The Anthropology of Volunteering and the ‘Public Good‘

The most recent of my active research interests bears the working-title ‘Global Volunteers‘ and  builds on my fieldwork in South Africa, at the same time broadening the thematic and regional focus. The projects starts out from the observation that, in recent decades, the importance of volunteer activities on the African continent has substantially increased, involving not just so-called ‘volunteer tourists‘ from countries of the global North, but also local African people who for one reason or the other engage in volunteerism.                

In recent years I have conducted brief stints of research in this field, mostly concentrating on interactions between local and international volunteers in urban Zambia. Preliminary fieldwork findings make it clear that there are various interesting topics to be explored further. For example, many NGOs in the Zambian health sector are keen to have volunteers from countries of the global North partly because these volunteers often serve as channels for donations and external funding opportunities. Yet many of the young people from these countries, like Germany or the UK, who join these NGOs for a certain period of time, had previously never had to deal with cases of mortal disease. As a consequence, their volunteer work is a stressful experience for them. What I am able to show on the basis of my preliminary research is that, in order not to lose them as volunteers, some Zambian NGOs recruit local volunteers who are secretly entrusted with the task of emotionally stabilizing the international volunteers. In doing so, they establish a new and paradoxical category of volunteer, namely ‘the volunteer who helps other volunteers‘. In South Africa, on the other hand, I witnessed interactions between three different types of volunteer: (a) adolescents from Europe on a gap year who wish to make life-changing experiences in social or ecological work; (b) middle-class ‘white‘ South Africans who want to compensate symbolically for their past involvement in the apartheid system; and (c) economically destitute ‘black‘ men from the townships who hope to be able to enter the job market through volunteer activities. The highly interesting point here is that all of them gather and partly collaborate under the label of ‘volunteering‘ while in fact they have different motivations for doing so and, most importantly, hugely different ideas of what the ‘public good‘ could and should be.     

My first publication on this new topic will appear next year in a volume on voluntarism in Africa edited by Ruth Prince (Cambridge) and Hannah Brown (Durham). This article bears the title ‘Undoing Apartheid Legacies: Volunteering as Repentance and Politics by Other Means‘ and thematizes connections between volunteer activities in South Africa and the volunteers‘ political pasts. By focussing on how these connections are made, the conventional anthropological focus on volunteering is widened substantially. It allows us to take into account the emergence of volunteering out of specific biographies, which are themselves embedded in specific socio-political histories and historical terrains, and that – as a consequence – the volunteers‘ quest for the ‘good‘ not only seeks to repair current wrongs, but sometimes also to right past ones.