EPISODE 2: REIMAGINING VOLUNTEERING NEEDS A DECOLONISATION LENS -
HERE IS WHAT WE SHOULD BE CAUTIOUS OF
Dr. Amjad Mohamed Saleem
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)
Dr. Amjad Mohamed Saleem is the Manager of Volunteering, Youth and Education Development at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. In this role, he is charged with orchestrating strategies and outreach around youth engagement, volunteer moblisation, and education in emergency and non-emergency programmes.
Listen to the podcast interview with the author;
REIMAGINING VOLUNTEERING NEEDS A DECOLONISATION LENS -
HERE IS WHAT WE SHOULD BE CAUTIOUS OF
Few will disagree that the concept of ‘volunteering’, doing something of service for someone else, is part of the DNA and fabric of local communities, highlighting the best that can be achieved when people come together to serve. Over the existence of human society, we have seen the tremendous good that has come about when people of their own volition have come together, often at times of tragedy but also other times, to serve those in need, family and friends. Within every local faith and cultural tradition there is something that describes this action and concept that is a reminder of that human fraternity. Volunteering is very much active and present on a global, regional, national and local level.
Whilst there is much to celebrate in how volunteering is still an integral part of communities, we still need to interrogate how volunteering is represented and discussed and whether current discussions really consider local realities, agency, ownership and integration.
A hangover of colonialism
Volunteering as a concept, argument, terminology and process, in how it is understood and discussed currently is a hangover of colonialism, shaped exclusively by Western / Christian values, visible in power relationships, of the ‘missionaries’, often coming from privileged places in their societies in the Global North, seeking to change the social, political and economic structures of countries in the Global South with little input from affected communities, the original ‘White Saviour’ moment. Initially, as the history of many social movements show, volunteers were female, using their ‘free’ time as housewives to keep themselves busy. Thus, many of the volunteering organisations and movements were led by privileged women of society and volunteering remains disproportionately female.
Whilst other grandchildren of the colonisation, the development and humanitarian sectors, have started having conversations around decolonisation, the volunteering sector still seems to be far removed from these conversations. This is a missed opportunity because volunteering lies at the heart of community cohesion and engagement, either fed through faith traditions or cultural values.
Decolonising the volunteering narrative
Yet in having a decolonised discussion on volunteering, we need to be prepared for some hard truths.
Decolonising the volunteering narrative must be bold enough to include a discussion around disrupting the system or getting rid of the system altogether. A decolonisation discussion on volunteering must consider that those from former colonised states might want decolonisation to deal with their own lived experience of oppression, injustice and corruption brought about by their own current political and feudal elite, let alone dealing with the colonial legacy. Decolonised discussions on volunteering need to crucially address power imbalances, inequity and inequality today, whilst discussing dignity, agency and power. If we are discussing decolonisation of volunteering in the 21st century, we have to address why it is still volunteers (largely white) coming out to countries with brown and black subjects and ‘doing good’ and helping them, yet, very rarely is this reversed. Very rarely is it acknowledged that people who volunteer are those who can afford to and that the vast majority of people in the world, whilst having an intention to do something for free, are unable to because their reality is that they need to put food on the table. Very rarely do we in the volunteering sector discuss the real issues of the role of ‘volunteers’ from the West/Global North, in geopolitics, military warfare, oil, illegal occupation, genocide, etc.
"Decolonised discussions on volunteering need to crucially address power imbalances, inequity and inequality today, whilst discussing dignity, agency and power."
"We need to have open and honest conversations with a diverse range of actors, democratising the space for people to share ideas. We need to be prepared to have our ideas, definitions, business models challenged, critiqued and even changed."
Recognising current colonial injustices
So a decolonisation discussion on volunteering, whilst being cognisant of the past, cannot simply ignore the current colonial injustices that are taking place in the world today.
Decolonisation of volunteering is about looking at the change in the whole system that the sector subscribes to, describes, lives in and works with, which is oppressive to people who are Black, Indigenous or a Person of Colour (BIPOC) and from what is called the Global South, itself a disputed term. We need to have open and honest conversations with a diverse range of actors, democratising the space for people to share ideas. We need to be prepared to have our ideas, definitions, business models challenged, critiqued and even changed. A discussion on the decolonisation of volunteering means that we need to provide a seat at the table for everyone to be able to share their ideas, to understand how different people from different parts of the world approach the conversation of volunteering and decolonisation, which can be difficult for many in terms of language and understanding.
We must also understand that colonialism is a fact. We can’t repair the past nor allow it to become a ball and chain for the future, and so we need to look at the inherent contradictions and complexities of the volunteering project to see our own humility and shine a lens on our own project. In the last three years, when the world was shut down, and the lockdowns and restrictions of movement exposed the fallacies of the current system and the unsustainability of the current volunteering, we were provided a blueprint for true local, decolonised volunteer action where locals had agency and power to act according to their local challenges.
Towards an equity-based understanding of volunteering
Decolonising volunteering needs to think about an equity-based understanding of volunteering action, which means understanding that manifestations of oppression are rooted in power hierarchies that often do not operate alone. They intersect with gender, religion, socioeconomic status, geography, sexual orientation, and numerous other social markers, creating layers of oppression that are inextricably intertwined. Thus, addressing one facet of inequity is not enough. Effective volunteering action requires a local understanding and approach which is intersectional and operationally rooted, that provides agency, enables representation and address power dynamics.
The concept of volunteering has evolved and changed, happening in difficult conditions that are difficult to measure; that are as informal as they are formal, thereby making it difficult to integrate and as spontaneous as they are organised, making ownership difficult to attribute. We need to recognise these are all vital components of a wide spectrum of volunteering that has to be decolonised, redefined, reimagined and rethought for the 21st century.
We need to do better; we need to be better, not because it is the good thing to do, but the right thing to do.
At IVCO 2023, we will be exploring the question of Decolonising Power and Privilege in Youth Volunteering at the opening plenary on Day 2. To see the full programme and register for IVCO 2023, go to www.ivco2023.org
Watch the video interview below as the author unpacks the topic;