From Charity to Justice: Volunteering and Development Education

13/03/2013 at 1:12 pm 23 comments

Guest Blog by Lindsay Cleary*

There has always been a level of criticism and scrutiny running alongside admiration for people who volunteer overseas. The missionary tradition in Ireland has ensured that many young Irish people have grown up acutely aware of poverty in the Global South. It’s this sense of charity which undoubtedly leads some young people to look into short-term volunteering. The most effective way of turning this sense of charity into a sense of social justice is through development education.

Volunteering overseas without development education is voluntourism. It is voyeuristic, it is egotistical, and it is top-down charity. Here at SERVE we have always strived to provide an experience that is more than building a house or being amazed by the smiling faces of the children in a school. If you are privileged enough to be able to travel to a less developed country, you ought to learn something about the underlying issues of the place, and start to critique your own actions and contribution to global inequality. Having a first-hand educational experience in a developing country should inspire you to create change at home.

In January 2013, SERVE carried out a survey among past volunteers to get a sense of the impact that development education post-departure and in-country has had on them personally.

After taking part in the SERVE Volunteer Programme, there was an average increase of 62% in volunteers’ awareness of development issues such as disability, skills training and education, human rights, food insecurity and malnutrition, issues affecting women and HIV and AIDS. Of course, awareness is one thing, action is another. The majority of participants reported discussing development issues with friends, family or their community on their return, with 60.7% speaking formally about their experience and development issues. In addition, 64.3% of participants have been actively involved in campaigns or initiatives in support of international development. This shows that there really is potential for more dialogue to take place among civil society on development issues.



It is interesting to note that for the majority of people the volunteer experience and the development education programme are equally important. This shows that neither can be treated in isolation and that mainstreaming development education throughout a volunteer experience is an effective way of increasing awareness, getting volunteers to think critically and encouraging active citizenship.



The full results of the survey can be found here

* Lindsay Cleary is Communications Officer with SERVE
[The views in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dóchas]


Entry filed under: NGOs.

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23 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Volunteering | Pearltrees  |  13/03/2013 at 2:10 pm

    […] From Charity to Justice: Volunteering and Development Education | Dochasnetwork's Blog […]

  • 2. servesolidarity  |  13/03/2013 at 3:11 pm

    Reblogged this on SERVE Blog and commented:
    Guest post on Dóchas Network Blog.

  • 3. R Storey  |  13/03/2013 at 3:31 pm

    The cost of volunteering v development achieved is poor value for money and while it makes volunteers and their contacts more aware of causes of poverty etc, it would be better to spend the money on those in need.

  • 4. Darran Irvine  |  14/03/2013 at 5:45 pm

    Thanks Lindsay for a welcome article and a chance to debate in the open! It is refreshing to read how SERVE is raising the bar on volunteering to ensure that Dev Ed principles and practices are applied.

    Yes, it does seem a bit of a tradition in our little island and we can clap ourselves on the backs for keeping the focus on issues in the Global South and trying to engage with meaningful actions to create a more equal and just world. We should also be aware how easy it is to recreate the same stereotypes that stick to our quick-fix, outward bound paternalistic approaches.

    We can all name NGOs in Ireland and probably know too some well-meaning volunteers that continue to perpretrate they type of volontourism you mention. I wish we saw more of SERVE’s efforts to try and measure the impact on returning volunteers. Part 2 is telling the story back home and being able to maintain and spread critical thinking on the global-local dimensions of the issues we seek to address. Part of that process is being able to critique one’s own motives and actions. The tenet of your blog shows that the data from your surveys are not only vital stats for the donors, but serve as resources for future volunteers to reflect on.

    I would like to have also read some mention about the whole process applied by SERVE to ensure best Dev Ed principles and practices are integrated at all levels

    -pre-placement preparation and planning with volunteers
    -whether you insist on long-term volunteering

    and, last but most importantly, to what extent you measure the impact of volunteering and projects with volunteers on the projects in the Global South. We would love to hear how the local people feel about their engagement and their effectiveness.

    And just dreaming aloud – whether you ever hope to welcome volunteers from the Global South.. and some real reciprocal transferable exchanges here too on our home turf.

    I don’t mean to preach. We do what we can do promote best practices, we don’t always have the resources. That’s our excuse anyway…!

