International Volunteer Day: blogs on volunteering trends from around the world (Kenya)

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In the third article for IVD, Valuing Volunteering Researcher Simon Lewis, reflects on the importance of trust, respect and power to volunteers' effectiveness in Kenya:

Research in Kenya has started to uncover some of the complexities behind the dynamics of relationships that influence volunteering effectiveness. Firstly, the term relationship often needs to be deconstructed. Although acts of volunteering are full of relationships – between communities, volunteers, partners, volunteering co-ordinating organisations, donors, etc – it is words such as trust, respect and power that have resonated.

For instance volunteers taking part in the International Citizenship Service (ICS) on the Kenyan coast have frequently referred to the benefits of living with host families in building trust with local people and communities. This has given them the insight, confidence and contacts to undertake ambitious work in their relatively short three month placements. Importantly, longer term relationships with partners and host families are maintained by placement supervisors who provide a continuous link between the three month cycles.


Types of volunteer

Across Kenya, the type of volunteer – international, national, local, diaspora, online – has been seen to have a direct effect in determining the quality of potential relationships. International volunteers are often cited as introducing new ideas and ways of thinking as well as having a motivating effect on local staff and community members. However, not all international volunteers are created equal particularly in terms of how they are perceived. It has been observed that volunteer hosting organisations sometimes have their own hierarchy of volunteers, often with those from developed world countries regarded above those from less developed nations. Unfortunately, where this exists, it can impact on the nature and quality of the relationship between international volunteers and their host organisation. In one case, an international volunteer from the global South left their placement early, partly because their manager preferred white volunteers from the global North.


For international volunteers there is also an added complication as some take on management roles which introduce significant power dynamics into working relationships and potentially builds dependence on ‘outsider’ knowledge. These volunteers can and often do achieve significant results in their host organisations but tensions and questions remain as to whether taking this kind of role is better or worse in terms of bringing about long-term sustainable change.Interesting dynamics exist in the relationships between national Kenyan volunteers and local communities. Many volunteer organisations use local volunteers to implement initiatives, making use of their respected status to gain access to communities. However, the situation is not the same for national volunteers that go into communities which are not their own. Local research groups across the country have noted community scepticism of national ‘outsider’ volunteers with the perception often being that the volunteer is receiving a salary or benefits and potentially intercepting resources before they reach the community.


There is a clear issue around trust and respect in the volunteer/community relationship which impacts upon volunteer effectiveness. And this varies according to the type of volunteer, whether they be international, national or local. As one national volunteer said, “at first they used to see me as an outsider”. In this case the volunteer was able to change their situation after building rapport and respect by laughing and joking with members of the organisation and showing that they really cared about the cause. These relationship building skills are echoed across many volunteer stories suggesting that such ‘soft skills’ may be just, if not more, important than professional skills and qualifications that a formal volunteer may be recruited for.


Position: Volunteer

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