“Why don’t they want our help?” Exploring the relationship between community and development worker


Jody Akedjody

The Valuing Volunteering project that IDS is undertaking with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) is exploring the role of volunteers as development workers. I often hear volunteers tell me that one of the conditions of their success is the “willingness of the community”. In a World Café discussion with Filipino and British volunteers we discussed the example of International Citizen Service (ICS) volunteers doing research using Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) in Ghana. The aspect of their placement that volunteers found most difficult was not learning the PRA process, which took weeks and weeks, but the realisation that the community didn’t want a stake in the participatory process. One of the participants recalled a local volunteer who screamed in frustration, “why don’t they want our help?” In a similar epiphany in the Philippines, volunteers realised, somewhat painfully, that some schools didn’t want to accept their offers to run Information Education and Communication campaigns with students.

Misplaced assumptions

As development workers offering their resources for free, volunteers and programmes supporting volunteers presume that a community is going to be as receptive as they are eager to help. As researchers or practitioners we can fall into the same trap: we risk assuming the burning research question or difficult-to-fund project consuming our working days will strike an instant chord with the people we hope will benefit from it. This reciprocation is often an unspoken assumption in our theories of change about how we contribute to alleviating poverty. So we just jump right on in there, brimming with energy and primed for a successful outcome only to find progress elusive and frustrating.

A different approach

The volunteers discovered that it is not realistic to expect a community to be interested, even in their most valiant efforts. So what does this reality tell us about the way we should begin our relationship with a community or group of people we really want to work with?

Using a systemic action research approach, we tested some ideas about what a development worker can do:

1. Commit a little time up front to work out what makes a community “willing” or not

It turns out all sorts of things affect whether people are receptive or keen to harness our energy. The Valuing Volunteering research found the following factors important, either working in isolation or in combination:

  • Lack of understanding and trust in what a volunteer is about
  • Previous negative experiences with volunteers / development workers
  • Seeing that the change process is complex and difficult, so easier not to engage
  • What outsiders see as needs do not correspond with what local people see as important
  • Timing – other priorities and commitments prevent people from engaging
  • Participation comes at personal, social or economic costs hidden to the outsider

2. Reframe expectations about participation

For many valid reasons, people may not want the kind of assistance we think it is important to give right now. And this is ok. We should be content with small, more mutual beginnings, which build trust. The ICS volunteers in the Philippines decided to work first with the schools who wanted more information on solid waste management. They will create something good and see if this piques interest elsewhere.

If we find levels of participation rapidly sink from high to low as we get into the messy, complex process of making change happen, we shouldn’t despair but celebrate! Fewer participants usually equal more participation. And it means we are beginning to identify the local people who will sustain our efforts. The first follower is often an under-appreciated form of leadership. We should encourage and not dismiss their importance because the total number of participants does not meet pre-determined beliefs about what good attendance looks like.

3. Create the spaces and relationships to find the people who do have energy

Communities are not homogeneous entities. This creates multiple opportunities for volunteers and development workers to harness local interest. We just need to know how to listen and where to look. On another island in the Philippines, we used systems mapping to create a big picture of issues and local dynamics. We found an important local driver for change was not protection of marine ecosystems per se, but the family breakdown that resulted from low fish catch. Our entry points were different but we found common ground. And this was enough to get going.

The list is clearly not exhaustive. But the ideas raised have something in common.  In these examples development workers have tried to think systemically about why momentum for change is slow before coming up with precise interventions. This process resulted in a re-assessment of their role in the change process as being co-dependent on the interest and energy of the community to embark on a journey with them. We found the fight against poverty doesn’t need more willingness on the part of communities to fall in line with our way of thinking at all. It requires different approaches – and the confidence and conviction that come with them – to enable development workers to work in more reflexive and iterative ways.

Jody Aked works as researcher for the IDS-VSO partnership ‘Valuing Volunteering’ in the Phillipines. She is also a PhD student with the PPSC Team

Read a previous blog piece by Jody Aked

Long term relationships are not always indicators of dependency


Jody Akedjody

Dependency. It is the thing to be avoided in international development efforts. Positioned as the opposite of sustainability, it is explained as people living in marginalisation or poverty being in some way reliant on support or help from outsiders. I have noticed that in a sort of sleepy, languid way we have slipped into equating length of time working with a community as a proxy indicator of dependency. It is an unwritten assumption justifying short-term over long-term funding and it affects how we design our programmes. I wonder whose interests this assumption is benefiting.

