“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