Time for a volunteer policy in South Africa? [1]

By Helene Perold

Throughout the world, there is growing interest among national and regional governments in the development of national and youth volunteerism schemes and policies to support their national development objectives.

African nations are examining ways to engage their large populations of youth to help address human capacity gaps and to increase the employability of youth. A number of countries in Asia recognise the significant role volunteers play and are developing national volunteer movements to facilitate an effective link between interested volunteers and successful placements with volunteer involving organisations. In Latin America, thousands of university volunteers are serving throughout the countryside helping to address national Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). And in Eastern Europe, community volunteers are active in local participatory development groups, linking with local officials to provide community voice in governance and to prioritise and address community needs, such as access to electricity, clean water, and improved schools (Chao, 2007).

In the African context, volunteering was recognised in article 11.2h of the African Youth Charter, which was officially launched at the Fifth African Development Forum (ADF-V) in November 2006 in Addis Ababa:

“The States Parties in the existing charter shall take the following measures to promote active youth participation in society: They shall institute policy and programmes of youth volunteering at local, national, regional and international levels as an important form of youth participation in governance and development of the continent and as a means of peer-to-peer training.”

Article 15.4h recommends:

“The member states in the existing charter shall institute national youth service programmes to engender community participation and skills development for entry into the labour market.”

Towards a volunteer policy in South Africa
What is to be gained by working towards the development of a volunteering policy in South Africa?

Work done by the Cape Town Volunteer Centre suggests that public policy on volunteering is important in that:

  • it increases the effectiveness of volunteers;
  • raises their status and profile within the setting they work in;
  • acknowledges their rights and responsibilities;
  • promotes uniformity and quality of standards for all volunteer activities;
  • provides continuity over time;
  • ensures that appropriate systems are put in place for volunteer management and support; and
  • minimises risks and undesirable consequences (Cape Town Volunteer Centre, 2006).

In February 2006, Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) South Africa published a draft Task Team report compiled on the basis of a detailed consultative process conducted across all nine provinces to assess what mechanisms are needed to “ensure the proper support, management and protection of volunteers” (VSO 2006:5).

“Working guidelines were developed for a national policy on volunteering in South Africa, and the consultation produced a better understanding of the “gaps, needs and challenges facing the volunteer sector and the proposed working interventions towards the development of a national strategy for the volunteer sector in the country” (Ibid). The report also identified local, provincial and national volunteering networks in the country.

The Task Team identified the need for:

  • the development of policy baselines/guidelines for the volunteer sector to ensure that there is uniformity in the management of volunteers across the country;
  • accredited volunteer recruitment and management procedures;
  • the establishment of a volunteer database;
  • the development of formal structures with the primary objective of improving the co-ordination of volunteers around key activities as well as facilitating better resource sharing amongst partners in a given area;
  • the development of a national framework consisting of programme activities that span beyond the local and provincial levels and begin to redress major social issues at the national level; and
  • the development of stronger links between the volunteer sector, government and faith-based organisations.

These recommendations are in line with proposals made at the Fifth African Development Forum (November 2006, Addis Ababa) at which it was recommended that governments should enact legislation to promote and protect volunteering, including youth volunteering, and facilitate the development of accredited training opportunities for volunteer managers through the education and training system.

However, that forum also suggested that governments should:

  • ensure that policy frameworks are in place to guide the direction, planning and resource allocation for programmes that support youth volunteering for development;
  • factor youth volunteering and service into national development priorities and strategies;
  • allocate resources to youth volunteering strategies and structures within national budgeting cycles and processes (e.g. provide funding for volunteer infrastructure e.g. volunteer centres and staff);
  • monitor and assess youth volunteering programmes so as to gain firsthand knowledge of their impact and to tap youth perspectives on development;
  • develop awareness of youth volunteering for development; and
  • encourage research institutes and higher education bodies to undertake research on youth volunteering for development (UNV, 2006).

Caution: It’s a fine balance
While a volunteer policy can do a great deal to promote the scale and quality of volunteering, especially among youth, there is the risk of regulation stifling on-the-ground initiatives that are often the lifeblood of community action.

Research from Latin American countries, for example, cautions that any legislation on volunteering should be approached with care, should involve all social partners in a participative and inclusive process of policy formulation, and should take into consideration the social and cultural make-up of the country and the governance systems in place (Perold & Tapia, 2007).

Furthermore, the development of a policy framework for youth volunteering should be closely linked into a country’s youth policy framework.

A policy framework for volunteering thus needs to be forged in consultation with civil society and other relevant stakeholders so that it is aligned with real needs and possibilities. It should create an enabling environment for volunteering in which ‘a thousand flowers can bloom’ and should not create constraints for community-based organisations that have few resources, but are well-placed to deploy volunteers at local level in respect of targeted development needs. Policy frameworks should also plan for policy impact (Perold et al, 2007).

