Service and volunteering in southern Africa features at IAVE Conference in India

By Helene Perold [1]

Civic service and volunteering are integral to African culture that has responded in various ways to the impact of colonialism and post-colonial developments. With African governments expressing increasing interest in service and volunteering as strategies for getting young people more involved in national development, the challenge is to develop voluntary service policy and programmes as integral to the process of mainstreaming youth through education, social development and economic growth.

This was the central message of a paper delivered by Helene Perold, Executive Director of VOSESA, at a Research Forum convened as part of the XIX IAVE World Volunteer Conference in New Delhi, India, from 10 to 13 November 2006. The focus of the conference was on “Volunteering for Peace in Multicultural Societies”.

The paper, entitled “Volunteering as a strategy to foster civic participation among youth in southern Africa”, is based on a five-country study that VOSESA undertook in 2005 and 2006 to document and analyse civic service and volunteering in Botswana, Malawi, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The aim of the research was to study the extent and pattern of civic service and volunteering in five countries in the SADC region, and to build regional research capacity in this field. The study was supported by the Global Service Institute at the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, USA, and was conducted in partnership with the Centre for Social Development at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa.

A summary of the paper follows below. The full paper and the conference presentation are available here.


Volunteering as a strategy to foster civic participation among youth in southern Africa

Helene Perold, Executive Director, VOSESA
November 2006

The concept of service and volunteering is part of the African philosophy of ubuntu, which denotes caring and sharing, and has formed part of the social fabric of African countries for many centuries. With the advent of independence, nationalist governments across Africa were eager to distance themselves from their colonial pasts and pursued new development philosophies, which encouraged a reliance on government for social service delivery and, in the process, impacted negatively on the historical spirit of volunteerism. The economic crises of the 1970s and those manifesting themselves in the early 21 st century, prompted a resurgence of volunteering and mutual aid as communities sought to provide for basic needs in the face of cost-cutting policies and the reduction of social service provision by the state.

Young people in African countries face a range of challenges such as poverty, unemployment, exposure to HIV and AIDS, lack of adequate education and training, limited infrastructure and continued exclusion from the political process. At the same time, many are keen to participate in community and civic affairs, and to play their part in projects that are geared towards achieving national development goals. Today a number of African governments and donor agencies are viewing voluntary service among youth as one means of getting young people more involved in national development activities, thereby seeking to mainstream them, through civic engagement, as contributors to social development.

According to findings of VOSESA’s five-country study on civic service and volunteering in southern Africa, volunteering today is functioning in the context of approaches taken by governments and donors seeking to address high levels of poverty and unemployment. On the one hand the Botswana government is pursuing strategies that encourage citizens to volunteer in the provision of home-based care, infrastructure development and a people-centred approach to rural development. In Malawi, donor organisations are seeking to involve volunteers in programmes that are designed to improve the quality of schooling at community level as well as involving youth in HIV/AIDS prevention programmes. In South Africa youth service programmes involve unemployed youth, higher education students and youth in conflict with the law in programmes that contribute to national development whilst simultaneously developing the technical and personal skills of the young servers and, in the process, increasing their prospects of employment in the future.

While the research shows that large numbers of volunteers come from poor communities, it also shows that poverty and unemployment make the context of service and volunteering more complex. For example, some poverty alleviation programmes offer monetary and non-monetary rewards; in the process they draw volunteers away from unremunerated community-based volunteering (such as opportunities to volunteer in schools). In the face of unemployment, many young people seek opportunities to volunteer as a way of gaining the experience necessary to enter the labour market, rather than as an end in itself. Poverty also means that youth often face tough choices between spending scarce resources on costs related to volunteering (e.g. on transport), and seeking income to put bread on the table that day.

Despite these challenges, there are emerging policy frameworks (such as in South Africa) that are actively seeking to involve larger numbers of young people in structured volunteering as a means of providing them with opportunities to serve communities, increase their skills and enhance their prospects of finding employment.

The five-country study thus suggests that there is renewed interest in volunteering among the governments, donors, civil society organisations and young people in the five countries concerned, particularly in the face of the failure of education systems to equip youth with skills relevant to the needs of the economy and ensuing high levels of youth unemployment. The key issue is whether sufficient opportunities for volunteering exist in these countries, since social development involves both the public provision of services as well as civic participation.

The paper contends that volunteering can foster civic engagement, which in turn promotes democracy and citizenship among youth in African countries. The challenge is to develop youth service and volunteering policy and programmes as an integral part of the process of mainstreaming youth through education, social development and economic growth, not in isolation.

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[1] Helene Perold is the Executive Director of VOSESA.