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The importance of local partners in ensuring ethical volunteering

Perhaps the most frequently asked, and most difficult to answer question when it comes to volunteering is asking why people volunteer. There isn’t a correct or one-size-fits all answer that applies to every situation. For some people it is an opportunity to give back to their community, or a chance to make a difference to the people around them. For others, it is the possibility of learning and developing new skills, or building on existing experience and knowledge. For me, it was the recognition that I come from a place of privilege in the world, and that volunteering was an opportunity to play some role in levelling the playing field. Regardless of the motivation, what unites those who choose to volunteer is that volunteering is both a challenging and rewarding experience.

Whatever the reason is, it is important that the motivation that inspires and drives the choice to volunteer is focused on ensuring that any volunteering that takes place is ethical. There are many aspects to ensuring volunteering is ethical, but importantly the volunteer project or programme should not cause any harm to the community it operates in. All of the enthusiasm and desire to “do good in the world”, when misplaced, can cause irreparable damage. With the recent rise of both voluntourism and companies subsequently profiting from this enthusiasm, it is important now more than ever to ensure that whatever volunteer programme, project or organisation that you are involved with promotes and supports sustainable and ethical volunteering.

Clear objectives and sustainable outcomes, specialised training for volunteers, and working on locally driven, collaborative volunteer projects are all an important part in striving towards and ensuring that ethical volunteering is at the fore of any programme. An understanding that volunteering is an exchange rather than a one-sided give-and-take unequal power dynamic is also essential to ensuring that volunteers understand the role that they play. This is where ethical standards can be instrumental in ensuring that volunteering, whether overseas or not, has a positive impact on the volunteer, the sending agency, and the local project and community. Comhlámh, the Irish Association of Returned Development Workers and Volunteers, has developed a Code of Good Practice (CoGP) for Volunteer Sending Agencies, which sets a standard for organisations facilitating international volunteer placements in the Global South, and is based on a vision of volunteers working in solidarity for a just, equitable and sustainable world. Ensuring that your organisation is a signatory to either the Comhlámh CoGP, or to similar volunteering standards, is a good step in ensuring that the organisation that you choose to volunteer with provides ethical volunteering.

An important part of ethical volunteering is working with local partners to ensure that the needs of the community are met. Responsible organisations and volunteer programmes and projects listen to, and work to address the needs of a community. Goal 17 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – Partnerships for the Goals – recognises the importance of global partnership for ensuring sustainable development. The goal seeks to bring together partnerships between governments, the private sector and civil society, and have partnerships built upon principles and values, a shared visions and shared goals, that place people and planet at the centre. The Goal aims to show that we are all in this together, and together we must ensure that no one is left behind. Goal 17 is important because it underpins the success of all of the other SDGs – the collective action of groups working together means that all of the goals can be achieved more effectively and efficiently. Partnerships are also important because they allow an exchange of knowledge and information, in areas such as cultural awareness, and the needs of certain groups.

I volunteered in Ruaha, Tanzania, with UCD Volunteers Overseas for 4 weeks in June-July 2017. The project focused on providing computer training classes and English language classes to teachers in 3 schools, Mhovu Primary School, Ruaha B Primary School, and Lyahira Primary School, which were all situated either in Ruaha or just outside Ruaha. The project worked with two charity partners, TanzEd and Camara Education, to assess the respective schools’ suitability and install fully-functioning computer laboratories in each school. The Board of Management/Parent’s Association of each school also contributed towards the installation of the computer laboratories, raising funds to ensure that the rooms were adequately refurbished to act as laboratories.

Working with local partners ensured that each group was invested in and contributed to the installation of the computer laboratories. It meant that the most suitable schools were chosen to take part in the programme every year, after a number of visits to the prospective schools by UCDVO, TanzEd and Camara Education. It meant that there was a suitable and sustainable ‘exit strategy’ after the UCDVO computer training took place, so that the school could continue to use the computers to the best of their abilities. It meant that a ‘refresher’ course was put in place to continue teacher training in the years following the installation of the laboratories. It meant that volunteers from UCDVO were aware of the standard of computer knowledge of the teachers in the school before travelling to Tanzania, and that sufficient lesson planning took place before the overseas portion of the project took place.

But why does working with local partners result in ethical volunteering? Not only does it fulfil Goal 17 of the SDGs, but working in partnerships ensures that the needs of the community are met. The community are listened to, and a sustainable strategy is put in place to make sure that no harm is done to the community. Communication between partners aligns the goals of each group, ensuring that the needs of the community are best met. From my experience volunteering with UCDVO, and working with TanzEd and Camara Education, I have seen the positive effect that working collaboratively can have on the success of a project. Without the work of Robert and Isaac from TanzEd, I can honestly say that we would have had far more problems over the course of the project. Establishing strong partnerships is essential to fulfilling not only Goal 17, but the other 16 Sustainable Development Goals. Working with local partners put the needs of the community first. It ensures that ethical volunteering takes place, and makes sure that the desire of volunteers to "do good in the world" actually achieves its aims and has a positive effect on the lives of the communities where volunteering is taking place.

About Author:

Name: Andrea Whelton
Award: Bronze
SDG: 17