In November I introduced to you the next year of my life; working as a Volunteerism Advocacy Advisor to civil society and the public sector in Guyana, South America. Throughout this time I will be writing articles on the Involve website discussing analytically the drivers and barriers to participation that these actors confront. I hope to establish parallels and learnings, taking a global perspective on lessons for development both here and in the UK.

Guyana has a history of communal lifestyles, co-operative land use and ownership at the community level. Voluntary participation predominantly occurs at the grassroots level informally with minimal organisational structure.

The type of participation is social (See page 15 under ‘Participation in Practice’), encompassing collective activities that individuals may be involved in as part of their everyday lives. This includes faith-based, women’s, men’s, and youth groups as well as numerous community-based groups and sports clubs. At grassroots level, people may not even think of themselves as volunteers. At this level, community participation is simply people’s involvement in the social life and well being of their community which, indirectly, works to strengthen a sense of belonging and social connectedness.

The strength of communities and the reciprocity that voluntary social participation promotes at the community level, lends itself positively to a more structured model of participation through volunteerism in Guyana; a model that will support the national development of the country, and a model that is being built today. Volunteer-involving organisations (VIOs) are central to the backbone of Guyanese civil society. A vast range of NGOs and Community Based Organisations (CBOs) work with, and through volunteers in order to attain ownership, sustainability and meaningful commitment to the sector in which they are working.

For example, Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) focuses on making support and services accessible to people with disabilities and their families where it is needed. The programme recruits and trains volunteers to provide support. CBR volunteers are fundamental to forming alliances with other community organisations, and for reaching disabled persons and their families in their own homes and communities. Significantly, disabled persons are among the most powerful and passionate of the volunteers. (VSO, National Volunteering Report, In Press)

In the UK, one critique of the Big Society is that it requires communities that are strong, willing and cohesive; that ‘community’ does in fact already exist, and that members of communities see merit and opportunity in the prospect of working together to improve their outcomes. As Michael White comments, constituencies such as Mr. Cameron’s own of West Oxfordshire depict this vision. Where voluntary sector bodies, and parish councils are already highly involved in the long-term development of the community.

The aim of the Big Society is to develop the community and voluntary sector in order to empower communities to have increased autonomy and the capacity to manage their own futures. In Guyana the process is not a government initiative. The society is Big because it is a model that works in a country where the provision of services and opportunities by the state is lacking, and there is already a context where mutual support is part of the way people live their lives. The State in both countries is small or becoming ‘smaller’ but for very different reasons and in very different ways. It is an interesting comparison.

What I’m wondering is, what comes first? Do the many fragmented communities of the UK lend themselves to the vision that is ‘the Big Society’? Not all communities enjoy the prosperity and civil structures of West Oxfordshire; is this a problem? Or is the lack of communality in the societal infrastructure a bigger obstacle? The natural prevalence of community participation in Guyana is something to be aware of, and something which possibly cannot be (re)created, or at least created quickly.

Either way, for both countries, community level service delivery is potentially a pragmatic, intelligent and meaningful approach to development, and one that both governments are supporting. However, the model has underlying issues of potential exploitation (of community volunteers) and unethical substitution of paid work through volunteering. While civil society has, and is, greatly advancing Guyana’s national development, formal structures for volunteer-involving organisations remain and fragile and thus open to abuse. Ultimately, an essential component of a sustainable and meaningful Big Society in the UK, Guyana, and elsewhere is service delivery volunteering that complements rather than substitutes the role of the state.

Please do get in touch if you are interested in the work that I am delivering on volunteerism in Guyana, or any wider interest in Involve’s or VSO projects and programmes in this area.

Thea Shahrokh –

The views expressed on this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Involve, VSO or the government of Guyana.

Image used: Renjith Krishnan on