoly of some but are context specific and sit with many. Business models that build on this will resonate with the changing times and minds. Online volunteering is a good example of how organisations are facilitating new partnerships between volunteers and communities in a creative way that widens participation.