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Volunteers from the Global South

A Vietnamese volunteer cleans a beach A Vietnamese volunteer cleans a beach Shutterstock
07 Jan
Volunteers from the ‘Global South’ are an important, but poorly understood group in development work

When the United Nations volunteer programme mobilises a volunteer, the chances are that volunteer will be from a developing country in the ‘Global South’. The UN’s latest figures, published in 2012, show that the 81 per cent of the organisation’s 6,807 volunteers were from the South.

‘People volunteering in the South do so in different contexts and experiences to volunteers from the North,’ says Matt Baillie Smith, a researcher at University of Northumbria who has done fieldwork looking at volunteers from the Philippines in Bangladesh with with with his colleague Nina Laurie. ‘What we are argue is that there is a different geography of volunteering. Looking at some of the changes since the 1990s you see more Chinese volunteers.’ There are also more volunteers from developed countries, like South Korea, without a strong previous history of international volunteering. 

‘At one level people were volunteering for the same reason as people in Europe, for example developing credentials for jobs,’ says Baillie Smith. But there are also different factors at work. ‘The volunteers have different ideas around identity. One person, for example, spoke about coming from an indigenous community in the Philippines and they felt that gave them the credentials to work with an indigenous community in Bangladesh.’ Some volunteers from the South questioned the credentials of volunteers from the North, says Smith. They argued that as people from the South they live and breathe problems like poverty in a way northerners do not, he adds.

‘Volunteers in the Global South may come from middle class families, though,’ says Baillie Smith. ‘So they are not necessarily living in those conditions. They’re not necessarily better equipped, but they rationalise why they are volunteering in a particular way.’

Some volunteers from the South questioned the credentials of volunteers from the North. They argued that as people from the South they live and breathe problems like poverty in a way northerners do not

Development organisations are sometimes led to use volunteers in a particular way due to perceptions about where the volunteer comes from. ‘One interviewee discussed how volunteers from the global South could be more comfortable with informal management approaches than global North volunteers, whereas the latter might be more attuned to formal development ideas such as those around rights and equality.’ The risk here, says Baillie Smith, is that historical stereotypes about global South and North could shape how volunteer capacities are understood.

‘We’re trying to understand what happens when all these different volunteers from different places come together in one area,’ says Baillie Smith. At the moment the numbers involved in South-South volunteering are not well understood, but countries like China and Brazil with growing middle classes are likely to contribute. South Korea, a relative newcomer, has seen volunteer numbers increase as international volunteering becomes an accepted pathway for young people.

Complications can arise in South-South volunteering when conditions in a volunteer placement are more favourable for a volunteer than working at home, says Baillie Smith. The incentive is to remain in the country where the volunteering takes place rather than return to the home country with new skills and experience.

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