Valuing Volunteering: How much do we understand about the complex impacts of volunteering to alleviate poverty?

Enoch, an NSS volunteer farmer Ghana © Simon Lewis
Simon Lewis
By Simon Lewis: March 1st, 2013

The researchers from our Valuing Volunteers research project have been in-country for six months. The project, jointly run with Institute of Development Studies (IDS), critically looks at how volunteering impacts poverty. Research is taking place in The Philippines, China, Nepal, Kenya, Mozambique and Ghana. Simon Lewis, our researcher based in Kenya, blogs about the latest field testing that took place in Ghana.

Early February, I met Professor Danny Burns from IDS and the other lead researchers – Val Clamonte (Ghana), Sandy Picken (Mozambique) -  in Ghana’s capital Accra as part of a series of visits to review and refine the research findings and approach.

We set about field testing Valuing Volunteering’s innovative research approach known as systemic action research – collectively developing a research process that tests assumptions through action and reflection, while also examining the wider systemic context . Our aim was to develop the questions that will steer the project’s attempt to really get to the heart of understanding the complex impacts of volunteering. Valuing Volunteering deliberately looks more widely than the outputs and outcomes that typically form core components of logical frameworks.

The story of Dawhenya Farm

With Accra enveloped in the haze caused by the Saharan dust of the Harmattan wind, we set off for Dawhenya Farm – one of a number of farms managed by Ghana’s National Service Scheme (NSS) and supported by the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MOFA).  The farm is run by NSS volunteers who have to do one year’s mandatory service after completing tertiary education (this contradicts the concept of volunteering being voluntary), and national volunteers that are also recruited through NSS’s Youth in Agriculture Programme.

The theory of change underpinning the project assumes that by engaging and training young people in modern farming techniques, the volunteers will realise the business potential of farming and start up their own farms. Not only will this increase agricultural production but it will also reverse the trend of an aging rural farming population.

Using the research approach’s emphasis on revealing emergent issues and exploring how they resonate with the various interest groups that constitute the farm ‘system’, we quickly discovered that the farm dynamic was far more complex than the simple mission statement of the authorities in charge – the NSS and MOFA. Perhaps most significantly we followed the trail of what happened to the maize produced by the farm. It turned out that it’s sold at a subsidised rate to secondary schools in the Greater Accra region, thereby constituting a school feeding programme. However, what was most revealing was that this arrangement appeared to have come about purely by chance – secondary schools approached the farms on their own initiative.

For NSS and MOFA the primary aim of the farm is, and had been, to train young farmers to encourage them to go into agriculture. Although criteria had since been put in place to ensure the maize went to the secondary schools most in need, the school feeding element was an unplanned addition. This raises the simple question of whether there are other such poverty alleviation benefits ‘hidden’ in volunteering initiatives because their full potential impact has not been understood or planned for.

Understanding how volunteering can best address poverty

The Dawhenya farm example illustrates how, with better understanding and planning in complex systems, volunteering initiatives can be designed to better impact the extreme poor. It just so happens that Dawhenya Farm had almost accidentally had a larger impact on addressing poverty than had been initially planned. It also reveals how such understanding is not necessarily best gathered through traditional approaches that tend to reduce understanding to a logical framework.

But there are other important questions that we need to ask ourselves. For instance, is volunteering reaching those most in need? Taking a further step back, is volunteering in fact better placed than other actors such as NGOs, the State and the private sector to access those areas where poverty is most extreme?

As poverty becomes increasingly focused in inner city slums and isolated rural areas, what is the capacity of volunteering to counteract the tendency for development to occur where accessibility is high? In Ghana for instance, VSO is phasing out its volunteer placements in Accra as it is no longer judged to be in need. Instead there will be a focus on the poorer, less connected and more arid northern regions. For volunteering organisations it is important to confront the question of whether they are reinforcing the inequalities of development by sending more volunteers to more easily accessible areas, not out of some malicious intent but out of ease of logistics?

With current trends toward a reduction in international volunteering to address poverty in favour of increases in national volunteering to promote national economic development, what does this mean for the very poor and those of city slums and the remote hinterland? And finally, how is it best to achieve top-down effectiveness of development interventions and meet the bottom-up needs of local communities? It may be possible to achieve the former without the latter but does this affect wider impacts? Is volunteering uniquely positioned to bridge the two?

These are all questions that we’ll be feeding into the Valuing Volunteering research over the coming months. The interim findings are expected by the end of autumn 2013 and the project concludes in 2014. But what is already becoming clear is that having one overarching theory of change, which supports empowering people through volunteering to become drivers of change, is not necessarily sufficient to capture the diversity of contexts in which volunteering facilitates development and reduces poverty. Instead, it is perhaps more accurate to perceive a multitude of micro-theories of change that encompass the contribution that volunteering makes, and better understanding these ‘micro-theories’ is likely to enable us to improve the effectiveness of volunteering.

You can read the full version of Simon’s blog at:

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