Volunteers help to plug 'development' gap

More than 1 250 international volunteers were placed in the Southern African region in 2008/9. More than half of these were in South Africa, a study by the Johannesburg-based Volunteer and Service Enquiry Southern Africa (Vosesa) has shown.

The volunteers, mainly young people seeking experience abroad by working with local organisations and NGOs, serve for periods ranging from several weeks to two years.

But opinion on the volunteer sector is divided.
Critics point out that few volunteers are prepared for the realities of working in conditions of poverty and displacement.

They also question its value for development, emphasising that its historical roots lie in missionary and colonial activities.

Mandarin Bennet, a development analyst, says: “The work of well-intentioned but inexperienced volunteers can hardly have a sustainable impact on developing communities. It can even have a detrimental effect; fostering colonial attitudes and reinforcing the disempowerment and dependence of the south.”

Safety is another critical issue. South Africa’s best-known volunteer is Amy Biehl, murdered in 1994 while in a Cape Town township during political unrest.

But international governments are making a growing investment in the sector.

Weltwärts, launched in 2008 by the German ministry for economic cooperation and development, is one of the largest European voluntary service programmes. In 2008/9, 247 German volunteers from the programme came to South Africa. The organisation aims to send 10 000 young people across the world each year, many to Africa.

International volunteering recently came under the spotlight at a seminar in Johannesburg as part of the Ubuntu International Youth Voluntary Service Awards of 2009.

Awarded this year for the first time, the awards project is a new initiative aimed at recognising the value of volunteering.

Jointly organised by Vosesa and the Brussels-based Association for Voluntary Service Organisations, it is supported by the European Commission’s Youth in Action Programme.

Vosesa director Helene Perold says: “The project aims to highlight good practice in jointly identifying and addressing developmental challenges at local community level between young volunteers working in African and European host organisations.”

This year’s winner was the Durbanville Children’s Home in Cape Town, a non-profit organisation, which shelters 144 children deemed in need of care under the Child Care Act.

Over the past 12 months, 100 local and international volunteers have passed through the institution in groups of 25 at a time.

Volunteers serve between three months and three years and are involved in all aspects of the home’s work, including administration, education and childcare.—Taryn Cohn

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