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Dr. Cliff Allum

Dr. Cliff Allum

University of Birmingham, UK

Dr. Cliff Allum is a writer, researcher and consultant in International Development, specialising in volunteering.  He is an Associate Fellow in the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham, UK  and has worked with academics, practitioners and activists in different countries on research and articles. He previously worked for Skillshare International, a UK-based volunteering and development NGO and is a member of the FORUM RPPL group.

Listen to the podcast interview with the author;


In many respects, this blog would have made little sense sixty years ago, at the start of large-scale interventions from the Global North. The emergent international volunteering programme was essentially a youth and a technical skills programme. Moving forward to the turn of the century, volunteering for development looks somewhat different, as in some instances, though not all, the large-scale interventions of service delivery were giving way to more precise engagement through capacity building. Levels of expertise that were demanded were associated with experience and qualifications, and the average age of volunteers was continuing to increase. [1] The contribution of international youth volunteers coming straight from their professional training was less required, and consequently their opportunities were reduced.

In 2000, the IVCO Conference was in its early stages and was held for the first time outside of North America, in Melbourne, Australia.  The role of international youth volunteering did not feature. Indeed, a separate event – with many different attendees – was held in Melbourne prior to IVCO to discuss international youth programmes, which were largely focused on bringing young people from different countries together and sharing their different experiences within a common programme. 

A Disconnection Between IVCOs and Young People

The twin elements of the effective exclusion of youth from international volunteering practice and debate, alongside a definition of activities in development which arguably did not value the areas where young people could contribute, presented a disconnection between the mainstream activities of International Volunteering and Cooperation Organisations (IVCOs) and young people as programme contributors. But some IVCOs saw the existential problem: around 2001, the Norwegian Volunteer Service closed and reinvented itself as FK Norway, with a new model and a clear commitment to youth volunteering. As commented to me at the time, they ‘did not want to keep sending the same volunteers year after year’.

If the focus of IVCOs – and more broadly, development actors – on development goals such as the MDGs had the unintended consequence of diminishing the role of youth volunteering, then young people would seek other routes for international engagement. For example, private sector providers and voluntourism emerged. The lack of opportunities for ‘their’ young people did not sit comfortably with some Northern governments. Weltwarts and ICS (and its predecessor, Platform 2) emerged as a result of explicitly politically driven government policy, exemplifying a supply-driven model of young people gaining greater understanding and experience of the Global South. This placed IVCOs in a reactive mode. Discussions about youth programmes started to feature at the annual IVCO conferences and a number of papers have been contributed about the different approaches to engaging youth as programme contributors rather than programme outcomes

IVCOs Facing Both Ways

IVCOs have tended to face both ways when it comes to the purpose of youth volunteering programmes – is it the development of youth volunteers as global citizens and the leaders of tomorrow, or is it focused on the aspirations and/or needs of communities in the Global South? Is it about building a constituency of support in the Global North or reducing poverty in the Global South? The supply-driven models of large-scale international youth programmes emphasised a throughput of numbers, and effectively prioritised public engagement and volunteer learning rather than development-related outcomes at community level.  Consequently, IVCOs have struggled to frame an effective model of youth programmes that contribute to development outcomes in the current and fast-changing context. 

So, what might be the future of IVCOs and youth programmes?  Some consideration has been given to the notion of (international) youth-led programmes, but Governmental IVCOs will be led by government policy while NGO IVCOs will be constrained by donor restriction, which are unlikely to facilitate such a model. Even the experiences of young (especially international) youth volunteers may be restricted since government appetite for risk may be far less than the desire of young people to explore and experience new environments and activities. The logic of youth-led models leads in principle to a ‘service-user’ governed organisation or – in more of a compromise – some form of co-production.  The latter is more likely since IVCOs are some distance from organisations that are run by young people, for young people. 

Which ‘Young People’ Do We Mean?

