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close this bookVolunteer Participation in Working with the Urban Poor (UNDP - UNV, 64 p.)
close this folderV. Principles and characteristics of volunteer use
View the documentFunctions and volunteers
View the documentQualities of VDWs
View the documentTeams
View the documentSkill requirements and experiences
View the documentSelection and placement process
View the documentAcculturation and language training process

Functions and volunteers

The needs and concerns of each particular urban low-income group vary widely. The appropriate role of VDWs, including UN Volunteers, likewise would be varied and multi-dimensional and include the promotion and strengthening of local organisations, as well as providing some degree of institutional, managerial and technical skills. The potential functions of VDWs are along the following lines:

- Organisers and Animators: In some cases, communities themselves have initiated and sustained projects entirely through their own efforts. In most other cases, however, external catalysing agents play an important role in initiating and consolidating the development process, or accelerating what otherwise would have taken much longer to evolve.

- Trainers: VDWs are especially useful as trainers, which involves imparting managerial, administrative and technical skills to CBOs as well as NGOs.

- Resource Mobilisers: As individuals whose mobility and access to networks makes them ideal resource persons, VDWs play a key role in assisting communities to obtain funding and other support for their projects, as well as secure access to services.

- Intermediaries: VDWs have an important intermediatory role to play in promoting communication and understanding between CBOs and governments, especially local governments. VDWs work with CBOs and NGOs in establishing links with international development agencies so that micro and macro level development schemes are more closely coordinated.

The roles described above would necessarily function at different levels. In order to operate effectively in an intermediatory capacity, for example, VDWs need to be involved with work at various levels -communities, municipalities and state - in different capacities.

- Community Level: At the community level, VDWs must work with, or through, existing CBOs and NGOs to carry out their functions as animators, organisers or trainers, as described above.

- Municipal Level: Because local governments are in a strategic position to assist low-income urban communities, VDWs could play a key role in developing links between these levels. In addition, VDWs may assist municipal level governments in building capacity to effectively complement community-based self-help initiatives. This assistance could emphasise skills in mobilisation of resources and organisation in providing for needs and concerns to improve the current ad-hoc manner of distributing scarce and inadequate services.

- State Level: At the State level, it is important to work towards creating a policy environment conducive to meeting the needs and concerns of communities. VDWs could assist in building capacity to provide basic services and extend infrastructure support to low-income urban communities. This could involve a traditional role for VDWs, in technical cooperation schemes, or an advocacy role, in sensitising governments to the needs of communities and ways to develop policies and programmes as required.

Qualities of VDWs

As repeated and emphasised often throughout this text, the urban situation in developing countries varies widely, and the qualities required of VDWs to work in programmes differ accordingly. It is difficult, therefore, to produce a general profile of VDWs to work in the urban context. Further, the type of intervention required will dictate different qualities needed in project teams -such as the level at which the VDW works (community, municipal or state level, or with an NGO). Nevertheless, we can outline several characteristics of VDWs which are key to ensuring that their assistance is appropriate:

- Human Qualities: Pre-disposition to volunteer commitment, with a positive outlook: the ability to listen; open-mindedness and flexibility; and a willingness to share problems and work in urban areas regardless of obstacles. These qualities may in many cases be more important than academic qualifications. Knowledge of the local language, and rural and urban sociology are also essential.

- Organisational Skills: Capacity to play the role of an animator; knowledge of how to strengthen the administrative and managerial capacity of CBOs and NGOs; and the ability to mobilise resources.

- Specialised and Technical Skills: Capacity to communicate at various levels (i.e. community, AGO, national and international); technical skills of relevance to low-income urban communities such as housing, infrastructure, health, education, etc.

Depending on the intervention envisaged and the national capacity available, it is likely that a range of volunteer types will be used in support schemes. This could include international, regional, national, and community volunteers.

In order to meet the very high level of challenges represented by conditions in low-income urban communities, and to cope with the many different specialisations of relevance, it may be desirable to adopt a team approach, whereby several VDWs working together could pool their respective skills in order to achieve the set objectives.


