The professionalization of development volunteering – towards a new global precariat?

Recently, three separate incidents have caught my attention: A new report from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) on The role of volunteering in sustainable development was launched, a post on the GUARDIAN asked the critical question: Volunteering overseas: the best method for creating new aid workers? and discussions with Danish colleagues revealed that the Danish Foreign Ministry wants to fund a new volunteering scheme in cooperation with Denmark’s leading NGOs.

While the debates on volunteering and voluntourism are prominently featured in virtual debates (as early as 2009) and research, including on this blog (e.g.
or), I find it important to add a more nuanced, shall we say, ‘political economy’ discussion to the topic.

The question is not simply about ‘volunteering in a school in Ghana’, but how the volunteering discourse – almost exclusively linked to un- or low-paid engagement of increasingly well-educated young women and men (both in the global North and South!) – has gained such momentum:
An ‘experience industry’ is now linked to the regular development industry that demands more qualifications and skills while at the same time contributing to precarious quasi-employment that often masks the challenges of over-supply of young professionals and shifting dynamics in global development engagement away from the traditional ‘North-South’ flow.

I will arrange my reflections around two key points: First, the paradox that rightly demands better educated aid professionals, but not necessarily links them to equally professional work and salaries.
And second, a growing ‘volunteering industry’ that usually brings together state, civil society and academia, but that is more likely to contribute to a depoliticized ‘employability’ discourse than meaningful political engagement over development policy and practice.

Is volunteering necessary in maintaining public support for development in donor countries?

Germany and the EU (and soon Denmark) have set up fairly large and professional volunteering schemes. Interestingly, these are countries/donors that have also undergone significant changes from traditional development cooperation to a more streamlined version closer aligned with foreign and trade policy.

Volunteering schemes are relatively inexpensive, engage with a younger demographic and are a neat way of channeling some extra funding for training and placements to civil society organizations. All in the name of helping young citizens and fostering a culture of service, global experiences and contributing to employable skills. If done ‘right’ these schemes produce tons of positive testimonials, keep young people busy for a while and portray committed institutions that use the ‘taxpayers money’ wisely. They also keep smaller organizations busy with selection, training, monitoring and debriefing of candidates and local counterparts busy in accommodating, briefing and debriefing them. The Danish proposal includes volunteers as young as pre-university students-which DANIDA-funded health clinic would not want to look after a 17 year-old volunteer?!
In short, the volunteering industry keeps a lot of people ‘busy’-but not necessarily engaged in complex discussions around social change, inequality and poverty.

Is volunteering creating ‘bullshit jobs’ and more bureaucracy than action?

David Graeber and his work on bureaucracy and ‘bullshit jobs’ are currently discussed in my networks:

Huge swaths of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they believe to be unnecessary. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.” Which jobs are bullshit? “A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble. But it’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish.”
And what about aid workers and volunteers?
The growing supply of volunteers will certainly have an impact on the professional development sector-some (local?) jobs may be filled with free or subsidized volunteers, larger organizations may have to create extra ‘coordinator’ positions to administrate volunteers and the volunteering experience and in the end quite a few resources will be exchanged between organizations – at the same time when junior positions are hard to fund and organizations continue to struggle with smaller aid budgets and more bureaucracy to demonstrate ‘impact’.

If the aims are ‘exposure’ to development, gaining some ‘skills’ and showing tax-paying parents and friends how great their money is working for ‘development’, volunteering schemes are likely to be successful, but they are also adding to broader societal trends around irregular work; short-term, low-paid, highly flexible and mobile work for trained professionals will be the norm – and volunteering schemes will help to normatize, normalize and naturalize labor conditions that go far beyond the development industry.

Is volunteering prolonging precarious existences?
In that sense, there is a real risk that volunteering will be adding to the professionalization spiral.
I would not be surprised if universities will offer degrees in ‘volunteering’ at some point there may be students in their late 20s who have CVs featuring a Bachelors in Volunteering, a Masters in Aid Work and perhaps even a PhD in Development Studies, but very little full-time, full-responsible relevant work experience. Given the University of Sussex’s criticized expansion and management model and an IDS that enrolls about 100+ MA students in their programs every year for example, we need to keep a critical academic eye on these developments to avoid (or at least mitigate) a business model that wants to take financial advantage of the experience-building industry and adds courses, degrees, modules etc. to professionalize volunteering further.
(Full disclosure: From 2004-2010 I studied, researched and worked at IDS and still think it is a fantastic place). Graduates want jobs.

What about South-South and South-North volunteering?
Not surprising, but worth pointing out, the Danish proposal for a volunteering scheme appeared to be fairly traditional. Young Danish people travel to the global South and volunteer in DANIDA-funded projects and organizations.
If we want to add a more political dimension to volunteering, i.e. thinking in bigger terms of global citizenship and movement building, we need challenge such traditional movements. Why should Southern citizens not volunteer in a Danish community or organization? And could the Danish taxpayer fund schemes that bring together Southern partners, true volunteers that are rewarded with trips and exchanges globally? The German program allows organizations to host volunteers from abroad.

In general, this could challenge hot foreign and domestic political issues from migration to spending aid money to creating global movements-exactly what the good-will volunteering industry is not about.

As the nature of (paid) employment and donor-led development are shifting quickly, volunteering can easily turn into a Band-Aid to tie together different parts of CVs, ‘produce’ new categories of professionals and divert resources from critical engagement with the root causes of underdevelopment.
Well-meaning teachers, academics, policy-makers and NGO staff need to critically engage beyond the
any money for development is better than nothing argument.

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