Pauline Kibo, currently specialising in institutional capacity building in the areas of health and HIV/AIDS, shared her experiences, with entertaining and lively examples of things volunteers like her do.
Speaking at a public event on 2 December, organised by VSO International, the world’s leading independent international development organisation that works with volunteers to fight poverty, Kibo used two examples from her recent work in Malawi, to illustrate the idea that volunteers are “agents of change”.
Kibo, who is Kenyan, said she was one of the many thousands of volunteers sent out by VSO to different development contexts. Back in 2010, she was dispatched by the East African branch of VSO to Malawi, as part of an organisation called the Baptist Convention of Malawi (BACOMA).
Her assignment was to build the institutional capacity of this organisation’s secretariat, and improve its work with its 10,000 member churches, most of them located in very poor parts of the country. Kibo worked on improving community responses to HIV/AIDS. One of her tasks was to liaise with the volunteers in the local communities and improve their skills.
One of the things Kibo found was that BACOMA didn’t have a strategic plan. Kibo explained that she needed to know what their priority areas were. She had an assignment period of two years, and wanted to prioritise her responsibilities
BACOMA said: “But you tell us, you are the skilled person who has brought in to help us.” Kibo was informed that their objective was to tap into the development aid resources that were available within the country.
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Kibo found that each time she had to travel for her work, she was told by the head of BACOMA that they didn’t have petty cash.
“It wasn’t a lot. I asked, ‘Why don’t you have petty cash?’”
Then Kibo realised that the organisation never had petty cash, nor a policy on petty cash. So, she explained, it wasn’t difficult to decide how much petty cash could be kept in the organisation, and get more when it was next to exhausted.
But then she was informed that to release funds for cash, all of the signatories to the account needed to sign, and they were located in quite distant places from each other.
So, Kibo said to the head of BACOMA, “Let’s sit down and write a petty cash policy.”
Kibo said it was not possible to engage in capacity building without organisation strengthening. In her words, volunteers like her were acting as “agents of change” who wished to bring their findings to policymakers
She also gave an example illustrating that volunteers could do specific work in areas where development professionals or official representatives had no access. She told of her experience in undertaking a study of Malawi’s gay community, and HIV/AIDS, a country where people can be jailed for life for disclosing their homosexuality.
“This is not something you can do by requesting permission to the Ministry of Health,” Kibo explained.
The research was eventually conducted using volunteers among the gay community to collect the necessary data, which wasn’t an easy task either, because of the risks involved.
VSO Chief Executive Jim Emerson, said his organisation was focused on delivering sustainable development results through volunteer work. Over the past 50 years VSO has placed more than 40,000 volunteers of 90 nationalities in 90 different countries, he said.
He said VSO had started getting evidence that volunteer work was delivering value, together with the Institute of Development Studies in Brighton (UK), with “very participative” research in Kenya, Mozambique, Nepal and the Philippines. A report is expected in January, and he shared some of its key findings.
The most significant discovery is that VSO can demonstrate that volunteering can make a significant contribution in building human capital, Emerson said. Many innovative solutions came out from the contacts between the volunteers and the communities they are assigned to, he stressed.
Also, volunteers make a significant contribution in reaching the poorest and the most marginalised. Volunteers are often placed in the most remote places, Emerson said.
The report, Emerson said, would be used in two ways. Internally, it would be of great use to VSO as an organisation, so that it could learn from its own experience. Secondly, VSO would like to bring the findings to the attention of policymakers and international organisations, hopefully timely in the context of the preparation of the post-2015 agenda.