Putting the First Last: DFID and International Volunteering

© Elisa Carboni

In 2010 David Cameron announced the creation of a UK government funded International Citizen Service (ICS) for 18-25 year olds, designed to fit into the vision of an austerity-driven ‘big society’ as an extension from the well-known National Citizen Service. Since 2010, the programme has now sent over 40,000 volunteers abroad for 12 weeks on average with taxpayers’ money (at an average cost of £9000 per volunteer). The programme has been presented as a positive scheme and an “earnest answer to voluntourism”. Nonetheless, having myself been part of the programme and given its re-design this year by the Department for International Development (DFID), it is a ripe time to reflect on its effectiveness. Of more importance is that by doing so one can explore two integral topics within the international development community which extend far beyond the intricacies of one specific programme: first, the effects of power imbalances when development ‘professionals’ and external agencies are deployed in foreign communities and secondly, the extent to which the UK’s aid budget is always focused solely on the outcomes of the communities it serves.

For me, this discussion stems from having spent 12 weeks in 2019 in Bangladesh under the ICS programme. In brief, there were 20 volunteers who worked in a rural community in South-West Bangladesh. We targeted 3 areas: education surrounding sexual reproductive health rights, ensuring good governance and improving livelihoods. The degree to which I felt we were able to achieve lasting impact came down to how well two key issues surrounding power dynamics were negotiated: those which occurred between the volunteers and then those which occurred between the volunteers and the community stakeholders with whom we were interacting. 

At face value, multiple aspects of the programme were designed to promote effective working relationships and to deconstruct inevitable power dynamics which would be detrimental to our work. Most importantly, of the 20 volunteers half were Bangladeshi; this meant that the programme had crucial inputs from people who actually spoke the local language and understood cultural nuances.  This was particularly important when it came to issues surrounding religious norms in the relatively conservative Muslim community in which we were working. Added to this, we all lived in the village we were working in with host families which helped us to integrate more successfully.

Despite these beneficial steps, however, I felt that the programme failed in addressing issues surrounding power dynamics and at times perpetuated them. Despite the fact that we were presented as equals with our In-Country Volunteers (who were in fact far more knowledgeable and had better ideas as to how to help in what was very similar to their local community), parity did not exist in practice. Thus, instead of the Bangladeshis having the lead when it came to decision making, the opposite occurred. For me, this stemmed from the power dynamics which existed as a result of the UK funding. UK volunteer experience was significantly prioritised, to the detriment of creating development impact. In short, the only information which was fed back to VSO (the charity to which DFID outsource the running of the ICS programme) was that of the experiences of UK volunteers. Thus, the views of UK volunteers were given more weight when it came to decision-making in order to please us, and to subsequently impress upon the UK that the programme was successful. In contrast the experience and feedback of Bangladeshi volunteers were contained within Bangladesh; any negative feedback from them would never reach the UK and impact the funding or reputation of the programme run in Bangladesh. Although this all sounds rather theoretical, the tangible effects of this resulted in ideas and the voice of UK volunteers being given precedence over those of the Bangladeshi volunteers who were far more knowledgeable, had better ideas and, most importantly, actual experience of what we were trying to do. Thus, ironically, by trying to accommodate and prioritise UK volunteer experience, the quality of the whole experience in the programme was in fact diminished, because fundamentally we were all there to try and make a positive impact. 

© Elisa Carboni

A vivid example of this unconscious pressure and power exerted by the UK arm of VSO played out in the placement of another group of 20 volunteers operating in an area not far from us. A Bangladeshi VSO professional had originally surveyed the area and reported back to seniors at VSO Bangladesh that the community would not be right for volunteers to be sent to because it was too religiously conservative. Nonetheless, volunteers were still sent there, in large part because VSO Bangladesh was expected by VSO UK (which provided funding) to provide 4 locations for volunteers and it was too late only to provide 3 locations or to find a new one. The programme went ahead in this fourth location but quickly failed because of the lack of community support and acceptance. The interaction spiralled into cases of alleged sexual harassment and even a veiled threat of an acid attack on female UK volunteers. The programme in this community had ultimately to be abandoned.