In exploring the appropriate role of policy and legislation in fostering volunteering, it is important to bear the following in points mind.

  • Firstly, according to United Nations Volunteers (UNV) (2004), laws and statutes alone cannot fully define the environment for volunteerism. Volunteerism succeeds because of the wish of citizens to make a contribution to the development of their own communities. If legislation is drafted with the purpose of control, instead of facilitation, the spirit of volunteering would be harmed and its purpose would be distorted.
    This suggests that a country’s approach to public policy is as important to fostering of volunteering as is any specific volunteer policy framework. VOSESA’s research shows that in the context of an active and vibrant civil society, volunteering and service will also flourish.

  • Secondly, UNV (2004) argues that parliamentary action should aim to ensure that laws with specific purposes do not restrict opportunities for the enhancement of an enabling volunteer environment. Government should ensure that principles supporting volunteerism are understood and appreciated throughout all spheres of government, including at local level where the greatest impact can be made.

Guidelines for policy development
VOSESA’s five-country cross-national study (Patel, Perold, Carapinha & Mohamed, 2007) has provided some significant insights that could shape an approach to the development of volunteer policy.

Firstly, we found that where government policies incorporated the service ethos in national policies and plans and where service was partly institutionalised, valued by society and given visibility and public support, programmes seemed to flourish. This finding is in line with a position advocated by UNV viz. that volunteer and youth service programmes on their own do not necessarily contribute effectively to sustainable development. Good governance and a drive for democracy are critical success factors for youth participation; and even where these are present, the impact of youth volunteering and youth service programmes depend squarely on inter-governmental co-operation, public/private partnerships, volunteer programme design and structure, the procedures whereby young people are assigned to projects, and the capacity with which programmes are managed (UNV, 2006:5).

Secondly, the nature and scope of volunteering and service correlated positively with the size of the voluntary sector. The Zimbabwe country research demonstrated clearly that where a government views service and the voluntary sector as a threat, the sector does not thrive.

Thirdly, community ownership was enhanced where volunteers came from local communities. This emerged as an important factor contributing to the success of the programmes and to building social capital and community assets.

VOSESA’s research cited the absence of a comprehensive policy and guidelines on service and volunteering as a factor that impedes the development of the voluntary service sector. It also found that the lack of management and administrative capacity and inadequate monitoring of programmes and supervision are challenges to the development of a strong, vibrant voluntary sector that can make an impact on development challenges.

If South Africa is to take up the challenge of seriously up-scaling volunteering, particularly among youth, it surely is time to start work on a volunteer policy framework.

African Union (AU) (2006) The African Youth Charter. Addis Ababa: African Union.

Chao M (2007) Connecting research and policies on voluntarism for development. Address given to a workshop on Shaping Policy for Voluntary Service through Research. European Parliament. Brussels, June 2007.

Patel L, Perold H, Carapinha R and Mohamed SE (2007) Five Country Study on Service and Volunteering in Southern Africa. Research report submitted to the Global Service Institute at the Centre for Social Development, Washington University in St Louis, USA.

Perold H, Carapinha R and Mohamed SM (2007) ‘Civic Service Policy in South Africa.’ In Patel L and Mupedziswa R (eds) (2007) Research Partnerships Build the Service Field in Africa: Special Issue on Civic Service in the Southern African Development Community, Johannesburg: Volunteer and Service Enquiry Southern Africa, The Social Work Practitioner-Researcher, Journal of Social Development in Africa. A joint Special Issue of The Social Work Practitioner-Researcher, University of Johannesburg and the Journal of Social Development in Africa, School of Social Work, University of Zimbabwe.

Perold H and Tapia MN (eds) (2007) Service Enquiry: Civic Service and Volunteering in Latin America and the Caribbean. Second Edition. Buenos Aires: Centro Latinoamericano de Aprendizaje y Servicio Solidario, Johannesburg: Volunteer and Service Enquiry Southern Africa, Washington University St Louis: The Center for Social Development, Washington DC, Innovations in Civic Participation. Available at: www.service-enquiry.org.za.

UNV (United Nations Volunteers) (2004) Volunteerism and Legislation: A guidance note. A joint publication of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and UN Volunteers.

UNV (2006) Youth Volunteering for Development: Discussion Paper. Fifth African Development Forum. November 2006, Addis Ababa.

Volunteer Centre Cape Town (2006) Draft Provincial Volunteer Policy, Western Cape: Discussion Document, not for circulation.

VSO South Africa (2006) National Volunteering Task Team Report. Johannesburg: VSO.

[1] This article is extracted from an address given by Helene Perold, Executive Director of VOSESA, to the National Youth Indaba convened by the Department of Health in Kimberley, South Africa, June 2007.