[This article was originally placed in the BOND Networker  October – December edition.]

Building schools in rural communities, teaching English in orphanages, taking cold showers and avoiding mosquito bites. Did you start your career with volunteering overseas? If you did, especially if you volunteered with an organisation called SPW, as Restless Development was formerly known – we want to hear from you!

Together with the world of international development, international volunteering has transformed over the past decades. After 30 years of sending UK volunteers to support our projects in Africa and Asia, we are now supporting our volunteers not only to pursue the goals of international development when they are overseas, but to continue their contribution when they are back home. Through being part of our global network, we invite our returned volunteers to engage in campaigning and influence policy and perceptions of international development in the UK. If you want to make an impact in the UK, we want to include you in these efforts.

Last year 494 volunteers from Africa, Asia and the UK worked on a range of programmes focusing on sexual and reproductive health services, skills training programmes, civic education and advocacy training. One of the most common take-aways for our volunteers is the cultural exchange they experience.

As this issue of the Networker emphasises – 2015 is a defining year for UK international development. Decision making is however taking place in a context where UK public support for aid is at an all-time low.[3] BOND’s Finding Frames research explains that despite huge progress in the sector “people in the UK understand and relate to global poverty no differently now than they did in the 1980s.”[4]  

“I learnt a lot from her, not only about her own culture, but about mine too.” Jessica Gray on the Zimbabwean volunteer she worked alongside  [1]

One of the strongest ways to influence public opinion is by bringing compelling, positive stories from the Global South to the UK which articulate the perspective and experience of people living in poorer communities. In a recent Comic Relief led poll, 45% of people responded that they would be likely to change their attitude towards Africa ‘if I heard more good news stories about Africa’ and 45% ‘if I went to Africa and saw what’s happening with my own eyes’.

“It’s a commonplace observation, but the volunteering experience tends to be much richer for the young person going out from the UK or Europe than it is for the communities that receive them, which gives you an obligation when you return to do something to work on these issues, to keep that experience in mind in whatever else it is that you do, and thereafter.”  Jamie Drummond, Co-Founder of ONE, who volunteered with us in 1989 in Southern India.[2]

Volunteers feel their experience gives them a better understanding, the legitimacy, right and obligation to speak about poverty, social justice and development and they may be able to draw on examples that they have witnessed.[6]

Volunteers are already crucial to our programmes on increasing the UK government’s knowledge of the priorities of young people around the world and raising youth voices of the Global South. This past year alone returned volunteers acted as youth communicators at several education and Post-2015 conferences globally, ensuring that youth views were heard and conference messages were projected out to youth audiences. Volunteers are not only to be found in the conference hall but in their communities too. Here they are encouraging their networks to write to MPs, taking part in street campaigning and highlighting the effect EU trade policy has on access to medicines in the battle to stop AIDS.

“People often think that poor people are poor because they don’t work hard enough. Anyone who goes to a developing country will see that they do and that they want the same as us – for their children to get an education and for their family to be healthy. Returned volunteers can make it clear that the problems ensuring that poor people are poor are structural and not because poor people do not work hard enough.” Barbara Stocking, former Chief Executive of Oxfam GB and Trustee for Restless Development.[5]

We believe that the UKs vast overseas volunteer alumni networks are currently a hugely underutilised resource in the sector. We want to tap into the power that volunteer alumni have and offer them the opportunity to continue to work towards a more equal world. Looking to the future our network will continue to shape Post-2015 goals and then play a key role in implementing them too.

“Never has it been more relevant for our alumni to get back involved, in whatever way they can. We have thousands of young people working on international development, reaching hundreds of thousands of their peers week in week out and they need support, ideas, investment, expertise and networks to make this global movement led by young people a reality.” Nik Hartley, CEO for Restless Development


[1] We Are Restless blog post
[2] Interview with Jamie Drummond on the 28th of February 2014
[3] BOND Finding Frames Research
[4] BOND Finding Frames Research
[5] Interview with Barbara Stocking on the 28th of August 2014
[6] Restless Development Voices for Development programme Mid Term Evaluation



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