    Darran Irvine

  • 5. Dóchas  |  19/03/2013 at 9:47 am

    Response from Lindsay Cleary:

    Many thanks for the feedback!

    R Storey, in response to the statement about value-for-money, our volunteers form part of a long-term commitment to working with our partners in the Global South. Our partnerships don’t end when the volunteers leave; we continue to contribute to long-term development goals. In fact, many of our volunteers on their return continue to contribute financially to the projects they worked on, and our partners always welcome short-term volunteers.

    Darran, in relation to best practice around Development Education, SERVE is a member of Comhlámh and strives to ensure best practice in all areas of our volunteer programme. We provide three full days of pre-placement preparation which involves Development Education workshops. SERVE are part of the Comhlámh and Dóchas working groups on Development Education, and the Global Education Network Northern Ireland (GENNI), all of which have proven extremely valuable for peer-learning and support. Our staff and volunteer leaders are given regular training on facilitation methods to provide effective and meaningful development education workshops, and we are always evaluating and learning!

    While we don’t insist on long-term volunteering, it is something which is available to volunteers depending on their skills and the requirements of our partners. We do, however, insist on continued engagement post-placement. At our Next Step Weekend, which volunteers are contractually obliged to attend following their placements, we sign-post volunteers towards opportunities for further engagement, campaigning and advocacy. We also keep regular contact with past volunteers about the continued work of our partners, and facilitate Solidarity Groups which meet once a month in various cities around Ireland to discuss development issues and support our work.

    In terms of measuring the impact of volunteering and projects in the Global South, we carry out regular evaluations and consultations with our partners. We do welcome volunteers from the Global South- you can read Malegea and Vernam’s stories here: . Enet Mukurazita, director of our Zimbabwean partner Young Africa, will visit Dublin in April and we have hosted groups from our partner countries in the past!

    I hope that this answers your questions, and many thanks again for engaging with the blog post!

    • 6. Rob Strong  |  19/03/2013 at 10:23 am

      Lindsay, Do you appreciate that the response you give is replicated over and over in development aid where success is claimed without measurable objectives or where activities and interventions remain uncosted against upbeat narrative. Fair enough that there is benefit to exposing youth to the problems of the selected poor but to claim that there is also value for money development is a stretch especially when the detailed information of projects and their finances are kept secret. Set out the project proposal with SMART objectives and detailed budget in advance and then provide the public with the evaluation and financial report on completion and the credibility can be achieved.

      • 7. Dóchas  |  19/03/2013 at 1:08 pm

        Response by Lindsay Cleary:

        Hi Rob, detailed information on our projects, as well as audited accounts, are available on our website. None of the details of our volunteer programmes are kept secret. Post-placement, our volunteers are given detailed breakdown of how their particular funds, along with matching funds obtained from institutional funders, were spent in the country they volunteered in. This information is shared with volunteers and those who contributed directly to volunteers’ funds, and this information is available to the general public on our website too (

        We are in the early stages of our current four-year development programme in South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The results framework is available here ( and the first report will be prepared in April. Reports from previous programmes are available here (

      • 8. R Storey  |  19/03/2013 at 7:37 pm

        Am unable to find results achieved v cost incurred from the links provided so it is unclear if you are offering value for money or not. You have set out what you are trying to achieve in your Logic Model and Results Framework but nothing there that I can find about what has been achieved so far. Imagine no reports for 2010 -11 or 2011-12 at this time!
        From my reading of the documents it appears that SERVE is claiming a lot of results from activities such as renovating care centres whereas the results will be down to the governments’ maintenance of the centres. TVET will not produce increased income but can increase capacity for employment – income will come if others than SERVE give employment.
        Claiming results beyond attribution is not a good recipe for generating confidence.

        On web search I found minimum details of completed projects such as:
        Thailand Funding: €15,000 -SERVE & ElectricAid support 4 Good Shepherd run projects Result – unknown.
        Zimbabwe – Funding unknown. SERVE, with support from Misean Cara, have funded the construction of a new borehole for Young Africa Zimbabwe in the town of Chitungwiza,
        Kenya Kajiado County, Funding: €16,348 In response to the drought in 2011, SERVE supported the work of Irish NGO Aidlink and the Girl Child Network to feed 7119 children in 31 schools over three months.
        Am at a loss to know what Serve sees its role in project work. Is it to support other aid agencies with small amounts of money sourced from Irish Aid and others and which it leaves to them to manage and account for or does it go to visit such small projects as in Thailand, Kenya and Zimbabwe?
        Claiming results for what others are doing again does not cut the mustard.

