Volunteering seems to be becoming less helpful than it used to be. A few months back I visited Uganda with my colleague Dr Aisling O’Loghlen to meet with our academic and policy and practice partners for Refugee Youth Volunteering Uganda (RYVU), a research project funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Centre/Global Challenges Research Fund. RYVU sets out to explore the forms and patterns of voluntary activity undertaken by young refugees in Uganda, and to analyse its impacts on their skills and employability and on inequality.
While there, we had great conversations about the challenges facing young refugees, and of forming and sustaining civil society organisations to work with them. But volunteering was a harder topic to discuss.
My research with International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) on their Global Review on Volunteering revealed that volunteering can be an unhelpful term. Our findings revealed how volunteering is associated in some parts of the world with authoritarian state demands for unpaid labour. In Uganda some organisations thought young refugees weren’t engaged in volunteering, but what they often meant was that young refugees couldn’t or didn’t access formal volunteering programmes. For some, volunteering was more akin to a paid internship, and they felt that volunteers were just positioning themselves for NGO job opportunities. Some positive dimensions of volunteering identified in research in the global North were seen as a problem in Uganda. Some assumed that we were interested in international volunteers.
But when we moved onto talking about the multiple formal and informal ways young refugees gave their time and labour without salary, the conversation opened up. We heard how young refugees would get together informally to support their communities, and how they would organize spontaneously in respond to events, or would work for many years for free, eventually forming an NGO to work with their own and other communities. People would talk enthusiastically about these less visible activities and say they were common but poorly understood. There was a sense of these things were not really ‘volunteering’.
There has been growing attention to the different names volunteering goes under in different parts of the world. There is also talk about needing to understand ‘spontaneous’ volunteering. But the ‘spontaneous’ label reveals a norm of institutionalised and managed activity. Dominant ideas of volunteering originate in the histories of the global North, but because of its association with doing good and the apparently convenient resonances with other examples of caring and doing good, the impacts of moving the concept around can get lost. In Uganda, what was telling was a sense that some voluntary practices were not allowed to figure within volunteering. Volunteering’s formal forms and their instrumental rationalities, and its mainstreaming in development policy and donor delivery, are closing down thinking and policy development that reflects the rich, uneven and contested economies of volunteering in the global South.
One might argue that perhaps we are using the wrong phrase; but as our conversations revealed, there was a sense of relief when we together opened up our understanding of volunteering. In doing so, we drew out a set of important and often hidden practices that are an important part of young refugees’ lives. I increasingly felt that what we were hearing provided us with new impetus to challenge dominant accounts of volunteering. To do this we need to go beyond being sensitive about different ‘names’ and build better understanding of the complex web of factors and ideas that circulate in and beyond Uganda that shape young refugee’s forms of voluntary labour, the impacts these forms of labour have, and how they are understood by different stakeholders.
This is the space in which RYVU will be working. We aim to build understandings of volunteering and identify and explore its diverse forms through images and stories gathered by and with young refugees themselves. Bringing these accounts into dialogue with debates around volunteering, and learning, and with new thinking on refugees and livelihoods that recognise refugees not as a drain but as a resource, we hope to build a rich account of the role of voluntary labour in building skills and employability and tackling inequality.