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The Value of Voluntary Services in Foreign Cultures

Since a few years ago, voluntary services in countries of the global south have shown a strong upward trend. Since then, going out into the world and gaining experience in a foreign culture has become more popular with young people. As promotional literature for new volunteers increases, voluntary service is also facing rising criticism. Can a conclusion be drawn from this contradiction?

The Trend of Voluntary Service

Studies on “volunteers in international voluntary services “ show that for the first time in 2015 over 8000 volunteers have been sent abroad by organisations. Compared to the previous year the number of volunteers has increased by 16% while in comparison to 2006 it has doubled. This upward trend can be explained by the expansion of state regulated services, whereas the private sector shows a long-term decrease.

Figure 1: The development of statutorily regulated voluntary services (S-VS) and services regulated under private law (P-VS) from 2006 until 2015

Voluntary services that have been initiated and partially financed by ministries are also a focus of many critics as taxpayers’ money is being used for their maintenance while no obvious outcomes have been obtained. The most far-reaching programmes are the International Youth Volunteer Service (IJFD) and the voluntary service weltwärts.

Caught in the Crossfire of Criticism

These programmes are subject to criticism. This criticism is often constructive and justified, tackling sensitive areas. The question is where the value of voluntary service lies. It is mainly high school graduates who use the two dominating programmes before deciding upon their university degree or career. Therefore it is predominantly people aged between 18 and 22 who head off to do their voluntary service. They rarely have professional experience which they can bring into their project. Often they do not speak the language of their assigned country and they lack basic knowledge of development cooperation. In addition, they may experience culture shock, be confronted with poverty, illnesses and criminality, as well as home sickness. “Five months is the time that is needed (for volunteers) to familiarise themselves”, says Nicola, who is responsible for an assignment location in Ecuador. Five months that are partially financed by the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs or the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development; five months where volunteers are standing in the way rather than contributing. And what comes after these five months? Can the job in the project not be done quicker by experienced locals than by volunteers? Is it not more useful to invest directly into the project rather than into a volunteer’s board and lodging?

Figure 2: Critical voices from academia (Kontzi, von Braunmühl), by veterans of development work (Pinger & Neudecker), and from a host organisation for German volunteers (Donkor).

Yes, the job can be done quicker by experienced locals. And yes, it could also be more useful to directly finance the project. If you think of the word development from the term development cooperation as development of infrastructures and social or ecological projects and if you wish to support this kind of development, then voluntary service, does indeed, seem less appropriate than other instruments of development cooperation. Thus, the commitment of volunteers with their ideals and good intentions becomes eventually pointless. Is this so?

Development Cooperation from a Different Angle

The term development cooperation consists of two words. The message conveyed by the word cooperation is clear: a project is being collaboratively pursued by not working unilaterally but in a joint effort towards its implementation. The reading of the word development is more sophisticated due to its ambiguity. As mentioned above, the word development, in this context, means the expansion of infrastructures and social or ecological projects. However, this is not the only meaning. Development represents a process, a genesis from an antecedent to something in the future. This does not necessarily only mean the expansion of knowledges, but also change, a creation, or a new artefact.

  • As expansion of knowledges about global entanglements.

  • As change, especially the reduction of global prejudices through your own experiences and conceptions based thereon.

  • As the mutual creation of skills and ideas, among other things, for approaches and opportunities to reduce global injustices.

  • As artefacts of global partnerships, friendships, communication platforms and projects in order to promote this development

Voluntary Services as Part of Development Cooperation?

“It shows that volunteers perceive their year […] as a year of learning” where they acquire various skills: “identifying global developments, as well as sociocultural and biological diversity, […] evaluating their own models and the ones of others, as well as acting towards an equitable development in the spirit of sustainability” (Schleich, 2011). Such is the conclusion of an article about global learning within the developmental voluntary service of weltwärts.

Figure 3: Volunteering abroad with good intentions. A beautiful image but what is the use?

Comparing this conclusion with our thought experiment, it is not difficult to find connections. Identifying global developments, as well as sociocultural and biological diversity paves the way for expanding knowledges. Evaluating your own models and those of others is to be regarded as synonymous with reducing prejudices. At the same time, taking action towards an equitable development in the spirit of sustainability can be seen as the creation of ideas, skills, and partnerships for combating global injustices. From this perspective, voluntary service may be considered a suitable component of development cooperation. However, this definition of development cooperation is merely a thought experiment which is not based on empirical evidence!

Is that so? The Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) describes developmental information service and educational work as a work area of development cooperation which also includes voluntary services. Let’s have another look at two objectives of a voluntary service: “ […] the “weltwärts” funding programme […] [is supposed to] contribute to the ‘awareness and appreciation of the diversity of life and development, as well as create ‘an understanding of the dependency of one’s own life in the global context’. [It] gives volunteers the opportunity to acquire qualifications and experiences that are helpful for their personal development, further professional orientation, and work as multipliers in the field of developmental domestic and educational work after their return […]’” (BMZ, Evaluation Unit for Development Cooperation, 2011).

The Value of Voluntary Services

It is not the goal of voluntary services to make the same contribution to development cooperation as it is with professional development workers or project funding. Volunteers are part of information service and educational work where they are both target group and agent. Their role in the projects is one of an active observer. “Skills are not only gained through knowledge transfer since the individual does not learn what is taught from the outside but what they are effected by on the inside […]. […] In addition, when learning takes place in a new situation, it can be particularly formative as the learner does not just adapt but needs to deal with the situation in many diverse ways.” (Gritschke, 2011). In the case of voluntary service, development takes place in the volunteers’ minds and those of the people in the host countries.

Figure 4: The voluntary service weltwärts lies indirectly under development cooperation.

Familiarising yourself with the field of development cooperation as a person aged around 20 is an opportunity for your future, and indirectly for the future of the globe. It is up to the volunteers to critically examine their own service. Only in this way can voluntary programmes serve their intended purpose. There are as many volunteers who have poised upon their lips, “I am here to help!” as there are those who state, “I am here to learn how to help.”

VISIONEERS accompanies volunteers on their paths to foreign cultures. I am one of those volunteers. The paths are exciting, if not sometimes rocky. With a strong will to help in the project, I felt like I was continuously coming up against a brick wall. It left me in low spirits and it became obvious that I first needed to understand what objectives lied behind voluntary service. VISIONEERS gave me the chance to critically question my commitment. But only now, enriched with my own experiences, do I understand what I can and cannot achieve.

Would you like to know more about my and my fellow volunteers’ service? Here in the VISIONEERS’ blog you will find our testimonies in the category Voluntary Service Costa Rica. Have fun rummaging!

Have you read enough and is it time to make your own experiences? I have personally only begun to understand voluntary work once I was in the midst of the adventure. VISIONEERS offer the opportunity to do voluntary service in a foreign culture. You will find further information here.

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