      • 9. Swalsh  |  19/03/2013 at 1:58 pm

        You are making some large assumptions here. Any INGO that has been constantly funded by Irish Aid clearly has their accounts in order before they put a project in place.

        They also set objectives that are measured quite rigorously. I have done work for serve and being a development studies student I can assure you that their account pre and post project are of the highest quality as is their method of working with partners to create these objectives.

  • 10. Dóchas  |  20/03/2013 at 4:59 pm

    Response from Lindsay Cleary:

    Thank you for drawing attention to the missing reports from our website. I will ensure that these are added as soon as possible.
    Our yearly audited accounts are available on our site and these should hopefully provide you with more information in relation to assessing the value for money details you are looking for.

    As I said previously we are coming close to the end of our first year in our four-year development programme in South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. This programme has a rigorous application process to ensure the objectives are measurable, achievable, and make a lasting impact. The programme is closely monitored to ensure that we are meeting the targets of our measurable objectives. The first report will be prepared and available on our website in April.

    SERVE works under the principle of partnership and local ownership. We support organisations that are rooted in local cultures and society. SERVE are involved in long term partnership relationships with our key partners. There is a clear division of roles in the partnership relationship between SERVE and its partners. There is collaborative decision making in all partnership relationships, but in each case the partner is the key driving force behind identifying the needs of the local community and the work to be undertaken. SERVE’s volunteers contribute to furthering this agenda, through their skills sharing, capacity development and funding support. The projects that we support more commonly than not have little to no government support so the renovation of care centres is not, as you suggest, taken over by the government, but is maintained through the organisations’ own hard work and perseverance, along with our support where possible. Our long term relationships with these partners aims to ensure the excellent work being done on a daily basis continues. Maintaining long-term relationships also allows us to view the benefits and results achieved through long-term initiatives such as TVET. For example one of our partner projects in Mozambique shows that 67% of the graduated students in Mozambique find a job, apprenticeship or start a business, from undertaking their technical and vocational courses. We are happy for the successes of our partners which are aided through the long-term support of SERVE.

    I appreciate your contributions on this. I also appreciate that we have gone off-topic here from what was originally a conversation about Development Education. If you would like to email me directly please feel free to do so at and I will be happy to help any further questions and give you more details on the way we work and the projects we support.

  • 11. R Storey  |  20/03/2013 at 8:18 pm

    SERVE is no different from other NGOs who work in the absence of government regulation. The recent scandals of stolen aid money in Uganda, the hidden Haiti relief money of Irish Red Cross, the GOAL money lost in Malawi and the nepotism of the latter two organisations governance and management all add up to lack of standards.
    SERVE should restrict itself to setting and claiming results which can be directly or exclusively attributable and measurable not the results set out in its 2012 -15 plan.
    Detailed budget costing which includes salaries (not all are volunteers) and delivery costs (including air fares etc) should be included so that value for money in its project objectives can be measured.
    Funding of other agencies is an achievement but how the money is used can not be responsibly claimed by SERVE. The cost of fundraising for another agency hides the administrative costs involved in project work.
    Much transparency and accountability is needed if SERVE and other NGOs are to have credibility in what they currently so easily claim.

    • 12. swalsh  |  21/03/2013 at 1:52 pm

      Again with the assumptions… SERVE is regulated by Irish aid, who are a governmental body.

      why are you assuming that SERVE is also taking part in this kind of activities such as nepotism and misappropriation of funds? Also do you not see these things being discovered in different INGOs as a great sucess? Would you trust them more if you didn’t know about their failures and shortcomings?

      I don’t know if you have ever written a four year plan but you have to be broad because of the high levels of uncertainty but if you look at the shorter term goals of SERVE you will see that they are far more “SMART”

      The staff in SERVE is very small especially when you compare the amount of volunteers that work for SERVE on a yearly basis. If those staff were not working full time the checks and balances you are looking for would be non existant.

