The opinions and recommendations expressed here do not represent the official policy of the IFRC or of individual National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies.

Humanitarianism – from delivery to care.

Today, the world faces a series of events that evidence vulnerability, fragility, poverty, and displacement are no strangers to humankind. This can sometimes make us question our roles as part of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. Many of us wake up every day and ask ourselves, “How can I make a change in the world today?”. A daring question indeed. But in this task, we are not alone. Millions of volunteers working every day to make this a better place for all, many of them even at the risk of their own lives. We who have been part of this Movement, whether for a few months or many years, have more than once heard a discourse in which volunteers are central to the fulfillment of the mission of the Movement, of the Humanitarian Imperative; one in which voluntary service becomes central to the delivery of humanitarian services.

Reality, however, very often differs greatly from practice. Much is said and done, and large amounts of resources, financial and otherwise, are invested to improve our practices for service delivery. Technology, systems, coordination, innovation, accountability, logistics, are all key to deliver the dignified services we pride ourselves in providing for those in need. However, the wellbeing and development of our volunteers, as well as the provision for optimal environments for them, even if “central”, are very often forgotten; we see that the one most valuable resource we have is many times the last on our list of development priorities.

An organization with the impact potential of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement must be able to identify cycles, causes and consequences; and part of this is to recognize how, and to what extent our own are also affected by current events and crises; to step back and figure out if, beyond simple notions of efficiency, efforts could be channeled in more effective areas, to foster the closure of the development divide and promote greater equality, starting with our own. This will not be achieved without truly recognizing the individuality of every one of our 17 million volunteers and their needs, while working together to support them.

This is reality. And this reality can be even harsher and more evident in places where volunteers themselves are especially vulnerable. Where they face violence, poverty and displacement, where they, day after day, return home to their families with empty hands; where they deliver aid with a smile, while suffering themselves. What can we improve for them? We must care. We must ensure volunteering with the RCRC becomes a way to promote the development of healthy, resilient individuals who are truly able to become agents of change within their communities, beyond their services within an organization. This will be achieved when we are finally brave enough to allow volunteers to decide for themselves and tell us what they need, what we can and should do. We must keep our eyes always open, we should be willing and eager to have our systems and procedures contested and allow for solutions to be designed by volunteers themselves. Volunteers must know and feel we care. Then, once our movement is able to listen to every volunteer, from the community volunteer in the most remote town, to the members of our governing board, it will certainly achieve sustainability in its most important resource: its volunteers. These volunteers, individuals with principles and values, grit for self-development, and the ability to influence the members of their own families and communities, are and must be seen as the first evidence of the impact of the RCRC and its fundamental principles in action. We must care for them. Only then will be able to call ourselves true humanitarians.

If you wish to use or reference this paper please acknowledge and cite as:

Valle Paz B 2018 ‘Thinkpiece: Humanitarianism – from delivery to care’. IFRC, Geneva.

Bessy Valle Paz

National Volunteering Manager, Honduran Red Cross

Unpacking volunteer protection

Our volunteers are insured: this means they are protected doesn’t it?

Recent years has seen significant focus within the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement on volunteer insurance. Yet we know that insurance only kicks in after something bad has happened, and even when insured, many volunteers face administrative barriers to receiving adequate payouts. A reported twenty-three volunteer deaths in Africa in 2017 is twenty-three too many.

Yet as well as individual tragedies, poor volunteer protection carries other risks for National Societies and the wider Movement. The recent Oxfam scandal highlights the potential reputational issues of a perception that the Movement was not protecting potentially vulnerable volunteers. Most countries have legislation protecting workers’ health and safety – which may apply to volunteers, in particular when volunteers are receiving payments for their work.

This piece draws on the experience of recent research into volunteer protection and wellbeing in urban contexts in three African National Societies to develop a more nuanced understanding of factors affecting volunteer protection and suggest some further areas of focus for the Movement in seeking to protect volunteers. The executive summary of the full report can be accessed here.

As the Movement does not have a definition of volunteer protection, the report used the following:

Volunteer protection is the ongoing process of a National Society meeting its responsibilities for the physical and mental safety and security of volunteers, and volunteers making decisions that ensure their own safety and security

As other blogs on this website highlight, volunteering takes different forms in different contexts. Broadly we can think about volunteers who self-organise, carrying out locally defined and led activities alongside their other life activities, as well as those “managed” in structured and pre-defined programmes, sometimes receiving financial compensation for their time.

