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Exploring the Limits of Participatory Development: An Ethnography of Volunteering Practices by the ‘Poor’

Fri, July 13, 11:00am to 12:30pm, Room, 10A 33


It has been argued that community participation – for instance, through volunteering – allows the ‘poor’ to reposition themselves from being recipients of development programmes to becoming ‘development workers’ who help make development ‘happen’ (Gillette, 2003; Lukka & Paine, 2001). This assumption seems to be underpinned by tenets of participatory development. This discourse of development suggests that individual and/or community participation – especially of those that are marginalized and powerless – can foster ownership, sustainability and lead to their empowerment (Chambers, 2005; Mohan, 2014; White, 1996).

This presentation seeks to interrogate seemingly simplistic assumptions on the links between volunteering and participatory development. To do this, I will present early findings from a 10-month ethnography of volunteering practices of ‘poor’ youths and adults in the Philippines from June 2017 to April 2018. Two voluntary organisations were chosen as cases: an informal settlers’ association (ISA) working towards land tenure and a youth-driven organisation focusing on adolescents’ sexual and reproductive health (ASRH) including HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness. These preliminary findings are discussed in the light of conceptual critiques on the rise of the ‘participatory’ rhetoric within development (Cooke and Kothari, 2001; Guijt and Shah, 2008).

Early analysis has shown various challenges that limit participation among the volunteers. While motivated, some have difficulty in funding their own transportation and meals during the conduct of various activities. For those who have paid work and are breadwinners in the family, the time for volunteering often competes with time for earning income – eliciting negotiation and compromise that extends to other members of the family. Often bureaucratic and technical reporting processes set up by the government (in the case of the ISA) and by funding agencies and NGOs (in the case of the ASRH group) are often confusing and poorly-mediated. These circumstances affect the quality of participation – creating an environment where volunteers simply ‘follow’ what the government requires or that they work to ‘deliver the numbers’ needed for a funded project.

These findings will be further analysed as the study progresses. However, it potentially supports previous studies that have highlighted how participation through volunteering is not a straightforward, one-way process and may even counterintuitively disempower the ‘poor’ or place them at an even more disadvantage (Banerjea, 2011; Jenkins, 2008; Lewis, 2015; Turner, 2015). These ideas invite volunteers, development workers, policymakers and academics to reflect on whether and how a particular involvement, for instance through volunteering, is truly participatory.