      And with regard to the air fair being separate item on the accounts I completely agree.

      • 13. R Storey  |  21/03/2013 at 5:37 pm

        You are mistaken that Irish Aid regulates any organisation and should avoid such mis-information.
        The charity sector in Ireland is unregulated. There is no body which has the specificaim of supervising the sector, or has the power to maintain a register of charities.
        The Charities Act to address such problems was passed by the Oireachtas in 2009 but successive Governments have delayed its implementation. Recently, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Mr. Alan Shatter TD, said that the delay is due to the cost implications that would arise from the Act’s implementation.

        Failures and shortcomings in the NGO sector does not generate trust.
        With regard to SERVE’s objectives – my point was that they are neither SMART (designed to avoid uncertainty) nor attributable specifically to SERVE.
        SERVE’s costs of project delivery can not be ascertained from their published accounts as one amount per country is given without details of spending.
        The expense of flying volunteers off to Brazil and such countries for small projects must be questionable.
        My main point is that as with other NGOs it is impossible to know if a charity is offering value for money because of lack of regulation and detailed reporting and accounting.

      • 14. Dóchas  |  01/04/2013 at 9:17 pm

        Thank you Robert for your many comments. One response from our side: it is not correct to state that the “charity” sector is unregulated. In fact, most larger charities in Ireland are companies limited by guarantee, and thus subject to Company Law. In other words, those NGOs are regulated precisely in the same way most for-profits are. If you argue that charities are not sufficiently regulated, you are in fact arguing that any company in Ireland is not sufficiently regulated.
        See also

  • 15. Comhlámh  |  21/03/2013 at 3:37 pm

    It’s good to see an interesting debate taking place. There are so many different perspectives on volunteering in a development context mainly because there are so many different models and approaches: short-term, long-term, skills exchange, intercultural learning focused, development education focused, north-to south, south-to-south, south-to-north (and hopefully we’ll see more of this to come), etc, etc, etc. Serve’s model embeds development education methodologies throughout the entire volunteer programme and encourages action on return.

    Comhlámh has worked with returned development workers and volunteers for the last 38 years and a common concern raised by returnees is that although development programmes have an impact on the ground (to a varying degree), in order to tackle inequality and poverty people in Ireland need to tackle and address global structural issues which perpetuate and exacerbate poverty, such as unfair trade, debt and climate change. To do that people need to become active on these issues from home. By embedding critical development education methodologies in volunteer programmes, volunteer sending organisations are more likely to send volunteers who are willing to learn from the local community (and therefore encouraging a more equitable relationship between the volunteer and local community) and stay active in development issues when home.

    Comhlámh facilitate the Code of Good Practice for Volunteer Sending Agencies which has 38 signatories. The Code promotes 11 good practice principles which aim to counteract “bad practice” in overseas volunteering. Serve have been a long standing signatory and have been willing and open to share their practices and lessons learnt with other signatories in order to improve standards in the Irish overseas volunteer sector. They’ve been particularly active in critically reflecting on and promoting the role of development education in volunteering. Comhlámh look forward to learning more from Serve and other organisations using this type of volunteer model.

    • 16. R Storey  |  21/03/2013 at 5:43 pm

      Volunteering and development education are in my humble opinion commendable.
      The problem for me comes when they are sold under the goal of relieving poverty and with related objectives focussing on by-products of volunteering which cannot be attributable.
      There is a need for honesty about the purpose and objectives of such enterprise which should face the hard sell rather than hitching to development work which will never stand a “value for money” test because of the inefficiencies of volunteerism to countries of the South.

  • 17. jesstine  |  25/03/2013 at 5:23 am

    Honestly the important here is what we have given was go the the right thing and with this post we are assure. Thanks!

    family care foundation (fcf)

