Author: Ruth Powell, Comhlámh
Usually, at this time of year, Paddy Reilly asks me to speak to the students on his course, about ethical international volunteering. This year of course, everything is different, so I thought I would write to all the students of the Department of International Development instead! This means the MA and the BA students, the currently enrolled students and those who are thinking about applying next year.
Paddy invites me to speak to his students in the Department of International Development (in Maynooth University), because I work for Comhlámh. Comhlámh is the Irish association of volunteers and development workers, and my role there is to provide information and support to anyone thinking about international volunteering. The relationship between Comhlámh and the Department of International Development is a long term one, full of mutual respect, humour and continuous learning. Many of the alumni of the Department of International Development (formerly Kimmage Development Studies Centre), are involved in Comhlámh as staff, members or directors on our board. Likewise, many of those who have travelled through Comhlámh are now students, staff or alumni of the Department of International Development.
The relationship is so close that we co-host the First Wednesday debates together and Eilish, Tom, Niamh and Patrick have all moderated the discussions that now take place online. We have held joint Christmas parties together over the last few years, together with our colleagues from VSI International, so that people don’t have to go to three separate evenings out, but rather can go to just one!
But telling you all about this is not what I planned to tell the students of Paddy, nor the other students of the Department, nor the students of the future either.
Comhlámh provides supports and services to people thinking about international volunteering and we do this through a number of activities. We provide information, advice, training courses, debriefing, are involved in a number of pan-European collaborative projects, and our membership groups work on a number of different issues.
We have a Code of Good Practice for volunteer sending agencies, which is a set of standards ensuring responsible and responsive volunteering practices. This values-based code has a number of indicators to protect the volunteer, the volunteer sending agency and the host project and wider community and is updated every few years by the 40+ agencies that have signed up to its goals. We also have a principles-based Volunteer Charter, aimed at ensuring responsible and responsive international volunteering practices from the point of view of the volunteer.
When international volunteering is done well, it can have a transformative and mutually beneficial effect on all involved, and it has the potential to affect important changes. According to the United Nations Volunteering (UNV), “Volunteerism connects people, enabling them to work together to tackle the pressing issues of our time. To make good on the promise to make the Sustainable Development Goals a reality for all, we need everyone to follow the lead of the current estimated 1 billion volunteers and make a difference in each of our communities”.
There are different types of volunteering; short or long term, skilled, unskilled or differently skilled, diaspora volunteering, so-called South to South and reciprocal volunteering, voluntourism and more recently, online, remote or virtual volunteering. At Comhlámh, we would say that as long as the placement is well structured and follows the values and guidelines set out in both the Code of Good Practice and our Volunteer Charter, then the chances are that the placement is ethical.
However, if the placement doesn’t follow the standards the volunteering community has worked so hard to create, it can be harmful to the volunteer, volunteer sending agency, and host community and project. For example, over the years many people have volunteered in orphanages in the Global South. For many reasons, we would recommend against this and we would ask that you take the Comhlámh pledge, not to volunteer in orphanages, in the near future. We have also seen the results of poor practice on volunteers after they have engaged in unsustainable and unethical fundraising activities, been overwhelmed and over challenged by an unsupervised role or ended up wishing that they had never gone away. We don’t want to see this happen to anyone.
Since 12 March, all of our activities are online and we still talk to people about their international volunteering options and this summer many of the placements became virtual ones. It’s still early days, but what we’re discovering is that online, remote and virtual volunteering has some very interesting benefits. It has the potential to widen the volunteering opportunities to a broader, more diverse, more inclusive range of international volunteers. People who may not have been able to travel for a variety of diverse reasons can now apply to be virtual volunteers. This opens the opportunities up to include people with disabilities, with childcare issues, with visa restrictions or socio-economic reasons and this widening of the recruitment process could be very beneficial, to all.
We would still see Comhlámh’s role as providing support and services to those people interested in virtual volunteering and we will continue to deliver our information and advice services, our training courses and our debriefing sessions online. We are also going to celebrate International Volunteering Day this year, with a range of different activities to support responsible and responsive volunteering practices wherever they are taking place.
So if you are a student of Paddy Reilly, and would like to hear more about ethical, international volunteering, please get in touch with us today. Or if you are thinking about applying to the Department of International Development from Nigeria, Malawi, Viet Nam, Ethiopia or anywhere else, you might also like to think about hearing more about the work we do in Comhlámh. Or if you are simply curious and would like to find out more, we’d love you to get in touch with us today.
From all your friends at Comhlámh, we hope to hear from you soon.
Further reading links:
Read more about the UNV’s programme of work
Information about virtual volunteering
Information about International Volunteer Day 2020