The research suggested that it is the volunteers working in “managed” programmes that faced the biggest risk to their protection. Risks came from a number of factors, including:

  • Moving outside of their own communities. In urban areas in particular, volunteers moving between communities did not necessarily know which areas were safe, and were not personally or recognised in the communities in which they were working. Long travel times could also mean volunteers having to travel home after dark, all increasing risk to their personal safety.
  • Carrying out risky tasks without adequate training and equipment. A theme of volunteer interviews was a lack of adequate visibility and safety equipment. A number of volunteers were working with potentially violent target groups with complex needs, for example out of school young people potentially using drugs, but received no training or support on how to work with potentially unstable people.
  • In one case, donor pressure for programme implementation meant that volunteers were being put under pressure to work long hours by the National Society, increasing the chances of having to travel in the dark.

Underpinning these dynamics were three bigger themes that amplified individual risk factors.

First was the lack of systematic risk management being carried out by National Societies. Risks were not assessed, or only assessed prior to programme design. This meant that evolving risks, or risks that had not been considered initially, were not formally addressed, for example through additional equipment or training. This could be because of limited budgets, or a culture of uncritical implementation of programme design, perhaps based on a donor agreement.

Secondly, a significant number of volunteers felt that they were not listened to when they highlighted challenges and risks. Without an effective voice within National Societies, volunteers’ concerns were not addressed: they were disempowered.

Finally, volunteers’ dependency on the financial incentives attached to some programmes meant that they were tied to continuing to work with the National Society, even if they felt that the risks and the way they were being treated were unacceptable. In one case this gave the impression of being a form of economic exploitation perpetrated by the National Society against volunteers.

The research therefore suggests that volunteer protection goes well beyond insurance. It starts with a fundamental attitude towards volunteers that sees them as valued and empowered humanitarian actors, rather than cheap labour. It involves looking at National Societies’ presence in communities, and how travel between communities can be minimised. And it involves programme design that is centred on the realities of volunteers’ experience, and listens to and responds to what comes out of that experience.

Insurance is a part of this picture: the backstop when everything else has failed. But it should not be seen as a substitute for good volunteering practice.

If you wish to use or reference this paper please acknowledge and cite as:

Steed I 2019 ‘Thinkpiece: unpacking volunteer protection’. IFRC, Geneva.

Ian Steed

Independent Consultant

Are we stuck in the old model of who a volunteer is and what he/she does  – have we failed to modernise ourselves?

For decades volunteering and volunteers have been and will continue to be, the backbone of the RCRC Movement. For many years RCRC enjoyed being one of a few large volunteer-based organisations able to attract people of all ages and from all walks of life. That has changed – volunteering is no longer reserved for a few exclusive organisations, today you can volunteer your spare time to an almost endless palette of organisations or causes. Often you don’t even have to leave your home to do volunteer work, and you can be much more choosy in how you want to devote your spare time. That puts a real demand on RCRC to be able to offer genuinely attractive and meaningful activities for volunteers.

We continue to design programmes that are only poorly recognising that volunteers devote either a few hours a day or a couple of days per month etc. Our volunteer management systems are perhaps managing too much – do we forget that volunteers often joined to meet other people be it young or pensioners with spare time on their hands or maybe he /she merely jumped on because their friends did?

There are worries that the global number of RC volunteers is dropping, this may be true, but it does not necessarily mean that the number of people engaging in volunteer work is declining. Perhaps we are stuck in the traditional way of counting, i.e. we only count RC volunteers.

Could it be that we are failing to take today’s community resilience building agenda all the way? The sentence Communities are well connected resonates from the resilience features – but are we using communities well enough? Why can it not be that tomorrows volunteers are the community people themselves without an RC or RC emblem adorning their hats, caps or t-shirts?

The real strength must lie in the community – tomorrows volunteers should be a community asset – not necessarily an RC asset. What if we change the role of today’s RC volunteers to be much more of a catalyst who builds community volunteers? The community volunteers can be offered skills training by many organisations and more importantly also be activated by any organisation or community structure for a wide range of activities that ultimately in one way or the other benefits the community.

If we support the building of community volunteers, we also start addressing the issue of sustainability, and perhaps the challenge of retention will also see a positive turn. Community volunteers can better find activities that suit their interest – maybe even see an opening for a much stronger personal development more in line with particular interests.

Surely it is a scary thought for NS to let go of their backbone. Do not despair – I am only suggesting we should build stronger and even better skilled RC volunteers, but their finest task should perhaps be to build millions of community volunteers.

If you wish to use or reference this paper please acknowledge and cite as:

Damm P 2018 ‘Thinkpiece: Participation and engagement’. IFRC, Geneva.

Peder Damm

Regional Disaster Management Delegate Asia, Danish Red Cross

Service deliverers or agents of change?

