On December 5, we celebrate the International Volunteer Day, an international observance designated by the United Nations since 1985. On this special day, volunteer organizations and individual volunteers worldwide celebrate and recognize volunteerism, and make visible their contributions – at local, national and international levels – to the achievement of development driven by the people.
This year, I will celebrate the International Volunteer Day with the High Atlas Foundation, which is founded by former Peace Corps Volunteers. At the beginning of November, I started my one-year voluntary service with HAF in the framework of the Youth in Action programme funded by the European Commission. I am supporting the implementation and development projects in Essaouira, helping HAF with partnership- and capacity-building and promoting HAF’s important work through social media. This one-year voluntary service is an important learning experience for me. It offers me the practical experiences that I was lacking during my Masters in development studies, and it will enhance my professional skills and competences within this field.
But what is the role of a volunteer in development? This is arguably the most strategic question I will address during the coming year. The philosophical answer to the question seems simple: the role of the volunteer is to help people help themselves. But what does this mean in terms of my daily life and work with the High Atlas Foundation here in Morocco? Through what actions can I help empower people to build their capacity and make decisions for themselves? How will I know if I’m focusing on what the people themselves determine to be important? And how can I make a real difference in people’s lives when the term of my voluntary service is only one year? These are but a few of the questions that reveal both the challenge and the immense potential of the role of a volunteer in development.
There is a tendency – particularly from the perspective of industrialized nations – to view development as a finite project that addresses specific needs such as health, education, housing, income, and so on. Certain inputs are supposed to produce quantifiable results during a specific time frame. Often we assume the beneficiaries cannot achieve these objectives on their own and therefore we do it for them. We might build their schools and houses, and think that providing them with material goods (computers, construction supplies, machinery, transportation means) will improve their lives. What we often fail to realize is that development is a process, not a project. It is a learning process in which the people involved developing skills, knowhow, confidence, and the ability to identify and address their own issues.
As a process, development sometimes moves painfully slowly and goes through different phases leading to higher levels of skills, efforts, and achievements over time. When it is working well, it expands opportunities for people to fulfill their basic needs and achieve their aspirations for a better life. My role as a volunteer, then, is to join my community in its learning process, serving as teacher and student, facilitator and participant. As I assist others in building their capacity, I will strengthen my own abilities in ways that today I might not imagine possible.
Besides that, international volunteers can play an important role in these times which are marked by the rise of conflicts and intolerance at all levels. Volunteers can help to convey a different image of a country and people. Thanks to their knowledge of the host country, international volunteers can break the vicious circle of stereotyping and fight against prejudices and racism. This voluntary service with HAF gives me the opportunity to go into dialogue with the Moroccan people and deepen my own self-exploration, to learn about the Moroccan way of living and the rich diversity within this country, and to play my part in building toward a better world. It will give me the chance to experience and promote the values of volunteering. Stay tuned!
Joke Van Dooren – Project Assistant, Essaouira