A recent call by UK MPs for a rethink of David Cameron’s flagship National Citizen Service scheme has come at an interesting time for volunteer service initiatives internationally.

National Volunteer Teacher Guyana, TheaThe United Nations International Year of Volunteers+10 and the European Commission’s European Year of Volunteers are currently being used to drive global policy development in support of volunteering as a tool for both national, community and personal development. Just last week I attended an international seminar on ‘Volunteering in the EU and the Caribbean’, which aimed to promote and develop youth service initiatives through global learning and partnership building.

As such, the MPs call for a rethink of National Citizen Service in the UK has raised some important questions.

Most simply, the Education Select Committee’s review has questioned the value of volunteering as a method of social policy. Although not refuting that there is a place for voluntary service within youth policy, the message is there is limited evidence that it is effective.

Alongside evidence, the major discussion point on the value of the programme was cost. At a cost of £1,182 per young person on a 6-week pilot scheme, the programme would cost more than the £350m total spent on youth services in 2009-10. In relation to the severe cuts youth services are already facing, this was deemed excessive. Concerns were also raised after a comparison was made to Germany’s year-long volunteering programme, which costs just £1,228 per participant (in my last post, I discussed the importance of looking internationally in policy-making to learn from good practice).

In Guyana volunteering is being considered as a tool in various development projects. Funds from the government’s landmark Low Carbon Development Strategy are going towards the implementation of NGO-led Community Development Plans by volunteers. The past year has also seen investment from the Ministry of Education in an NGO- led (VSO and Youth Challenge Guyana) National Volunteer Teacher’s Programme, which aims to increase the number of teachers available in interior locations of the country. In the disability sector, two central policy implementation and delivery organisations (one a government agency) are delivering volunteering programmes to increase access to employment in this group, as well as to provide expert knowledge to the organisations to enhance their impact.

I highlight these examples for two reasons: i. the government of Guyana is investing funds in existing volunteering programmes, a sustainable and cost effective strategy; and ii. because it is clear that the initiatives, although focused on young people, are more than just programmes for ‘youth’ development. They support national development.

This second point is something to consider. A National Citizen Service that stretches across government departments, and that brings local and central government closer together could work to influence change and development at all levels of society. Still with a focus on youth development, Citizen Service projects that work to promote sustainable environmental practices for example, could work to achieve DEFRA’s targets. Similarly, volunteer community education projects on international poverty relief would be able to support DfID’s objectives. A scheme where ‘Citizen Service’ budgets are pooled from participating departments, with the coordination absorbed by the Cabinet Office or the Department for Communities and Local Government could go some way to reducing the overall costs of the initiative, as well as strengthening the case for volunteering within wider social development policy.

However, the question on the value of volunteering still remains. Even if the cost of the Citizen Service initiative is reduced, or dispersed across a number of departments, what is the return on investment for the government? Involve has recently launched a draft tool on “Making the case for public engagement”. It looks at how to promote meaningful public engagement processes by looking at long term return on investment and public opinion in addition to the immediate costs. What is needed is a similar project for volunteering. In Guyana, VSO is planning a baseline study to begin measuring the contribution of volunteering to development. The hope would be for volunteering to no longer be an ‘idea’ of the Big Society but an evidence based tool to be used within youth policy and the expenditure of public funds.

Picture: Valessa Harding a National Volunteer Teacher. Credit: VSO Guyana.

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

Photo by 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.