“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


What community dynamics encourage volunteering? Insights from Kenya


Simon LewisSimon photo

Why is there a thriving culture of volunteering in one community while in another there’s hardly any voluntary action to be found? What are the community dynamics that encourage or discourage volunteering? These are some of the questions I have been trying to answer as part of the ‘Valuing Volunteering’ project. This is a global action research project, conducted by VSO in partnership with the Institute of Development Studiesto understand how, when and why volunteering affects poverty.

On a recent trip to Mombasa I was lucky enough to meet and work with members of the Volunteers In Action (VIA) Network – an umbrella group for volunteers on the Kenyan coast. The network looks to organise projects and events on issues of shared concern to volunteers and volunteer organisations; provides opportunities for volunteers to network and organically form their own groups and take forward their own projects; and puts on training directly in response to the needs identified by its members. It’s a passionate and enthusiastic group – something that cannot always be said for all similar groups in Kenya.

We looked to validate some of the findings that emerged from the participatory Systemic Action Research investigation conducted by the Valuing Volunteering Mombasa research group last year. During that exercise local researchers engaged people in three communities across Mombasa and found that the degree of volunteering taking place in each area varied greatly. Discussing this finding with members of the VIA Network, it came as no surprise.

Varying types of community produce different dynamics of volunteering
They see the varying dynamics of volunteering in different types of community across the city and appreciate that a community should not be viewed in isolation but also in terms of its interactions and relationships with other communities. For the purpose of this research project, we understand community to be very practically associated with a neighbourhood or an area that symbolically exists in the local consciousness (for example the local naming of neighbourhoods ).

The Valuing Volunteering research in 2013 found that, in Mombasa communities such as Shanzu and Kongowea, there was a limited amount of local volunteering taking place. Yes, there were some active local youth groups, but a resonating view amongst local community members was that development would not happen here. This collective sense of pessimism eroded social capital and discouraged volunteering. In contrast, research in Mombasa city centre revealed an active and vibrant volunteer environment with numerous volunteer involving organisations.

The discussion with VIA members supported these findings, but the interactions between communities in Mombasa (and the volunteers within them) exposed hidden layers of complexity. Deconstructing community dynamics in Mombasa, the group identified five broad categories of community and their relations to each other.

Five types of community diagram


1. Close knit-communities with high social capital– for example Frere Town in Mombasa, where residents feel a sense of personal investment in their community and often engage in volunteering within its boundaries (internal volunteering) for the good of the community.

2. Affluent urban centres– for example Mombasa city centre. Generally more affluent and home to higher numbers of volunteer involving organisations (particularly larger more formalised institutions) and businesses, the city exerts an influence on surrounding communities, pulling in migrants and commuters in search of work and volunteer opportunities.

3.Transitional communities–for example Mtwapa to the north of Mombasa where members are only temporary or semi-permanent residents. The high turnover of residents results in a lack of commitment to the long-term future of the community and acts to disincentivise volunteering.

4. Informal/less affluent urban and rural settlements– for example the two research locations of Shanzu and Kongowea. Critically, their existence is intertwined with that of the city centre, as residents are drawn to the perceived work and volunteer opportunities in central Mombasa. However, this adds depth to the initial finding that little volunteering takes place in such communities – it may be that there is little volunteering within the community but it is not the case that there are, by association, few volunteers. Instead, those volunteers are commuting to more affluent areas, such as Mombasa city centre, to take up more desirable and numerous volunteer opportunities. The effect is a drain on volunteers (particularly young volunteers) in the home community.

5. Rural/remote communities– cities such as Nairobi and Mombasa are the destination for many internal Kenyan migrants seeking employment, with many relocating from their rural homes. It is a common practice for Kenyans to support their families in the rural homestead through remittances, and some will return to the community to provide support, often in the form of volunteering, typically on a seasonal basis during holidays or later in life. Whilst some activities are successful and well-received, some returning volunteers have noted hostility to their acts of goodwill, particularly on cultural grounds as home communities perceive them as having changed or compromised their beliefs whilst away.

Analysing the dynamics of communities is useful in explaining why volunteering happens in some areas more than others. Crucially, it is not always the case that some communities have more volunteers than others but in some cases volunteers will commute or migrate to volunteer in areas where there are better opportunities or to avoid exploitation and being under-valued.

In the Kenyan context it is also critical to appreciate that the flows of volunteers are closely associated with the flows of people who move for employment opportunities – in fact volunteer and economic migrants/commuters are often the same people. When volunteers commute into the city centre from less affluent communities this is primarily because there is a greater pull factor emanating from the larger number and higher profile of volunteer organisations in the city centre that offer greater prospects for progression onto paid employment. The NGO sector is very desirable for paid employment in Kenya and, for many, volunteering represents a ‘stepping stone’ onto the employment ladder. As such volunteering in Kenya needs to be understood in relation to the factors that are driving the increasing urbanisation of its society and the complex relations and interconnections between its changing communities.

Simon Lewis is an international volunteer with VSO and the lead researcher for the IDS-VSO Partnership ‘Valuing Volunteering’ in Kenya. This is a slightly amended version of an article that previously appeared on the Valuing Volunteering Kenya blog.

Read more recent blogs from the Valuing Volunteering Project:

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