Another problem is the use of the term ‘young people’ since it is so broad. The question perhaps is which ‘young people’ do we mean? If international youth volunteers determine their own objectives and programmes, then we are immediately confronted by the issues of localisation and decolonisation. This takes the focus to the Global South, but which ‘young people’ from the Global South? IVCOs have been criticised for programmes that have ‘taken’ young people from their local communities into national volunteer roles in what might be seen as a replication of the supply-driven model, but this time in the Global South.

"An approach that starts with a focus on the participation of 'young people' from the Global South does take IVCOs closer to combining ‘youth-led’ with the aspirations of local communities."

However, an approach that starts with a focus on the participation of ‘young people’ from the Global South does take IVCOs closer to combining ‘youth-led’ with the aspirations of local communities. If starting with youth in the Global South determining the direction of activities in their own communities or countries, IVCOs could then play a useful role in supporting such local initiatives – perhaps through infrastructure support working with volunteer-involving organisations (VIOs) in the Global South.  IVCOs are arguably better positioned to support VIOs that enable youth-led programmes, which in turn can define appropriate roles for IVCOs and international youth volunteers.[2]

A Role for Young International Volunteers

In such contexts what role could young international volunteers play? To start that journey requires consideration as to how and why young volunteers as a whole are not sufficiently valued or appreciated; why are their individual contributions not seen or recognised sufficiently?  Through a development lens, can we look at this differently as to what constitutes development? Do the priorities of IVCOs for development align with how young people view the world? (Who mentioned climate change?)

While recognising that IVCOs are not entirely free agents in this matter (given their donor entities), meaningful international youth volunteering for development would arguably be better served by a fresh consideration of prejudice towards youth and how this diminishes opportunities for them to contribute to development.  Could start with listening to and hearing the experiences and aspirations of young people. This could enable a consideration of how young people as volunteers can contribute beyond ‘youth programmes.’ The example of the use of hybridity in volunteering models provides one approach that could offer potential opportunities for young people beyond the ‘youth programme.’

"Meaningful international youth volunteering for development"

For those IVCOs focused on global learning, the tough question to address is ‘whose global learning’? The supply driven models of the Global North leave little doubt that the balance is heavily in favour of the international volunteers from those countries. Even where national volunteers from the Global South are involved, their global learning rests on their experience of the youth volunteers they meet from the Global North, which is not necessarily positive.

"Is there really energy being applied to figuring out what 'international cooperation and global learning' means in the lives of young people from both the Global South and Global North"

Reciprocity is thin on the ground, so the opportunity for young volunteers from the Global South to learn in the Global North, is far less likely. So, what do IVCOs do in this situation? There are some examples, such as  Norec and Weltwarts, who have attempted to enable greater South-North volunteering, but are most IVCOs addressing this issue? Is there really energy being applied to figuring out what ‘international cooperation and global learning’ means in the lives of young people from both the Global South and Global North who are volunteering for ‘development’ and how this translates into equity and social justice?

An Opportunity to Redefine Youth Volunteer Experiences

If the desire of IVCOs and their donors is for the young people of the Global North to experience ‘the other’, then opportunities exist close to home in all parts of the world. IVCOs have understood this latter point for decades, for instance in youth volunteering opportunities with indigenous communities in Canada and the European Volunteer Service. So why are the large scale international ‘supply driven’ programmes aimed at the Global South?  It is hard not to conclude there are other issues, such as ‘soft power’ at play here.  In recent times, at a European level, the expansion of refugee migration into different European countries offers not just opportunities for learning but of substantial programmatic engagement. Will IVCOs take them or will models of global learning remain predicated on the ideology and practice of the 1960s? 


  1. ^ Average age tended to be towards 40 years of age, indicating a tendency for over 25 youth volunteers and post-retirement programmes.
  2. ^ There is a history of donors or Northern NGOs effectively creating infrastructure bodies. It is important to work from a position that VIOs will lead in this process and are not in place to implement the requirements of IVCOs.

Watch the video interview below as the author unpacks the topic;