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Partners in the fight for global justice

Northumbria University utilises expertise from across academic disciplines to tackle real-world problems that hinder worldwide equality.

One example is the work being carried out by Northumbria's Centre for International development, which has worked with the Swedish Red Cross to carry out the largest worldwide study of volunteering ever undertaken:

Representing the invisible

During conflicts and emergencies where state services and aid have broken down, volunteers are often the only people able to provide first aid, food, water, medical care and comfort to those in need.

These volunteers regularly come from the very communities which are in crisis and they are sometimes caught up in the conflict themselves, risking their safety and emotional wellbeing, before returning to their lives unacknowledged. These are the ‘Invisible Volunteers’. This phrase was coined because, until recently, there was very little research taking place into their lives and experiences. Northumbria’s Centre for International Development and the Swedish Red Cross are helping to change that.  

Their joint Volunteering in Conflicts and Emergencies Initiative (ViCE) was launched to give a voice to the voiceless and a presence to the invisible.

“Volunteers can and do play critically important roles, but there is an urgent need to recognise the costs that these roles can bring for volunteers and their families,” Northumbria’s Professor Matt Baillie Smith explains. “We need to consider how volunteer’s voices become part of the decision-making processes in aid and humanitarian efforts, rather than local volunteers largely being treated as a form of low-cost service delivery.”

Despite media attention around volunteers in the Syria crisis, the contributions of volunteers to less well-known crises over many decades has been ignored. Most research on volunteering focuses on experiences in Europe and North America and on international volunteering, emphasising volunteering as an act of charity to the less fortunate. This means we know and hear very little about the lives of local volunteers in conflicts and emergencies whose volunteering does not fit these experiences and ideas. Without this knowledge, researchers, practitioners, aid organisations and governments cannot understand the challenges they face or support them.

Led in partnership between Northumbria’s Centre for International Development - a globally recognised centre of expertise on volunteering in humanitarian and development settings - and the Swedish Red Cross, the initiative has brought together practitioners, volunteers and wider stakeholders to co-design a research approach to understand the lived experiences of volunteers in conflicts and emergencies and jointly develop responses to the challenges they face.

Their approach has focused on listening to volunteers in an open way, avoiding pre-determined questions or ideas, and allowing participants to decide what is important to them – allowing people to talk about those issues in whatever way they choose. Through this, ViCE has created unique testimony of the experiences of volunteering in conflicts and emergencies. Professor Baillie Smith explains how the ViCe project is responding to a gap in existing research and helping shape future policy and practice in contemporary humanitarian thinking.

“Most research on volunteering has focused on affluent volunteers helping the needy. The ViCE Initiative reveals how people are often volunteers and victims at the same time, requiring new thinking about the ways volunteers are recruited, deployed and supported, and the ways being a volunteer can impact relationships with families and communities.

“Data from the project is raising important questions about the ways volunteering in conflicts and emergencies is gendered, the emotional impacts of volunteering and how volunteers try to implement humanitarian principles on the ground in challenging and isolating circumstances.”

So far, the initiative has focused on telling the stories and listening to voices of volunteers in six countries: Afghanistan; Honduras; Myanmar; Sudan; South Sudan; Ukraine, working with the National Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies in those countries.

The ViCE Initiative is not just about research, it is about action. The work of the project is helping to guide innovation and shape policy and practice that strengthens the engagement, resilience, safety, security and wellbeing of volunteers and communities during times of armed conflict, violence and emergencies. Since the launch of the project, they have showcased their findings through a unique interactive exhibition and have also engaged global leaders and decision-makers in Brussels at AidEx - one of the world’s leading global platforms focused on improving aid and humanitarian efforts.

“What we have learnt from the ViCE Initiative is that volunteers rarely feel listened to, and yet lots of claims are made for their roles and how they can enhance the effectiveness and legitimacy of humanitarian and development interventions,” Professor Baillie Smith adds. “We need to pay attention to their experiences, ideas and struggles, not just to say we have listened, but to act on what we hear.”


A version of this article originally appeared in the Northumbria University supplement produced with Times Higher Education.

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