On the 11th November I travelled to Guyana, South America to spend a year working with the international development charity Volunteering Services Overseas (VSO). Working in partnership with the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport and UN Volunteering, the focus of my role is to support the continued development of programs for local and national volunteering across the country. In particular, I will be looking at the feasibility and appropriateness of a National Volunteerism Support Platform. The updating of Guyana’s National Youth Policy, currently underway, presents a timely and exciting opportunity to move ahead with initiatives that have a focus on national youth volunteerism. Throughout this period I am going to be posting a monthly blog on the Involve website exploring the role of volunteerism in Guyanese civil society and how this contributes to activities that enable the participation and engagement of the public in the democratic process.

Community participation through voluntary activities plays a critical role in strengthening civil society. As outlined by the Commission for the Future of Volunteering, volunteering can promote democratic citizenship, build new relationships between individuals and communities and drive community cohesion by transmitting a message of strengths and values that are common to all. More practically, volunteering can help deliver essential public services, build social capital and provide opportunities to acquire skills and knowledge that can enhance career development or employment prospects for individuals.

In recognition of the positive outcomes attributable to the role of the volunteer, volunteering has become integral to the coalition Government’s ‘Big Society’ agenda. Practical implementation of certain Big Society proposals are being framed as building a foundation for fostering a culture of volunteerism, reflected by initiatives such as the National Citizen Service. Eight-week pilots are taking place in an attempt to introduce young people to the concept of civic responsibility. They will address what Cameron says is a “tragic waste of potential” among the country’s youth.

At the global level the United Nations has established volunteering as essential to the achievement of its Millennium Development Goals. This was highlighted by the 2001 International Year of the Volunteer, and continues into 2011 with the IYVPlus10. VSO which has key competence in this area is increasingly including local and national volunteering programs that redress disadvantage in it’s work in developing countries. Within these programs a number of parallels can be drawn with the ideas of the Big Society. However, examples of VSO’s work such as the KaBAHAGI program in the Philippines, appear to be more closely linked to organisations in the UK who promote volunteering such as NCVOCSV and IVR. The support VSO provides focuses on working with agencies to develop existing volunteer management processes, and supporting the community and voluntary sector to research and develop new programmes that use volunteering in an innovative way to deliver sustainable development.

Despite positive trends in the UK and internationally, volunteering faces a number of challenges if it is truly to fulfill its potential. An example from Guyana, which is mirrored globally is that volunteers and volunteer involving organisations have to contend with socioeconomic barriers, for example those who are unemployed not being able to afford the additional expense of volunteering. In addition, engaging new sources of volunteers and sustaining volunteer commitment is a challenge. Through the Pathways through Participation project, Involve is attempting to understand some of these issues in the UK by analysing how and why people get involved and stay involved in different forms of participation (including, but not solely restricted to volunteering) over the course of their lives; the ultimate aim of the project is to make recommendations for moving public participation and the systems that enable it forward.

I’m looking forward to unpacking the complexities of volunteerism and participation in Guyana, and hopefully will be able to draw some interesting comparisons, recommendations and learnings that will be relevant to a global audience. For example I am keen to understand the levels of coordination and collaboration across the volunteer involving community, and see whether there is unity or fragmentation and what the drivers or barriers are for this. Amongst other questions, it would be great to look into the approaches taken to volunteering and civic engagement, probing the levels of participation and dialogue around design and implementation of new schemes and programmes.

Thea will be posting monthly on the Involve blog. Please do keep an eye out if you are interested. Otherwise you can contact her directly on theavsoguyana@gmail.com.

The views expressedon this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Involve, VSO or the governments of the United Kingdom or Guyana.