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Reflections | Volunteering and Global Citizenship Conference 2023

To make a sustainable impact, volunteering must be respectful and for all

After a global pandemic that stopped international travel and then made it more expensive, rising concern about climate change and global emissions, and a challenging debate about decolonisation have all affected international volunteering opportunities for young people.

So the McConnell International Foundation, with support from the Scottish Government, gathered people on line from across the Global South, including from Scotland’s partner countries of Malawi, Rwanda and Zambia, with people from Scotland and the rest of the UK to discuss the role of volunteering and school partnerships in sustainable development. We heard from interesting speakers, including Alliance Chief Executive Frances Guy, Amy Earnshaw Blake and Ross McKenzie of Challenges Worldwide, and VSO’s Global Youth Engagement Officer Anne Kahuria.

Our starting point was that volunteering is a good thing, our challenge was how to make it better. And there are, for me, three key principles underpinning international volunteering. The first is that encouraging young people to travel is the right thing to do, so that they understand the world better, whether they are travelling from the North to the South, or from South to North.

The second, which is critical, is that volunteering must be carried out in an atmosphere of mutual respect and for the mutual benefit of all concerned. Our aim should be not only to nurture global citizenship, but to sometimes leave a good legacy too.

And the third principle is that access to volunteering opportunities must be equitable. Volunteering cannot be only for those who can afford the opportunity. Many young people are lucky to have the personal resources and family support to travel the world. But these opportunities must exist for everybody – whether a young person in the Global South, or a disadvantaged youngster in the UK. Many organisations including VSO recognise this, but we must do more to make international volunteering accessible to all.

My co-host for the event, Hon. Vera Kamtukule, Malawi’s Minister for Tourism, highlighted the partnership between Scotland and Malawi. She pointed out that the civil society links between the two countries, including volunteering programmes and school partnerships, are based on mutual respect and friendship.

Frances Guy shared some strong principles:

  • Volunteering benefits the community and the volunteer
  • Volunteering is not a substitute for paid work
  • Volunteers do not replace paid workers nor constitute a threat to the job security of paid workers
  • Volunteering respects the rights, dignity and culture of others.
  • Volunteering promotes human rights and equality.

And I was particularly struck by the contribution from VSO’s Anne Kahuria who said that it was essential to have a set of agreed standards for volunteering. Working with 150 organisations from across the globe VSO published the Global Standard for Volunteering for Development in 2019. Anne described it as a useful tool to help organisations and governments around the world ensure that people can volunteer responsibly, and with respect. VSO’s free Global Volunteering Standard platform helps organisations and individuals put the standard into practice.

Gift Thompson, speaking from Blantyre in Malawi, described how he and his friends took part in structured dialogues with young people from Scotland during their educational trips to Malawi. He spoke about the importance of learning from each other, and perhaps even changing behaviours and attitudes. He cited the environment as a positive example and of his hope that when young Scots see first-hand the impact of climate change on sub-Saharan Africa they will change how they behave in future.

There were so many excellent contributions on the day that I don’t have room to highlight them all here, but the conference is available on the McConnell International Foundation YouTube channel.

In her address to the conference, Scotland’s Minister for International Development Christina McKelvie MSP asked how best can we harness the enthusiasm and energy of young people who want to travel to Africa and other continents to broaden their horizons and to help others, and to do that in a way that ensures they do no harm. Questions we hope you will help us answer.

Over the coming weeks the Foundation will continue the conversation we started on 2 November, asking how best volunteering can support young people to think deeply and critically about equity and justice and contribute to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals, while at the same time minimising harm to our planet and respecting different cultures. Early next year we will publish, in partnership with the Scottish Government and others, a set of best practice guidelines informed by our discussions.

If you have any ideas or comments, please get in touch by email at

Rt Hon. Lord Jack McConnell

Chairperson, The McConnell International Foundation

Watch the conference below:

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