EPISODE 16: CREATING STRONG LINKAGES BETWEEN ‘VOLUNTEERING FOR DEVELOPMENT’ AND PERSONAL GROWTH, GLOBAL CITIZENSHIP AND HUMAN FLOURISHING
Professor Rebecca Tiessen
University of Ottawa
Rebecca Tiessen is a Full Professor at the School of International Development and Global Studies and Director of the Gender, Peace and Security Collaboratory at the University of Ottawa.
CREATING STRONG LINKAGES BETWEEN ‘VOLUNTEERING FOR DEVELOPMENT’ AND PERSONAL GROWTH, GLOBAL CITIZENSHIP AND HUMAN FLOURISHING
What motivates young people to volunteer and what impact does the experience of ‘volunteering for development’ have on youth in relation to personal growth and global citizenship identities? How can a human flourishing lens help us understand personal growth and global citizenship in new and important ways? Over the past 20 years, studies on youth motivations for ‘volunteering for development’ have been of great interest to researchers, students, volunteers and volunteer-involving organisations, offering insights into the diverse rationales – from the desire for cross-cultural understanding, helping ‘others’, and international solidarity to more personal and individualistic reasons such as personal growth, skills development and building careers.
In some of my earlier research, ‘personal growth’ was most frequently ranked by youth participants as ‘very important’ compared to other motivations such as skills development, adventure/travel or helping others. The meaning of ‘personal growth’, however, remained vague and undefined. Assumptions about what personal growth meant to young people were made based on other related motivations of cross-cultural understanding or skills development that were linked to getting a job in international development. Over time and through ongoing research with youth volunteers and partner organisations, new opportunities have emerged for reconsidering ‘personal growth’, how it can be understood in relation to global citizenship identities, and how it can be more fully analysed within the lens of human flourishing.
Defining Global Citizenship and Human Flourishing
The United Nations defines global citizenship in relation to globally minded individuals acting to support a range of issues on a worldwide scale whereby members of a large global community embrace their social responsibility ‘to act for the benefit of all societies, not just their own’.
In my 2022 IVCO Think Piece, I explore human flourishing as an analytical lens for understanding wellbeing, drawing on the Harvard University Human Flourishing Program’s definition of flourishing and its corresponding domains: happiness and life satisfaction, mental and physical health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, social relationships, and financial and material stability. The notion of flourishing is linked to being in “a state in which all aspects of a person’s life are good”. Building on this foundational work in human flourishing, I expand on the idea of ‘the good life’ in relation to several of the human flourishing indicators as they relate to findings from research on ‘volunteering for development’ outcomes for youth. The themes of personal growth and global citizenship are useful starting points for considering human flourishing as a lens for documenting the outcomes of ‘volunteering for development’.
Reflections on Global Citizenship as Linked to Human Flourishing
" For many youth participants in ‘volunteering for development’ programs, their experience was described in terms of ‘personal growth’ and in ways that enhanced their intercultural understanding which they considered directly linked to being more open and empathetic toward others globally and locally."
Some of the common themes worth noting across the research findings that help us understand global citizenship identities include the value placed on intercultural understanding, the importance of building friendships, and the ability to make linkages between social injustices observed locally and globally. For many youth participants in ‘volunteering for development’ programs, their experience was described in terms of ‘personal growth’ and in ways that enhanced their intercultural understanding which they considered directly linked to being more open and empathetic toward others globally and locally. A second common theme across the research is the value associated with building and maintaining friendships that developed as a result of volunteering for development. In a study of 249 returned volunteers in Canada, 84% of respondents said they now have more friends, acquaintances, or contacts who live in other countries and continue to seek out people from different racial, cultural, ethnic or language backgrounds. The importance of friendships needs to be more carefully examined as it links to strong social relationships, a sense of connection to community, and strong support networks. Furthermore, global citizenship identities were linked to volunteers’ ability to link local and global social justice priorities, and participants in our studies frequently referred to new priorities for supporting inequality within their home communities while also continuing to support justice-focused priorities in the communities around the world. Making these important local/global connections is vital to building a sense of interdependence, solidarity and mutual wellbeing across the world.
Intercultural learning, building friendships and local/international connections therefore help us understand ‘volunteering for development’ as linked to global citizenship identities. In one study of returned international volunteers who were asked if they see themselves as a global citizen, 82% of respondents agreed and 63% strongly agreed. As one participant notes : “International volunteering has helped to change the perspective on social issues at the local level too, because of a greater sense of solidarity and connection between nations. The realization that all our actions, small as they are, can contribute to the improvement of a situation. Also, the experiential wealth and sense of accomplishment gained from these volunteering / volunteering experiences encourages more involvement.”
Volunteers’ experiences and stories offer insights into deeper reflections on what global citizenship means and their motivations for participation in volunteering for development. There’s another story that emerges from these reflections on global citizenship identities that can be understood through the lens of human flourishing. Youth who participated in ‘volunteering for development’ talk about their experiences as transformative. They often return to their home communities with a newfound purpose to address social injustices at the local and global levels. Volunteering therefore provides a “profound avenue for finding purpose and meaning in our lives” allowing volunteers to “embark on a transformative journey that enriches both ourselves and the world around us”.
"Youth who participated in ‘volunteering for development’ talk about their experiences as transformative. They often return to their home communities with a newfound purpose to address social injustices at the local and global levels."
Linking Personal Growth and Global Citizenship to Human Flourishing
eturning to our reflections on human flourishing, we can draw connections between personal growth and global citizenship identities surrounding ‘volunteering for development’ as linked to the core characteristics of human flourishing. Youth experiences engaged in ‘volunteering for development’ were linked to a sense of meaning and purpose which are further linked to healthier and happier lives, offering opportunities for improved emotional and physical well-being. The quest for meaning and purpose has important individual benefits but is also linked to social and community wellbeing. The examples of meaning and purpose identified by volunteers offer new avenues for examining the impact of volunteer placements, particularly friendship-building experiences, and these impacts can be understood in relation to the other domains of human flourishing including happiness and life satisfaction, mental and physical health, character and virtue, and social relationships. Furthermore, individuals who desire a meaningful life, are more likely to engage in pro-social behaviours that lead to broader societal flourishing and wellbeing.
In a world of compounding crises and growing inequality, where youth are increasingly marginalised and disempowered to make the changes they want to see in the world, we need to more fully explore and document the role and impact of ‘volunteering for development’ as a strategy for personal growth, global citizenship and human flourishing.