6 Responses

  1. Sam Byfield
    Sam Byfield May 27, 2014 at 1:48 pm

    Hi Ashlee,

    An interesting post. As a former AYAD (circa 2007-08), i can empathise with a number of your points.

    On capacity building – as my own career has progressed, it’s become increasingly evident that ‘capacity building’ is a medium-long term ambition. And volunteer roles are partly defined by being relatively short term. Seeing any tangible outcomes in 6-12 months is in many/most cases a pretty unrealistic expectation. What you actually get, assuming the volunteer has both the skillset and organisational support to do any ‘capacity building’ (two big ‘if’s), is a series of short term outputs – training sessions, ‘mentoring’ sessions, edited/translated documents etc. With volunteer roles focusing on capacity building, it strikes me that this is only going to be both effective and sustainable if it’s part of a broader institutional engagement (ie between DFAT, host-org, and partner org). By being part of a broader strategy, volunteer roles can be both responsive to what’s happened before, and help lay the groundwork for what’s going to happen afterwards. I suspect this would entail a more cohesive, long term approach than is currently the case.

    Capacity building should also be regarded as a distinct skill, and one that your average 25-29 year old volunteer probably hasn’t been exposed to much previously. There are a range of different approaches that can be taken. If we’re serious about this part of volunteer assignments, than it might make sense that specific training is provided for all volunteers on how to design and deliver capacity building activities. A few years sitting behind a desk in Canberra, or doing a Masters in development studies, probably isn’t very good preparation for having to build the capacity of staff/an organisation in an environment very different in terms of culture, language and resources. From my experience, a focus on tangible skills during the Canberra-based training or in-country orientation might be far more beneficial than the more generic introductions they usually entail, particularly for those volunteers who already have experience in that country or more broadly in aid/development.

  2. Jonathan Pryke
    Jonathan Pryke May 23, 2014 at 11:16 am


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  3. Ian Fenton
    Ian Fenton May 22, 2014 at 8:12 pm

    Volunteer programs with various hosts working in different contexts in the same region often face a myriad of problems. The fact is that an array of different organisations of varying capacity and competency are engaging with an individual (obviously also unique) to engage in some form of mutual cooperation or assistance. The very nature of this relationship is obviously based on goodwill. When it comes to achieving more positive results beyond goodwill relationships I think program officers on the ground have a massive role to play. This role comes down to managing and sometimes controlling the expectations of a host organisation, while also ensuring that the actions of a volunteer are in line with facilitating an organisation to achieve its goals without stepping outside the bounds of what the organisers (AVID or otherwise) are capable of and within their directive to do. Paid individuals on the ground who are supported, active and not overworked I think are the absolute key to ensuring that issues on the ground are dealt with promptly and resolutely. Their ability to manage relationships between two hugely different parties with no doubt usually incongruent expectations is the first step to improving results beyond just goodwill. These are professional positions and should be well filled and also well paid, because if the person who does this job does it well it is work that can have widely reverberating positive effects.

  4. Anonymous AVID
    Anonymous AVID May 22, 2014 at 5:54 pm

    I’m not entirely certain on the purpose of this commentary. It seems confused, still hoping to leverage the discussion generated in its previous iterations, yet without anything new to add to the conversation.

    If we’re going to continue to critique the volunteer program, let’s start by discussing what the practical options are to remove some of the barriers to its effectiveness.

    Move to a model whereby all volunteers are managed in country by a single contractor. Streamline the in-country management program. One In-Country Manager, the addition of junior or short-term support officer positions for volunteers who have completed assignments in country and are now at a loose end, and increase the number of country staff. Free up the money, ensure advice and support given to volunteers is consistent, assignments are designed and evaluated consistently, and continuous improvement mechanisms are able to function.

    Stripping back formal expectations will do little to improve the volunteer program. If anything, assignments should have more measurable, realistic and tangible objectives, and host organisations as well as volunteers should be accountable for them.

    Much of the problem with assignments that do not work out has less to do with a breakdown in the ‘feedback loop’, and more to do with how that assignment was created in the first place.

    Successful assignments are based in Host Organisations with a history of successful volunteer assignments. Not surprisingly, HOs with a history of volunteers who terminated assignments early are less likely to be able to turn this trend around. Moreover, placing young, inexperienced volunteers in generalised roles such as ‘development officer’ or ‘policy officer’ and telling them their goal is to ‘capacity build’ is going to overwhelmingly result in disappointment for all involved.

    In-country contractors developing and creating assignments with HOs must be accountable for the assignments they create. Does a pre-advertising evaluation of assignments created take place at the moment? And if so, how?
    Contractors need an incentive to be accountable for the assignments they create, and to critically evaluate the reasons assignments are not working.

    Why is another assignment being advertised at this HO when the 3 assignments before this have not worked?

    Why is an assignment with lofty and unrealistic deliverables being advertised in the first place?

    If we place a young, single, female in this remote location without direct access to ready support networks, what are her chances of being successful?
    Too often these questions are not revisited.

    Volunteers should be expected to meet professional and formal expectations such as KPIs. Not only is this valuable experience, but I would argue a volunteer will have even more motivation, empowerment and impetus to find solutions to struggling assignments when treated as a professional in their field, rather than a foreign ‘do-gooder’ muddling around in entry-level development work.

    Telling volunteers to ‘rip up assignment descriptions’ is not helpful.

    Volunteers need to be able to be flexible enough to re-evaluate the objectives of their assignment within the context and capacity of their host organisation once they understand it. They need to understand that most assignments do not have any traction until the 6-8 month point, when the volunteer is fully embedded in the organisation. They need to feel supported to raise any serious barriers to assignment success with their HO well before assignments reach a critical point and are terminated. Issues should be raised with HOs as a first step before they are taken back to ICMs. Volunteers should have access to proper policies outlining grievance procedures and what is expected of them.

    And ultimately, I think we should re-evaluate the use of the ‘volunteer’ at all. I’d much rather simply be part of the “Australians for development” program. The term ‘volunteer’ just muddies the waters.

  5. Jo Spratt
    Jo Spratt May 22, 2014 at 11:07 am

    Hey there Ash,

    A great post and an interesting read. It is so important to hear thoughtful reflection from people such as yourself, who have experienced these things and had time to synthesise learnings.

    One thing the evaluation, Stephen’s blogs and yours all highlight to me is the problem caused by a neglect to define ‘capacity development’ in the early stages of any intervention, or in this case, volunteer placement. As you suggest, coming to shared expectations is essential. I would think this would involve arriving at a shared meaning for what capacity development means in relation to any particular intervention. I worked on a reasonably large project that actually had ‘capacity building’ in its title but had no in-built, articulated concept of what capacity building meant in terms of the project and what was realistic to achieve. This caused so many challenges along the way. For example, what I thought were successes in capacity development were not necessarily viewed as such by others involved in the project because they were looking at things from a different idea of capacity development. (This was particularly so because I saw the loss of some ‘capacities’ as a success.)

    So I don’t think ditching capacity development is necessarily the way to go, because I think it has use as a concept and an approach. Rather, I think a useful way forward is much as you suggest – for any activity, creating a shared understanding of what capacity and its development means for the people involved (particularly the host organisation), and what change might look like. This might actually mean just having an individual fill a role for a time.

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