The Role and Importance of Volunteerism in Development

Maja Ladic

Name Maja Ladic
Country Slovenia
Organization Coordinator, Volunteer Involving Organizations Network Society

 Maja Ladić graduated in 2010 in international relations at University of Ljubljana, Slovenia (EU). Already during her studies, she was interested in human rights, protection of the minorities, ethnic discrimination, ethnic conflicts, social inclusion, gender equality, development and development cooperation. She is continuing her education in this direction – as a PhD student of development studies (focusing on gender equality or gender dimension in development strategies) at the Faculty of Social Sciences in Slovenia. With PhD in development studies she hopes to upgrade and improve her experience and knowledge she obtained through field work and development projects, which are on the other hand an important added value to the empirical part of her doctoral dissertation.

In 2009 she travelled to Kigali for the first time – as a volunteer through the Peace Institute (an NGO from Slovenia). She stayed with Nyamirambo Women’s Center which started as a self-help group and developed into a respectable local NGO. With Nyamirambo Women’s Center she interviewed women about their needs, problems and wishes. Based on those results, and in line with the government priorities, new activities were then planned (focusing on education of women, economic independence of women, and women’s rights and gender equality in general). While staying in Nyamirambo as a volunteer, she also held 5-week English course for three groups of children from age of 3 to 18. She developed strong ties with the local partner organization and local population and since then she is a coordinator / leader of development projects that Nyamirambo Women’s Center and Peace Institute are implementing together. In this new role she has been put in position to coordinate and support other volunteers that were travelling to Rwanda to help with the work of Nyamirambo Women’s Center. Her own volunteering experience was very valuable and came in handy when guiding and supporting other volunteers.


The Role and Importance of Volunteerism in Development – some critical reflections

My first encounter with Rwanda was due to volunteer work I did for two partner NGOs, one from Slovenia, the other from Rwanda. I didn’t volunteer to help »the poor or the needy« in Africa, as one might assume, I volunteered for more selfish reasons – I was interested in gender equality, women’s rights, education and development, and I was curious about Rwanda, the country I knew very little of (besides the genocide in 1994). By volunteering for these two NGOs I got to work in the fields of my interest and I got to know Rwanda (as much as possible in 5 weeks). In my presentation I could elaborate on my experience as a short-term volunteer in Rwanda, which actually lead to »student employment« and later regular employment (at the NGO in Slovenia), and enabled my continuous cooperation with the Rwandan NGO in last five years. Later on I became the leader of our joint projects, and was in position to monitor and coordinate the work of other volunteers going to Rwanda. My personal volunteer experience helped me to better relate to other volunteers, while on the other side, my knowledge about development issues and project management enabled me to see a broader picture through a bit more critical lens.

In different time-periods »development« has been differently understood, thus generally accepted definition does not exist. I do not understand development solely as economic development, but rather as social, political, cultural and also economic process. I fancy the interpretation of development of Todaro and Smith, saying it is a process which improves the quality of people’s lives and their abilities by lifting their living standards, self-esteem, and freedom. When making the literature overview, one can notice that in time the focal expression of development discourse has changed from “economic growth” to “poverty reduction”. However, one can justifiably question, whether it wasn’t only the discourse that changed, and the objectives and attitudes remained the same.

Sustainable development is a concept that is relatively new. Simultaneously, we could say, the concept of sustainable tourism emerged – as an “alternative” to mass tourism; one of the alternatives being “volunteer tourism” or “voluntourism” which is more and more popular, especially among younger people in their 20s and 30s, who travel and volunteer (short- or long-term). It is debatable who is a short-term volunteer and who is perhaps just a tourist interacting with local communities in an unconventional way. Questions arising are also what is or should be the minimum period for volunteers to be engaged, and whether everyone can really do any kind of work. I would certainly not argue voluntourism being only good or bad; it is too complex for such simplification, and demands much more attention and critical though.

Volunteer work is probably – like migration, trade and many other life processes – as old as human civilization. However, as numerous (international) volunteering opportunities emerged in recent history, there was/is also a need for setting up regulations or monitoring mechanisms. In my presentation I will elaborate on how volunteer work is defined, regulated (by law) and rated (in cash equivalent) in Slovenia (EU member state), which is important for project work and successful fundraising, especially for NGOs.

Another aspect for us to consider is foreign vs. local volunteers. What are the reasons that make people volunteer? Why do volunteers from the global West/North often go to the global South to volunteer / to »help« and why don’t they volunteer in their countries or regions? Or maybe they do as well? One could argue that volunteering has become “fashionable”, and it looks great in one’s CV, even if work itself didn’t last more than a few days. However, I would not want to make any such pessimistic conclusions, and would argue, again, that such simplifications are too radical. I would rather argue that volunteers, especially the ones from the global West/North volunteering in the global South, should have good knowledge of (or at least be familiar with) the global education / development education and the local context where they plan to volunteer. I believe this is an important added value for the impact they can make, especially when volunteering outside their own environment, and the contribution to the social, cultural, political or economic development of one state, be it Rwanda or any other.

Photo  Maja Ladic

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