Reduced to tokenism

2013-07-12 00:00

FROM a range of perspectives, social-development volunteering has been considered a strategic vehicle for participatory development and social regeneration.

Volunteering can be empowering, but it can also be disempowering for both the programmes and the volunteers in many ways. But where should we draw the line? What could be the disempowering elements of volunteering?

First we need to reach consensus as to what we mean by volunteering. As we know it, volunteering is an activity or a set of activities that are offered free of charge to benefit another person, group or organisation and mainly for a social cause. However, volunteering should work on a premise of win-win benefits for both the helper and the helped person or group.

This short article reviews the emergence of volunteer engagement in social development. It seeks to argue that social development has not been innovative enough to attract and retain philanthropic volunteers that add value to the course of development.

The post-1994 era saw a development policy shift towards integration becoming an increasingly salient theme in public-sector development policy making and service delivery. Integration seeks to establish a position that wants to see local economic and social development themes working towards achieving common social cohesion and improved quality of life goals.

But the challenge has been that unemployment and high levels of poverty have attracted volunteers from the disadvantaged communities. Experience tells us that volunteering has been used as a gateway to employment and improved livelihoods. Consequently, this has plagued the ideals of the South African volunteering sector.

First, the engagement of volunteers in service-delivery programmes has had unintended outcomes. Community involvement through volunteers has deepened parochial views that one has to be a volunteer to secure a job. This may have opened opportunities for ill-informed political orators to exploit communities by legitimising tokenism.

There are fundamental dilemmas within the development agenda. The development sector is largely dominated by infrastructure services and economic development priorities. Programmes that seek to achieve social-cohesion targets are relegated to secondary activities and executed as optional add-on initiatives to infrastructure programmes. This reduces volunteering to tokenism and should not be ignored.

Second, contemporary radical views on economic development experiences, economic hardships and the unprecedented scale of social ailment suggest rural communities and informal settlements have become conditioned either to accept slow-paced service delivery or reject the development agenda in its totality.

There are views that the service-delivery systems can no longer keep up with community pressures. Communities are resisting programmes that give economic opportunities to a few individuals. Volunteers have become the victims of this anger. This requires urgent attention.

Lastly, volunteer management has always been carried out by paid staff. This includes recruitment, screening and matching volunteers to jobs and ensuring the delivery targets are achieved. This could be emotionally draining for the staff who are paid to manage unpaid volunteers. Consequently, many organisations are unable to demand high-quality and consistent work from an unpaid workforce of volunteers.

Associated with this is that many organisations do not have policies in place or are unable to implement them with regards to volunteer management in ways that will benefit both the host organisations and the volunteers. Retention of volunteers cannot be divorced from financial rewards and career development. Many under-resourced organisations find it very difficult to enrich volunteer experience without preparing them to take on some paid organisational tasks.

The volunteering trend in the development sector is here to stay and it will continue to evolve. Regardless of whether voluntary work is philanthropic or a career path, volunteers remain essential for the state and the non-governmental sector to execute their development programmes.

However, these institutions should guard against unpredictable negative consequences in settlements where unemployment and poverty are high. The motives of these institutions and their volunteers may be very different.

Where volunteering is well-planned and well-executed, organisations, especially the non-profit sector, could benefit from skills offered by experienced specialists in their different fields.

There are many examples that can be cited across the globe. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the American Peace Corps, and, one of our own, the Vodacom Change the World Programme, are some of the volunteer brands.

This suggests that there are many positive effects found in volunteering if volunteers are professional people who are not looking for financial rewards. Fulfilment, self-esteem, reduction of problem behaviours, development innovation and improved philanthropic aspirations are some of the benefits that come with volunteering.

An alternative concept should be developed to provide a home for youth volunteers who are still looking for jobs and better careers. This may help with addressing tokenism in development. Where are the professional and businesspeople to lead the voluntary development sector?

• Nqe Dlamini is a rural

development consultant.

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