As part of the IDS-VSO partnership project Valuing Volunteering in the Philippines, I have worked with volunteer programs in universities and locally-based NGOs who are struggling internally and externally to justify a relationship with a community that surpasses 10 years. The sorts of questions they ask themselves in our reflection spaces on volunteer programme effectiveness are:

’Have we created dependency? What should an exit strategy look like?’

Using Valuing Volunteering’s systemic approach, we have been opening up conversations with lots of different stakeholders to learn from them. On a number of occasions I have asked the communities themselves,

’Isn’t it time after 10 years that the volunteers should go and support another community?’

Many will tell me about the importance of ‘bayanihan’ – a Filipino concept of everyone working together for a common goal. Others tell me about the boost or ‘lift’ external help provides people. It is an encouragement that brings energy to community efforts.

In other contexts my question about whether volunteers should move on has been met with dismay and visible distress. Some of the conversations that resonated with me took place with

  •  coconut farmers who have had their land compulsory purchased (at a very low price) by government to make way for a new airport in the province of Albay.
  • informal settlers in Metro Manila who have been living in a state of long-term uncertainty because of a major road building plan threatening displacement.
  • a People’s Organisation which looks after a Community-Based Forest Management Area in the Visayas. They were encouraged to sign a contract with a private investor to cultivate cash crops like pineapples for direct export to the Chinese market.

Listening to their concerns, I began to understand the scale of the development challenges these groups face. The self-organisation required of communities to create a space to voice concerns and rights in formal decision-making platforms when political and economic pressures are working hard in the background to silence or discredit them is an arduous and long process. It necessitates a sure-footedness and level of confidence to maintain a position at the negotiating table which is typically gained through years of grooming in corporate or political life. And overcoming set-backs requires a steadfastness and level of resilience not easy to come by.

It got me thinking how dependency is a convenient mantra for a global economic system that does very well for the word’s wealthy 1% through exploiting less powerful people and their assets for profit. It is interesting, for example, that as development workers we do not lay awake at night feeling anxious that oil companies have not managed to de-couple themselves from government subsidies to move their very ‘grown-up’ industry from dependency to self-reliance. At the same time we can be certain that we will be asked to demonstrate that our livelihood initiatives supporting communities to adapt to the effects of climate change can achieve sustainability within a few years.

What do we mean by ‘dependency’ and ‘sustainability’?
In one multi-stakeholder discussion with members of a community, volunteers and support staff we realised we need to unpick what we mean by dependency and sustainability to answer our questions. For sure, after ten years we should be expecting that communities can run their own meetings and take the initiative on the direction they want to go and how to get there. But to expect that these capacities can translate into being able to tackle deep-seated injustice by themselves is probably naïve.

At a societal level we seem happy to accept that governments can depend on one another for assistance. We describe these arrangements as bi-lateral agreements or ‘special relationships’. And we are comfortable when companies link with government sectors under the guise of public-private partnerships. Yet, we are uneasy when we talk about long-term partnerships to change the rules of the game, ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with the people who are forgotten by the rising stars.

It is through Valuing Volunteering, which looks at the way volunteers work, that I am learning a more nuanced understanding of relationships for development. A more ‘human’ development that takes care of people is built on solidarity and friendship. This sort of relationship is not easily fostered within tightly defined project parameters. Yet it is an aspect of development that communities tell me is important to them. As one person said on her interactions with volunteers,

’We experience good relations as if we are almost relatives … what we feel, it becomes lighter because of the concern we experience.’

Volunteers may not bring tonnes of financial assistance. And they may themselves be limited when it comes to shifting wider systemic issues which act as barriers to community development. But the credibility or ‘symbolic capital’ afforded by volunteers and the organisations they represent is an important force for how communities feel about themselves and how others view them. As Lizzie (VV Researcher Nepal) summed up in one of our cross-country analysis sessions,

’Creating spaces where people are self-directed with others is really important … because you can be overwhelmed with what you face and change can feel so small, but with group processes it can feel very different psychologically.’

In an ecosystem where the motives of all those involved are not transparent, I have witnessed how a volunteering programme can result in a web of volunteer-community interactions that lead to trusting and lasting relationships built on shared experiences, different worldviews and a motivation to work for the common good. In a context where change at the political and economic level can be stubbornly slow I can see the potential for long-term relationships established in the spirit of volunteerism to be a foundation for resilience and adaptability instead of dependency.

Jody Aked works as researcher for the IDS-VSO partnership ‘Valuing Volunteering’ in the Phillipines. She is also a PhD student with the Participation, Power and Social Change Team