Aside from internal politics specific to the programme, other issues surrounding power dynamics of volunteering manifested themselves in the context of community involvement. Inevitably in order to integrate ourselves and gain acceptance into the communities we were working in we had to interact with ‘gatekeepers’ and those in positions of power within the local community. As a result, the spectrum of people whom we could help would often be limited to the social networks of the community leaders. When trying to conduct surveys and discussions with people about what we as volunteers could do for the local community, we were only taken to meet the immediate family of community leaders or, if taken to a separate household and there was no male figure present, we would be told that ‘nobody was at home’. To have gone behind the backs of community leaders to consult more widely would have led to a breakdown in relations and have meant that we could not operate efficiently.

© Elisa Carboni

These issues are seemingly common in numerous international development and aid settings on varying scales – both within local communities and larger institutions. Robert Chambers’ polemic “Whose Reality Counts” elaborates on these complex relationships which exist between the ‘overclass’ of those in positions of power and the ‘underclass’. Large scale technical solutions such as the idea of a green revolution, which can present as sensible to the overclass often fail due to this interplay. People in communities targeted by international aid live complex, diverse and dynamic lives which cannot readily be understood by external decision makers. Moreover, other issues such as what Chambers describes as ‘development tourism’ arise where all the information fed back to professionals is that which local communities believe will please them, seeking to ensure their continued involvement in a form of confirmation bias. We felt this when conducting surveys in the sense that whenever we asked what we could do to help, the answers given were just repetitions of what previous volunteers in the communities had done. Chambers’ solution to these problems is in ‘putting the first last’ and encouraging the empowerment of the weak and marginalised via participatory methods. Although this is no revolutionary concept, it is telling how apt such an approach would have been to my experience, inverting the traditional hierarchy of power and removing the undeserved weight afforded to the opinions of the UK volunteers.

Clearly my experiences of the programme exist as one person out of the 40,000 people who have taken part in it. However, the National Audit Office in a 2017 review of the programme stated that the programme does not “consistently demonstrate development impact” in meeting its objectives of reducing poverty and encouraging sustainable development. One might naturally conclude that this would be a damning report and lead to rapid review of DFID spending on the programme, but this was not the case. The stated aims of the ICS programme show that helping the local community and ‘making a difference’ is only one of the three principles of the programme. Alongside poverty reduction, personal development and becoming an active citizen are the other stated goals of the programme. With respect to these other two categories the National Audit Office concluded the programme was more than successful. Nonetheless it serves as a timely reminder of the intricate policy and at times overlapping motivations behind DFID programmes, particularly when one contextualises its creation during austerity and David Cameron’s pledge that the UK’s aid budget would be one of few areas unaffected by austerity. 

With the ICS programme currently suspended (due to Covid 19) and a planned review and redesign in 2020 it is an important time to reflect on its utility. On one hand looking at it on a disinterested basis and looking at value for money the programme needs radical change to further its development impact;  it is clear that sending 18-25 year olds with no experience of development practices to volunteer is never actually going to be the most efficient way of spending taxpayers money in furthering development. On the other hand, and something which I have not dwelt on in this article given its focus, is how much I, and my fellow UK volunteers, benefitted from the programme on a personal level in terms of building friendships, learning about oneself and experiencing life in an entirely different part of the world. Nonetheless for me at least, there will always be a slight unease with the knowledge that the programme was funded by the UK taxpayer and more may have been able to achieved in terms of social impact if the money had been spent elsewhere. 

Ultimately one hopes a happier medium can yet be reached, incorporating more participatory focused philosophies in reversing power dynamics as it becomes clear that there is no trade-off between volunteer experience and development impact when they in fact complement each other. Even away from the intricacies of the ICS programme I believe that remembering the importance of participatory methodologies is an important message that the wider community can take, with some of the pitfalls of other approaches partially elucidated by the discussion of my experiences.


By Elisenda Rubiés [linked to LinkedIn profile] as part of the ‘Series Name’ series [if applicable]. Interviewee’s Twitter/Facebook/Website is @handle [linked]