Monday, May 17, 2010


A couple of weeks ago the Minister of Gender Youth Sports and Recreation announced the launch of the National Volunteer Youth Corps. It will be funded by the United Nations Development Programme and is set up almost like internships for students to gain skills. When it was introduced in parliament it came under some criticism because opposition parties felt like they were not informed and that selection for the Youth Corps could be along party lines. At first I thought it was just typical political jostling - especially because there was a huge banner hung in the middle of Maseru for weeks prior to the announcement. I don't even live in Maseru and I new about this launch. But it turns out youth groups like this in Africa have a tendency of turning into militias – including a similar youth group in Lesotho in the early 90s that evolved into an intimidation force for the Basotho National Party.

This by itself is an interesting topic, but it isn’t really the reason why it got me to write this post. The article got me thinking about the idea of volunteerism and wondering why people volunteer.

Since high school I have spent time volunteering, mostly as a youth soccer coach. I am not exactly sure why. I do enjoy soccer, so becoming a coach seemed natural. I have always known that it is also good for the resume, but I would not say that this was my main motivation. As well, I enjoy being thought of as someone who volunteers. Knowing that other people know that I volunteer makes me feel good about myself. Maybe it is also because I have a hard time saying no to people.

For my current position I am considered a volunteer I suppose. The current title is development worker, but Skillshare is thinking of changing it to international volunteer. I would have a hard time convincing myself that I am a volunteer though since my ‘stipend’ is pretty close to ten times what the average person living in Lesotho earns.

I am sure that other people volunteer because of similar reasons to what I described. I imagine family also plays a large role. Once you have children and those children become engaged in community activities then some parents will get pulled in. Financial security also plays a role. In North America and Europe there is a correlation between civic service and social class.

Lately I have been giving a lot of thought to why people in Lesotho would choose to volunteer. It seems like volunteering is almost a mandatory undertaking. Many of the organizations working here in Mafeteng including: World Vision, Red Cross, the police, government ministries, community based organization, and other NGOs all employ volunteers. These volunteers are almost always unemployed youth who have just recently finished school – either high school or post secondary studies. The programmes I am working with all involve volunteers – which makes things difficult because white people bring jobs and all I am bringing is a training programme for volunteer youth soccer coaches. I think that at least once a week I have been approached by people looking for employment. I explain to them that my project only involves volunteer soccer coaches. They usually have a hard time believing this and will go on to try and convince me that I can find a position for them in my project. On a side note, I have found that the other thing that white people bring to Lesotho is educational scholarships. I think this is also related to the fact that I am Canadian and CIDA

(the Canadian International Development Agency) has provided funding in the past. So, when I introduce myself as Canadian I am often asked if I can sponsor someone’s education. I have also met a number of people who have studied at Canadian universities or have had siblings study in Canada. The picture I have posted here is of a local primary school. It has CIDA on its sign board, but I haven't asked it the school received funding from CIDA.

Anyways, I’m getting off point.

Why do people in Lesotho choose to volunteer? Culturally the idea of helping others is present. Pre-colonial southern African societies relied on collectivism and mutual aid to meet basic needs. Solidarity and reciprocity are strong cultural beliefs. Colonization may have contributed to the erosion of these beliefs through putting pressure on people to provide (how's that for alliteration?) services to the colonial powers as opposed to their communities. The importance of volunteering in a context that involves such a high prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS is also relevant. One of the things I gained from organizing the Coaching for Hope workshop was learning how much people genuinely want to help their communities deal with the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

However, I feel that for the most part volunteering is done to gain skills and contacts in the hopes of obtaining future employment. When 50% of the population is unemployed and so many people are living in extreme poverty, gaining employment has to be a motivating factor. I believe this is the government’s main reason for establishing the National Youth Volunteer Corps. It seems that most graduating students are forced into volunteer positions, so maybe the government is just trying to formalize this process. Or maybe they are establishing militias in the build up to elections in 2012 – I think they are in 2012.

The issue of what motivates the volunteers that I am working with is fairly important for future recruitment and retention, but I have begun to question the retention of volunteers in my situation. I was reading through an evaluation report of one of the organizations I work with and a problem that they identified was losing volunteers to employment with other NGOs. I would not necessarily view this as a problem. I don’t know how you could expect someone to remain a volunteer when they are unemployed and need money to support themselves and possibly their families.

Because of the perception of white people brining jobs I also wonder how many people have signed up for my programme in the hopes that they will be employed by the project in the future. Some Coaching for Hope employees in South Africa, Mali, and Burkina Faso are former volunteer coaches. I don’t know if the volunteers here in Lesotho know this, but I often wonder if it motivates them.

In a way I am glad that I am not in a position to employ anyone. With so many people unemployed, job searches and employment opportunities take on a greater significance. LENEPWHA just recently received applications and interviewed candidates for a position relating to the project I am working on. I had very little input on who was hired. There was a local project advisory committee that held the interviews and chose the candidates. Some of the volunteers for my soccer programme were applying for this position. Because I was working with LENEPWHA, I believe that they thought that I would be able to help them get the position. I am not sure of their qualifications, but they were not chosen for the final interviews. I think they were quite angry with me and resented the fact that I could not get them the job or even an interview. I could only imagine what it would be like if I actually was responsible for hiring someone.

May 17, 2010

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