Wiem Chamsi, 24, has no shortage of motivation. A masters-degree student in management, she is head of dissemination at the Tunisian Red Crescent branch in the northern seaside city of Sousse.
But that’s not all. She is a trainer for Junior Chamber International, a solar-energy ambassador, a founder Youth for Change, a club that deals with sustainable development and a project manager with Enactus International, a competition focusing on social impact.
“The Red Crescent spirit is: you are passionate about the things you are doing, coming with ideas and enthusiasm to put things into action,” Chamsi says.
But people need to feel enabled to put their passion and ideas into action, she adds. The digital revolution has given many people a sense of having a voice, a feeling of empowerment. Online tools allow people to organize, start businesses, raise funds or get involved in numerous social issues much more easily, often without traditional bureaucracies or structures.
“So if we have volunteers lifting boxes… at some point that volunteer will get fed up if it’s not more than that,” she says. “That volunteer should be part of the decision-making process, to identify problems and try to propose solutions and exchange ideas.”
Matt Baillie Smith refers to this as ‘volunteer agency’ — the ability to take initiative or at least play a role in shaping the course of action — and it cuts across all the big trends affecting volunteering today.
“People always say that volunteers are ‘the backbone of the Movement,’ but I’m always surprised they are not also referred to as ‘the head,’” says Baillie Smith, a professor of international development at Northumbria University in the United Kingdom, who has co-authored several key studies on volunteering for the IFRC and the Swedish Red Cross in recent years.
“For me, this is the next big battleground. How do we move from volunteers as an inexpensive form of service delivery to active participation shaping the humanitarian and development agenda?”
In any case, he says, volunteers are leading, even if they are not always recognized for it. That leadership takes many forms. Carlos Rodrigo Ballesteros manages a local branch in Cali, Colombia and is helping to create new models of community volunteering in order to engage young people in violence prevention (see his story below).
“We are not focusing on telling young people, ‘Become a Red Cross volunteer so you can do this or that.’ They build their own group, put their own names on it, build their identity and start working,” says Ballesteros. “Our job is to support them.”
This new type of volunteering is developing at community level and not through formal institutions, he says. “This is something we as a Movement have to move towards… working with the community and building a base for future volunteers,” he says.
“In Colombia, if you want to get an education, you have to work at the same time because it’s so expensive,” he says. “So we need a totally different model. The Red Cross has to go where people are — in schools, neighbourhoods and work places. The challenge is to build new models of volunteerism that fit these new dynamics.”
This is just one example of how volunteers are already leading in a changing world. The question is whether the rest of us will follow. According to Baillie Smith, there are both ethical and practical reasons to do so.
“The ethical reason is that, increasingly, volunteers are used to legitimize international aid activity on the grounds that they constitute local ownership of that activity — they become part of the aid sector’s local ownership agenda,” he notes. “But that only works if we are actually listening to what they have to say and consider what they have to offer.
“The pragmatic reasons is that they do in fact have first-hand knowledge of what’s going on in their communities.”