7-8 JUNE 2017 / Tour & Taxis / Brussels

Volunteering for development

Volunteering for development

Wednesday, November 27, 2013 - 14:30 to 15:45

Key points

  • 80% of UN volunteers are from the Global South, and 60% of volunteers from the Global South work in the Global South.
  • Volunteering is a two-way street. It is not just being engaged in socially useful projects, it also builds up the volunteer’s resilience, which serves them well in fiercely competitive job markets.
  • Volunteering is a global value; it transcends cultures and religions, as well as teaching people to fight for their rights and to hold governments accountable.
  • Volunteering done properly is not a system of employing cheap labour. It is estimated that it requires one skilled person to manage every 10 volunteers.



The panel was comprised of representatives of volunteer organisations and a generally sympathetic audience. However, the debate served to further debunk the myth that all volunteers are ‘do-gooders’ wanting to help people in the developing world worse off than themselves.

Speakers insisted it was untrue that volunteering is a one-way process of people from the North working in the Global South, as 53 % of volunteers come from the South. A strong element of Voluntary Service Overseas’ (VSO) work is for international volunteers to train national volunteers, who are the heart of each project and ensure its long-term sustainability.  

VSO has a people-centred, rights-based approach to development and believes that an important function of nurturing volunteers is to help empower them, as well as teach them to be politically aware and to hold governments to account.

Nor is volunteering simply a North to South process for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. When the South African government finally decided to provide AIDS sufferers with anti-retroviral drugs, it was South African Red Cross volunteers who helped those in need to negotiate the bureaucracy to access them.

The European Union shares the belief that volunteering is an empowering experience, and helps train people to be vigilant about what is happening in Europe and their own countries. This is an essential part of good governance, and as important as free speech in a democracy.

Many of the volunteers now working in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan belong to citizens' groups trained in disaster preparedness by the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO). The EU’s 2010 Lisbon Treaty introduced a special programme, the European Volunteer Service (EVS), to create a core of European humanitarian volunteers to strengthen local groups in potential disaster zones by helping them to build resilience and capacity. This should go into operation next year.

Volunteerism is also way to build up activists who feel they should have a role in government policies and can hold governments accountable. Without this engagement, their anger could create a political ‘time bomb’. The Arab Spring clearly demonstrated this power.

Volunteering is a ‘two-way street’ as it is typically an enriching experience, as Norbert Bondi, National Volunteer, Kisumu, Kenya explained. After university he volunteered as a nursery teacher and also to work in a children’s home to give something back to society. This very positive experience changed him personally and professionally. When he started applying for jobs he found the resilience and experience he had built up served him well.

Speakers emphasised that using volunteers properly is not a system for employing cheap labour. Volunteering does not come free, as it requires proper management. It is estimated one person trained to manage volunteers is needed for every 10 volunteers.


‘Life does not consist in just holding the best cards, but in making the best of the cards you have. Volunteering is a game changer.’ Norbert Bondi, National Volunteer, Kisumu, Kenya