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Meeting the Sustainable Development Goals: How Can International Volunteers Contribute?

10 December 2015 at 11:00 am
Dr Jemma Gibcus
Volunteering will play an important role in achieving the latest United Nations Sustainable Development Goals both locally and globally, writes Dr Jemma Gibcus from Australian Red Cross.

Dr Jemma Gibcus | 10 December 2015 at 11:00 am


Meeting the Sustainable Development Goals: How Can International Volunteers Contribute?
10 December 2015 at 11:00 am

Volunteering will play an important role in achieving the latest United Nations Sustainable Development Goals both locally and globally, writes Dr Jemma Gibcus from Australian Red Cross.

With the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Australia has been challenged to leave no one behind in aspiring for inclusive social development .

This challenge applies both locally and internationally through the support we provide to countries in our region.

Recent Australian Red Cross research has highlighted that international volunteers can support Australia to meet our obligations under the sustainable development agenda. Aarathi Krishnan, Manager of the AVID Program at Red Cross, said the role of international volunteers is both international and local.

“Our research shows that international volunteers can do more than enhance capacity and provide support in overseas communities. In this study, we saw them take what they learned during their assignments and use it creatively and flexibly as a foundation to keep engaging in the development sector, both in paid roles, and as volunteers,” Krishnan said.

The research, conducted by Dr Martine Hawkes for Red Cross, was based on surveys and interviews with more than 200 returned volunteers and development professionals.

The research suggests two key ways that international volunteers can contribute to achieving the SDGs:

1. As development-ready professionals who have resources of value to the sector;

2. As active citizens who contribute to local and international development, and inspire new volunteers to get involved.

Development-ready professionals

The experience of volunteering overseas provided volunteers with the opportunity to rapidly acquire and consolidate valuable cognitive and interpersonal skills such as cross-cultural communication, leadership and negotiation skills. These were fostered through the challenges of the assignment, such as greater responsibility and limited resources.

These skills have been highlighted as important for future development professionals, and are highly sought after in the job market generally.

In addition, international volunteers left their assignments with deep insights into how development programs and projects are implemented at the grassroots level, and the issues that can arise in their implementation. They also had first-hand experience of the challenges faced by people and communities, and a better understanding of the reality of development issues such as poverty, hunger and inequality.

The research highlighted the “insider knowledge” that international volunteers gained into how aid and development works, as they saw directly how foreign aid contributes in developing communities.

Returned volunteers relied on these insights to support their continued involvement in the development sector.  

“They understand the challenges and opportunities of development work and have a strong foundation for leading and supporting projects and programs,” Krishnan said.

“For example, they understand that broad funding decisions made here can have a very real impact on people and communities overseas.”

This does not mean they are only suited to continuing to work in the international development sector, as Krishnan points out: “If you’ve spent the last 12 months working to support projects with young people at risk overseas, you can take what you’ve learned and the insights that you’ve gained in so many directions. For example, working or volunteering for local charitable or Not for Profit organisations that support refugees and asylum seekers in the Australian community.”

Active citizens

Red Cross’ research also highlighted the busy roles that volunteers take on once they return home, engaging in civic activities such as volunteering, activism or advocacy.

The research found that the international volunteering experience allowed volunteers to see and experience the value of volunteering and how it can foster real change. When they returned home, they were open to getting more involved in community work and other civic activities than they previously had been.  

Many were directly inspired by community issues they experienced while overseas, and sought opportunities to join in with organisations or groups who worked on similar issues once back in Australia.

“There is a ‘snowball effect’ as well,” Krishnan said.

“They use their passion, their knowledge and their experience to get others – friends and family, and even strangers – involved in volunteering.”

Previous research from Australian Red Cross found that international volunteers can inspire local people to get involved in community development when they are overseas. This means that they are able to build volunteering capacity locally and internationally.

Volunteering will play an important role in achieving the SDGs, both locally and globally. The UN has emphasised that sustainable development requires the participation of more than just governments – people everywhere need to be actively and meaningfully engaged, and volunteer groups have a role to play in fostering this.

UN volunteers have said that volunteerism is “the ultimate renewable resource for SDG delivery”, not only as a means of direct support for the implementation of development projects but also in promoting social inclusion and allowing people to participate and engage with the issues being addressed in their own communities.

In this context, building volunteering capacity is essential, and Krishnan suggests that former international volunteers may be invaluable in not only promoting volunteering to others, but also helping others to overcome barriers to volunteering.

“We found that after their international volunteering experience, they felt empowered to actively look for and get involved in volunteer work in Australia. They could be a useful resource to support others who have not volunteered before to get over the initial hurdle of finding and accessing volunteering opportunities,” Krishnan said.

Overall, Red Cross research highlights that international volunteers can be a powerful resource for the sector to draw on in meeting the SDGs, but Krishnan points out that there are supports needed to facilitate this.

“Knowing what an international volunteer provides and recognising their experience is important. International volunteering is a professional experience, not a holiday, and while international development agencies are familiar with the value of international volunteers, local and community development organisations are less aware. We’d like to see greater recognition of their potential locally,” Krishnan said.

The research also highlighted a role for development organisations in fostering this potential, for example through volunteer or internship-based opportunities for returned volunteers to embed what they have learned overseas.

About the author: Dr Jemma Gibcus is a freelance consultant and writer based in Melbourne, most recently working for Australian Red Cross. Her background is in public health research and policy, with a focus on translating research findings into practical policy and public messages.

Dr Jemma Gibcus  |  @ProBonoNews

Dr Jemma Gibcus is a freelance consultant and writer based in Melbourne.

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