DEVELOPMENT VOLUNTEERING DUCHESSED
by Nichole Georgeou
NGOs are part of civil society; they are formed by volunteers who have ideals and causes. By their very nature, they are political. Yet since 2004, for Australians, the ethos of volunteering for development has been methodically stripped of its political element.
’s volunteer sending program has been systematically
restructured and integrated into our Overseas Development Aid agenda. In May this year the final nail
went into the coffin. AusAID’s organisational restructure now clearly reflects
a market-based logic. NGOs and businesses, which would appear to be two
unlikely bedfellows, are now linked in the same section, while the Volunteer
Branch has been delinked from NGOs and placed with Scholarships. Australia
These changes in AusAIDs organisational structure exemplify the shift in the Australian Government’s volunteer sending program – one that has occurred in conjunction with the deepening of neoliberal ideology in Australian aid policy. Our “embedded neoliberalism” has provided the ideological and procedural rationales for the tendering and contracting out of volunteer sending to select “service providers”. It has firmly linked the objectives of creating open markets and efficient state sectors to serving
’s national interests. While the market is deified, the
language of “participation” and “empowerment” is utilised to distract from the new managerial
processes that facilitate and obscure the economic, ideological and political
intent of these restructures in the overseas aid program. Australia
In this context I employ the term “duchessed” to describe the “professionalisation” and “institutionalisation” of development volunteering. Old-time leftists used the term duchessed to describe comrades neutralised of their radicalism when drawn into the system they opposed through flattery, rewards, promotions and other such enticements. Those duchessed, maintained they were still true believers serving the cause. The term originally referred to people, but I use it here to describe the de-radicalising of once “dangerous” political ideas such as “participation”, “partnership” and “empowerment” that were once historically central to much development volunteer activity.
Volunteering and the National Interest
Development volunteering as a practice has exploded globally. There are well over 50,000 volunteers from the 23 OECD sending countries (plus programs sponsored by developing countries), working in development activities in any given year. This amounts to well over one-fifth of all skilled international personnel working in developing countries who are in government funded volunteering placements for periods of over one year.
These numbers are swelled by a diversification in the form that development volunteering has taken including the proliferation of for-profit businesses in development volunteer sending (often for short term “voluntourism”), as well as electronic volunteering, south-to-south volunteering and reverse volunteering.
Since 2001 the Australian government has capitalised on this popular interest and recognised the importance of volunteer sending programs. It developed a series of Ministerial statements titled “Volunteers and the Aid program” (Downer 2001; DFAT 2004). More recently, on 24 October 2011 when Australian Volunteers International (AVI) celebrated 60 years of volunteer sending at the Royal Perth Yacht Club, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Julie Bishop, referred to volunteers as the “human face” of the aid program — they spread goodwill in our region and bring hope for a brighter future to thousands of developing communities. The Australian aid program also claims that volunteers build people-to-people linkages between
and developing countries. This veils the political
agenda of volunteer assignments that “support the priorities of the Australian
Government’s aid program”. Australia
The emphasis in volunteering on “participation” and “partnership” masks the centrality of “national interest” to development aid. It is this radical contradiction in intent that often confronts development volunteers when their altruistic humanitarian concerns and motivations sit uncomfortably with the regional and economic agenda of the Australian government. Both the 2003 foreign policy White Paper and the 2006 overseas aid White Paper emphasised “
’s national interest”,
and demonstrated a willingness to
use the foreign aid budget to advance Australia ’s regional and economic ambitions. This is now clearly
seen in Australia’s increasing militarisation of the aid program, but also
through its push at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in July (2012) in Rio for mining to be adopted as a
sustainable development practice, and for aid to be used to promote private
From “Participation” and “Empowerment” to “Vocationalisation”
Historically, “participation” referred to the process of redistributing power through the involvement of oppressed peoples in decisions that affected their lives and opportunities. The concept was shaped by the ideas of Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire who in the late 1940s linked emancipation from poverty to the empowerment and liberation of disadvantaged people. He put this into practice in the 1960s. Political change was central to his praxis, and such an approach joined education and mass literacy programs to collectivist political agendas that were often anti-capitalist. Volunteers lived in solidarity with local people, working alongside them towards local agendas of political change — volunteering was a radical activity centred on cross-cultural relationships and learning.
Now volunteering has been “duchessed”, along with the emancipatory language of “participation”, “partnership” and “empowerment” – it is no longer seen as politically radical but as part of the “development industry”. While it looks good on CVs, the view of volunteering that now dominates is one disassociated from political action. Volunteering has been reconceptualised as “service provision”. This framework has been adopted by multilateral institutions and governments and is reflected in the Australian Government’s Volunteer Sending program. Specifically, development volunteering has been reduced to “technical exchange” and the transmission of skills.
The focus on service provision promotes the “vocationalisation” of volunteering. The emphasis is on the job to be done. Placements become assignments requiring particular “skill sets” within the development project. The direct linking of the aid program to volunteer sending agencies means local elites encourage placements that align with “good governance” agendas. The reconfiguring of institutions in recipient countries to speak to the market benefits the elites in both recipient and sending countries. Some 45% of volunteers work in the governance sector or professional bureaucratic positions in government departments. The remainder are spread among private enterprises, NGOs (often international) and educational institutions. Grassroots volunteer placements are becoming a thing of the past.
Development volunteering has been stripped of its political meaning and has lost its social justice and political dimensions — in short it has been “duchessed”. Government sponsored volunteer placements emphasise a technical approach of experts “doing development”. Yet some volunteer agencies still cling doggedly to their principles. While the majority of volunteers are motivated by humanitarian and social justice concerns it is imperative they consider the political framework they engage in when they undertake development volunteering. They should carefully research the agenda of the sending organisation and the form of development that its placements promote.
30 August 2012.