The inter-sectoral nature of the many concerns of low-income urban communities implies that VDWs working in a single area of specialisation may only, at best, make a small contribution to meeting their needs. For interventions to be comprehensive and responsive, there must be a coordination of activities at local, municipal and national levels. The experience points to the synergistic process of linking activities in housing, health, education and income-generation at different levels. In situations where a VSA has decided to work through both government and non-government/community group delivery channels, a team approach may help to facilitate closer coordination and an improved understanding among the different levels and institutions involved.

A three-tiered structure of personnel support may function well in a variety of situations: local organisers from within a CBO or local NGO; VDWs; and more specialised or higher-level personnel from local governments, or from project teams supported by international aid agencies. In cases where immediate government links are not required, the three tiers could be the CBO, the NGO and the VSA.

VDWs should be fielded, therefore, not as individuals, but as members of a team, which could take on various forms:

- a team comprising a balance of external animators and professional-technical specialists, responding to an analysis of the situation, needs and potentials of the low-income urban communities; or

- a team comprising international VDWs operating in partnership with national VDWs from the cooperating NGOs or community groups, or in partnership with officers of cooperating government agencies.

Community volunteers, as individuals who are well-versed with the local landscape and well-endowed with the respect of local communities, would also be an integral part of these projects.

Skill requirements and experiences

The standards of professional qualifications and operational competence required of VDWs are demanding, as are the range of situations in which they will be required to work. VDWs must have appropriate and substantial experience in and area of specialisation, as well as pre-project training to ensure that interventions are effective and sensitive to the concerns of the communities they serve. The political nature of action involving low-income urban groups means that VDW work in this area will be closely monitored by governments, international organisations as well as community groups themselves. In addition, the growing priority accorded to this work by development assistance organisations might provoke governments to increase their involvement in, or control of, the endeavours of NGOs and community self-help groups. This area of work, then, is unsuitable for novice VDWs.

Selection and placement process

As mentioned above, volunteers would be mobilised locally, regionally and internationally to assist in interventions. This would allow for the development of networks of assistance and greater sharing of skills and know-how in South-South, North-South, and even South-North directions.

These are community processes and methods of addressing needs and concerns which must be shared between communities, so that these approaches may be adapted to local needs as appropriate. There is also greater possibility for more South-to-North exchanges, whereby more advanced NGOs and community groups from the South could send VDWs to projects with co-workers in the North.

The selection and placement of volunteers should take into account the dynamics of the organisation with which they will be working, the needs of the community, the nature of the intervention, as well as relevant cultural factors, which should be reflected in a detailed job-description. When possible, the selection of UNVs should be made by the in-country organisation with which they will be working.

Acculturation and language training process

Most interventions will consist of a variety of community, national and international VDWs. Living and working in communities, usually for two to three years, makes it mandatory that VDWs are fully aware of the socio-economic and cultural setting of the community. Community and national volunteers bring with them the advantage that they are already well-versed in the context of their own country. For international VDWs, however, language training and acculturation may be necessary, and VSAs should plan accordingly. A mixed-team approach to projects also mitigates the problems of language barriers.

It is important to keep in mind, however, two operational principles relevant to acculturation:

(i) community organisations and NGOs frequently have a limited capacity to accept, internalise and act upon externally introduced ideas, programmes and strategies; and

(ii) this capacity may be further constrained by the lack of formal education of most or many community members, as well as any residue of negative experience with "outsiders" who may be in positions of power.

Consequently, VDWs should adjust their pace according to the capacity of the community group or NGO with whom they are cooperating. In addition, communities themselves have a considerable store of practice wisdom to offer, which may complement the work of VDWs. This point was eloquently illustrated by one of the long-serving expatriate workers of the Undugu Society of Kenya:

"In an NGO, the only way to address the root cause of poverty is by giving people confidence in their capacities in solving their problems. People should realise that development starts in their minds, not from the money they get. If people want to change, they can, since they have the capacity, the intelligence and the opportunities."