Volunteering stands at a crossroads. Increasingly mainstreamed in humanitarian and development discourses, volunteers are critical to the delivery of the SDGs and to providing humanitarian assistance when established infrastructures are missing (Hazeldine and Baillie Smith 2015). Certain types of volunteers have become humanitarian icons, exemplifying sacrifice and care across boundaries (Baillie Smith, 2017). But there is a dark side to the celebration of volunteering. In the context of decreased state spending, volunteers offer a form of cheap labour for service delivery. Rhetorics refer to local knowledge and relevant skills, but too often, it is not the skills and knowledge that are needed as much as a willingness to work for free. Local knowledge and position too often serve to legitimate practices that in reality, work to an externally defined agenda. Volunteering is at a crossroads between being mainstreamed in existing humanitarian and development processes, or being an agent for change, based on their local knowledge and capacities for innovation.  The future of volunteering could be one driving local innovation, decision-making and accountability. Or it could be one delivering agendas for others.

Whose idea of volunteering?

The use of volunteering for donor service delivery and the fact that most research on volunteering is based on European and North American experiences (Laurie and Baillie Smith, 2017), has led to certain ideas of volunteering becoming dominant. Volunteering is often assumed to be an act of charity by the better off towards the disadvantaged (Thomas, Baillie Smith et al. 2018). But this doesn’t match the experiences of many volunteers who are also members of the communities being supported. Why and how they volunteer over time is different, yet most guidance and knowledge on volunteering fails to grasp this. So volunteering stands at a second crossroads; one in which it is understood and promoted in terms that fit the histories and ideas of Europe and North America, or one that reflects diverse ideas and experiences of volunteering. There is a risk that, if we go down the former route, no one will notice; it will feel like business as usual, and volunteers and forms of volunteering that are largely invisible in policy and strategy debates, will remain invisible. But volunteering’s future will be the poorer for this. A confident volunteering invigorated by diversity and plurality is one better suited to the challenges facing the world.

Volunteering in a digital age

Humanitarianism operates in an increasingly digital era where information and technologies are transforming the way in which humanitarian services are provided and local communities participate in their own recovery. Digital technology offers potential to transform volunteering and in ways that address the challenges of invisibility, diversity and service delivery. But it is not without risks. Volunteering in a digital age may reproduce and exacerbate inequalities and hierarchies. Unequal access to digital technology may create and worsen hierarchies between volunteers, empowering some to ‘lead’ and manage, and others to be service deliverers. Digital technologies, if implemented as top down solutions, may result in the loss of local knowledge and relevance, making interventions less sensitive to cultural contexts and social dynamics.

On the other hand, digital technologies are shaping new forms and practices of volunteering. Physical borders and distance can be overcome through digital innovation, creating new volunteer communities and shared humanitarian agendas. Technologies can provide volunteers with up to date information in crises and emergencies, supporting more effective and targeted interventions. Digital tools can also enable more participatory decision making, including aiding grassroots social innovation by volunteers coming together, virtually and physically, to co-design responses to humanitarian challenges. Digital technologies can also enable individuals and communities to hold humanitarian actors and agencies to account.

Retaining the human link that ultimately connects people on the ground is challenging in an increasingly virtual world, but is central to what volunteering offers and to its future. To make volunteers truly effective and empowered means listening to them in the first place. Making use of digital technologies to improve existing listening mechanisms and consultation tools will allow volunteers, especially from the local levels, to genuinely shape the Movement from the bottom-up. This can be a trigger to but also a consequence of strengthening peer-to-peer and social learning processes as part of the whole volunteering experience. Developing the capacities of volunteers to use technologies and tools to build innovative ideas, approaches and partnerships is a necessity for the Movement to be prepared and proactive in times of emergencies.  But it is also necessary to helping facilitate human connection in a world that is digitally connected, yet increasingly distant and isolated.

Looking at young people as particularly powerful changemakers and multipliers, initiatives such as the ‘Youth as Agents of Behavioural Change’ (YABC) will be more than ever needed to sustain the Movement’s principles and interests in a changing world. Understanding the potential of technology to strengthen, instead of replace, these processes and promote effective change is a challenging task. Big changes start small, through everyone and everywhere and, even in the face of volatile contexts, volunteering remains a unique opportunity for individuals to make a real difference in the future of their own communities.



Hazeldine S and Baillie Smith M, 2015, Global Review on Volunteering, IFRC, Geneva

Baillie Smith M. 2017 ‘Never mind the gap year: local volunteers, poverty and development’ Pint of Science Talk, Newcastle, May 2017. Available at:

Laurie N and Baillie Smith M 2017 ‘Unsettling geographies of volunteering and development’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 10.1111/tran.12205

Thomas N, Baillie Smith et al. 2018 ‘ViCE Theme Paper: Volunteers and Victims’, Volunteers in Conflicts and Emergencies Initiative, Available at:

If you wish to use or reference this paper please acknowledge and cite as:

Baillie Smith M. Thomas N and Fadel B 2018 ‘Thinkpiece: Futures of Volunteering’. IFRC, Geneva.

Matt Baillie Smith, Nisha Thomas, Bianca Fadel

Centre for International Development, Northumbria University, Newcastle, UK