  • 18. J McGeady  |  28/03/2013 at 12:46 am

    Ms Cleary’s blog has been thoroughly informative and for that I would like to thank her. Furthermore, she has been quite brave in addressing the role of volunteerism in international development, an issue that quite often garners negative reactions and suspicions about waste of resources. This has been pointed out in the blog and very obviously has been illustrtaed by some of the responses. The emhasis placed on development education by Serve does indeed hit on an important note that I fear is all too often missed by those who fail to see the benefit of volunteerism to the development agenda (or indeed fail to see the benefit of the development agenda at all!) Serve’s approach clearly EDUCATES people (no small feat!). It reveals to young men and women from Ireland the nature of international political economic relations, that the global affects the local and vice versa. When development edcuation highlights the underlying causes of poverty then it reveals the truth that we in the global north and the EU, through out governmental institutions, are reinforcing global inequality and poverty. And because we’re the culprits, we are the sovereign citizens with democtartic mastery over these institutions who are the beneficiaries of excessive gluttonous consumption, it is within OUR piwer to stop it! Given that this is the case (and I’m not saying it’s easy or that powerful lobby’s are not a great obstacle, but I am saying that, essentially, these are democratic intitutions representing us) then the role of volunteerism is more important than we know. By educating and nurturing advocates for change in the economic core (that’s us), volunteerism in tandem with devemopment edcuation, may end up being the most sustainable way of influencing the political process in order to effect change. Or at the very least put it on the policy table (again, no small feat).

  • 19. R Storey  |  29/03/2013 at 6:13 pm

    Will take your blog to a social website to invite comments from those not accepted by Dochasnetwork and just to be fair ask in advance if you have any comment.
    Many thanks.

  • 20. Anne Chia  |  01/04/2013 at 8:46 pm

    This is a really interesting conversation. My two pence really is that any type of volunteering that is shorter than six months,and done by people without technical skills,is really tourism to be honest (unless it is an exchange program). For any volunteering to make sense,it must be up to six months,and the volunteers should have some great skills that are important and/or lacking in the areas in which they will volunteer. I think it is a disservice to the young people or to the host communities,to send very young people who are under an illusion that they are going to save say Africa for example, when we know that they are just going to experience a different culture, discover themselves,and be tourists really. At the end of the day,most of these programs should really be seen as youth exchange programs,not made out to be something impactful,because they are not. However,if you want to make a difference,send a doctor to an impoverished African community for 2 years,or a trained teacher to a village school for 2 years,then you are actually doing something. I have been part of VSO’s programs,but it was clear from day 1 that we weren’t “saving” those communities,we were there to become active global citizens,learn and understand the issues,and hopefully go away with an improved understanding of the issues that plague our world. It was more about finding ourselves really,and researching and dialoguing,and improving our hard and soft skills set,sort of like what Post-Grad students take time off to do? At the end of the day,I guess it is important really to do a comparative cost analysis sometimes. If the young people are paying their way to go to these places to learn,fine. But if charities are putting out lots of money to send them,it may be time to re-evaluate this and perhaps channel the money to doing actual work on ground in those communities. But of course if the work of these charities is to foster cross-cultural learning,or to open the young people up to the issues,then that’s a totally different intervention targeted at young people in developed countries.

  • 21. R Storey  |  02/04/2013 at 11:23 am

    The EU has called for regulation of charities as have Dochas so it is odd for them to claim that the business auditing process is sufficient. There are many well established reasons why regulation is required so no need for me to replicate. It is disengenuous to claim that our charities are requlated when the Charities Act which sets out regulation requirements have not been put in place.
    The idea that the not-for-profit charitable sector should only need the same level of accountability to its donors (private and government) as the for-profit sector is to deny the transparency and accountability which the public demands.
    In the absence of a regulatory authority as prescribed, overseas aid charities can provide the additional detailed narrative and financial information required and not to do so is highly questionable.

    • 22. Dóchas  |  03/04/2013 at 2:10 pm

      We did not suggest that current regulation suffices. As you note, Dóchas members have voluntarily come together to self-regulate to some extent, and to lobby for greater regulation. We were simply pointing out that a) in fact, NGOs may be more regulated than you give credit for and b) you might usefully turn your attention to lapse in regulation in other sectors.
      Rather than constantly repeating your criticism, you may want to acknowledge and support initiatives aimed at regulation – particularly at a time when NGOs are criticised for spending too much on overheads. To deal with your criticism, NGOs need to be encouraged to invest more, not less, in areas such as compliance, codes, evaluations and surveys; all those activities that most NGO critics are loathe to donate to…

    • 23. Dóchas  |  04/04/2013 at 12:51 pm

      Rob, Can you please send us your email address, so we can continue this conversation without hogging the space that others might want to use for their comments?


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