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Changing the development volunteering debate

Volunteering is important to delivering aid and development outcomes. Yet, most research on volunteering either centres on international volunteering or volunteers as a form of cheap service delivery. Few researchers observe local volunteers and their knowledge and capacity to shape development, or how local and international volunteers work together. Matt Baillie Smith, Professor of International Development at Northumbria University, advocates for greater understanding of local volunteers and for enhanced volunteering practices.

Through his research, policy and public engagement activities, Professor Baillie Smith is improving the volunteering sector and understanding of its importance and complexity.

One project through which he is having an impact on the lives of volunteers is the Volunteers in Conflicts and Emergencies Initiative (ViCE). Developed with the Swedish Red Cross, ViCE brought together academics and practitioners to explore the lives of volunteers in six conflict/crisis settings: Myanmar, Honduras, Sudan, South Sudan, Afghanistan and Ukraine. By talking with volunteers in these areas, Professor Baillie Smith and his collaborators are better understanding the factors that shape their volunteering, the challenges they face and what can be done to better protect and support them.

Professor Baillie Smith’s contribution to the volunteering sector is also apparent in his work on the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) Global Review on Volunteering. The largest piece of qualitative research on global volunteering, the Global Review explores some of the critical challenges facing volunteering worldwide, such as the impacts of migration, conflict and changing demographics. It has also produced findings to generate public and policy debate about the changing nature of volunteering.

The Global Review has achieved significant reach: the report was downloaded more than 2,000 times in the first month of its release. It has also had substantial policy impact, having led to the formation of the Global Volunteer Alliance, whose mission is to develop policy responses to issues raised across the Red Cross Movement.

The findings of the Global Review also underpinned a resolution at IFRC on the safety and security of volunteers, which 150 governments have signed. A shortened version of this resolution was included in a resolution on volunteering put to the UN General Assembly in 2015. All governments in attendance signed it, and the UN called the resolution a “substantial contribution to strengthening volunteering in the wider humanitarian sector”.

Professor Baillie Smith is also improving the public’s awareness of the importance of the volunteering sector. Media hits for the Global Review reached more than 100 million worldwide, and Professor Baillie Smith’s expert opinion is regularly sought by international development actors and NGOs. He has also helped put together a large exhibition documenting the findings of the ViCE Initiative. It has been displayed at key international humanitarian and development conferences and events, helping raise the profile of local volunteers in conflict and crisis settings.

Professor Baillie Smith is currently exploring ways to make the data and findings from the ViCE Initiative more accessible, as well as developing work that builds on the those findings, including research on volunteer resilience and leadership. He is also playing an active role in the IFRC Global Volunteer Alliance, including developing an evidence base to support the IFRC Resolution on the Safety and Security of Volunteers in 2019/20. Longer term, he intends to develop research on the ways volunteers work together in particular development settings.

(Photo acknowledgement: Islam Mardini, Syrian Red Crescent, IFRC)


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