The word volunteer is first used in the English language. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term was used to refer to “a person who enters military service, not through obligation or as a regular soldier, but of one’s own free will”. It therefore implies that a volunteer makes a choice to offer her or his time to a cause that s/he feels is worthwhile.
People “volunteered” to fight in many of the wars of independence in South America in the early 19th century, and in the Boer War in South Africa near the end of the century. This shows the word’s significant military roots. During Victorian times, volunteering was continued in Britain by philanthropists, many of them women. They provided support to those ‘in need’ where the state was seen to be failing. This ‘social’ influence can be seen today in the nature of volunteering both at home and abroad.
In more recent times, volunteering has taken on a liberal and youth-centred understanding. It is increasingly seen as a means to learning, which can contribute towards diplomas and university degrees and can be important for getting certain jobs. Volunteering is viewed by most people as a means to develop one’s sense of citizenship and community responsibility.
1950s – 1970s:
International volunteering flourished, principally through the establishment of state-supported organisations. Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) was established in Britain in 1958; the Peace Corps was founded in the USA in 1960 at the behest of President Kennedy; and in Canada, the ‘Canadian Executive Service Organisation’ (CESO) came into being in 1967. APSO, the Agency for Personal Service Overseas, was founded in 1973 in Ireland, and sent skilled Irish volunteers to developing countries. This continued until 2001, when APSO was merged into the Irish government’s Development Cooperation Ireland (DCI) office.
In recent years, these state-supported organisations have been supplemented by a rapidly growing number of organisations that arrange shorter overseas volunteer placements. In Britain, many of these are aimed at the ‘gap year’ market, which includes people who have completed secondary-level education or are taking time off from third-level education. Such organisations, some of which are for-profit and some which are not-for-profit, primarily provide short-term volunteer programmes that last for between a week and several months. Unlike the state-supported organisations mentioned above, many of these organisations do not require that volunteers have specific skills to participate. Instead, skills can be developed ‘on the job’, and the focus is often on intercultural exchange.
International volunteering, therefore, has a long and varied history. What unites volunteers through all these periods, however, is the way that volunteering has offered access to alternative opportunities, be these travel or work. For many modern volunteers, it offers opportunities to develop skills and to get to know a community at a level that is not permitted to the average tourist.