Community development

Rethinking volunteering - reverse programs to the Global North

This is a guest post by Daniel Großbröhmer, Responsible Volunteering (http://www.responsible-volunteering.com)

The German government and civil society organizations are conducting an interesting experiment - and apparently a pretty successful one, too. Within the last four years almost 2000 volunteers from countries of the Global South - development countries - came to Germany for a reverse voluntary service. They work in kindergartens, support local NGOs and international development agencies, help teachers at schools and work with elderly people. The important thing: Volunteers don’t have to pay for the stay. Their work and all occurring costs are covered by the government, NGOs and donors. But why?

Since the German government offered the possibility to volunteer as an alternative to the compulsory military service for young male adults, Germany has a strong track record in volunteering locally and internationally. In 2008, the government started to support a long-term international volunteer service for young men and women in the Global South financially. Until 2016 more than 25.000 young Germans participated. Since the implementation of the program, sending organizations and hosting organizations and volunteers have demanded the creation of a reverse volunteering program. This was almost impossible due to the strict German visa regulations.  Nevertheless in 2013 the government decided to start a pilot program to gain some first experience.

The idea beyond this reverse program - north to south and otherwise - is to create a learning environment and to enable volunteers and their friends and families to make first hand international and intercultural experiences. People who have never visited other countries and cultures often have a lack of intercultural understanding and one sided views of global challenges. Images, prejudice and realities are forged by movies, formal education, local medias and are heavily influenced by colonial perspectives to those “down or up there”. This approach of global learning aims to make people realize the tight economical, ecological and political connections worldwide. The basic idea is to create awareness to the fact, that all humanity is living on one only planet that is heavily integrated. This integration results in a common responsibility for each other.

Through their work experience, professional supervision and a set of accompany measures volunteers   usually see and understand the interconnections and are expected to reflect this in their personal decisions, for example in not buying “fast fashion” or drinking fair trade coffee only, but also in their professional life. Equipped with profound international experiences and language skills they are expected to become decision makers who also consider the sustainability and impact of their actions. But of course it is also about connecting people, building networks of like-minded people and making friends.

The impact of this volunteer program is difficult to describe and not easy to measure. But there are indications that suggest that the experience of a volunteer trip abroad is much more effective with young people from the Global South volunteering in Germany than sending Germans overseas. During their stay, they come in contact with at least hundreds of locals (Germans in this case) who then have the chance to get to know a “real” Asian, African or South-American who will tell his or her own story and with whom they may become friends.

Also, a stay in Germany will a guarantee a career boost. Back home, the young leaders will be equipped with good language skills, intercultural knowledge, new networks and perspectives and become socially engaged decision makers.

Of course, the idea of equality is also a driving factor for the implementation of this program. There is absolutely no reason why only  German citizens can participate in such a publicly supported program only because of their birthplace. If Germans expect to be welcomed as volunteers worldwide, it appears to be a question of fairness to receive and support volunteers in Germany as well. 

The success of the program is currently being evaluated. First results of the evaluation are expected to be released in November 2016. Without anticipating, it is probable that the program will be continued and expanded. Reactions by press and public were almost very positive. One outcome of the program is already crystal clear: German sending organizations have learned what it means to receive volunteers and vice versa. This has lead to a better mutual understanding about the aims of volunteering.

Further information on this program can be found at http://www.weltwaerts.de/en/