26 Sep

Fueling change by changing mindsets: Linking behavioural economics, empathy and volunteering

What if the change we hope to make in development is not through what we do but how we think about what we do?

The debate on voluntourism has been raging for some time now, recently revived by the global campaign to ban orphanage volunteering programmes. Those in defense of voluntourism do so on the premise that critiques often amalgamate many different forms of voluntourism without creating room for a nuanced debate on the benefits and pitfalls of the industry.


Image source: Staying for Tea blog’s detailed map of the many types of voluntourism

For a very insightful critique of the voluntourism industry, I highly recommend Courtney Martin’s ‘The Third World Is Not Your Classroom’. In this essay, Martin shares her experience as an international voluntourist, challenging the notion of what it means to ‘do good’ as voluntourist.

As interesting as this topic is, I do not think voluntourism contributes to development (= long-term change) because it facilitates dependency and disempowerment of poor people for the leisure of others.  Any activity transforming poverty into a commodity for the use of the privileged leaves no room for a nuanced discussion.

Rather than contribute to the debate on voluntourism, I want to look at the role of international volunteering within development, in other words, the use of volunteering to meet development outcomes.

In recent years, the discourse on volunteering for development has become increasingly instrumental, which according to Institute for Development Studies (IDS), is part of a larger shift towards utilitarian approaches in the sector. Concepts such as ‘value for money’, ‘impact’ and ‘evidence-based’ programming are shaped by the current intense scrutiny of the sector, the politics of austerity in public and international policy and the shrinking role of civil society in the era of public-private partnerships.

Despite evidence showing short-term changes in the host community, volunteering for development programmes have yet to prove the long-term changes (development) predicted for the volunteer and the host community. Solutions, such as the ones discussed in this Devex webinar, focus on improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the current approach to volunteering for development as opposed to proposing a radical change of the entire model itself.

As summarised by IDS, currently, volunteering for development programmes only produce short term changes, ‘as palliatives or symbolic responses to deep-rooted problems and in some cases constrain people from engaging more deeply with structural change or long-term causes.’

One way we can engage more deeply with structural change is through the use of empathy to redesign the change process. In my blog post, on the role of empathy in international affairs, I discussed how empathy in international affairs can be an effective tool in changing mindsets by encouraging us to consider other perspectives. This allows for better cooperation and collaboration on traditional and emerging global development issues.

Current approaches to volunteering for development focus on doing; the assumption being that the change created is through the activities delivered. This may be in response to the ‘value for money’ culture within the sector and the need to show results. However, if we incorporate empathy into the change process, we shift our assumption about where the change happens from the activities delivered to the mental models driving our actions.

This shift enables the volunteer and the host community to critically evaluate where they assume the power for change to be and what ideas are driving these assumptions. Questions can include:

  • What pre-existing, ideas, stereotypes, and life experiences am I bringing and how will they interact with what I’m required to do/be?
  • Which strategies/tools do I need to employ to mitigate/transform these pre-existing mental models?
  • What are the ways in which my assumptions as a volunteer/member of the community can damage the sustainability of the solution I create with the volunteer and the community?


This approach is already showing positive results. A recent literature review conducted by IDS, reveals that participatory volunteering programming which actively explore assumptions about the change process can enable longer term results:

‘Participatory approaches can therefore both ‘get under the surface of how communities operate, and how change happens’ (Burns et al. 2015) and also enable the international volunteer to connect into alternative representations and practices in local settings and contribute to social change led by local people… Through such critical awareness, participatory approaches enable international volunteers to situate themselves as actors within the development process. In turn, there is potential for questioning implicit and explicit assumptions about expertise and impact of international volunteers in relation to other forms of local and indigenous initiatives. Participatory practice, therefore, has both transformative potential for the community and the volunteer.’

When entering a host community, a volunteer may have all the necessary skills to do an activity effectively but whether doing an activity effectively translates to doing good does not depend on their skills but rather their conscious effort to critique the assumptions shaping what ‘good’ is. This exercise is not just useful for the volunteer but for the host community too; to evaluate the assumptions they have of the volunteer’s role in the change process, how this is reflected in their partnership arrangement and the ways these assumptions can hinder or help their quest for long-term change.

Situating empathy in the change process of a volunteering programme is an important strategy for long-term change because it facilitates systems level thinking on the issues being tackled. The 2015 World Development Report by World Bank which examines the relationship between mind, behaviour and society in development, identified four cognitive biases that jeopardise decision-making in development:

  • the complexity of the environment
  • sunk cost bias – not wanting to stop a failing intervention because of the costs already spent
  • confirmation bias – looking for theories to justify a pre-existing belief
  • context bias – the influence of pre-existing ideas and mental models on one’s approach to a situation.


In asking the questions above, the volunteer and the host community are forced to engage with the reality that poverty is not a fixed issue, development is not a fixed process and how one’s mindset engages with both ideas is neither fixed or apolitical.

Ahead of the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Brookings Institute released a report proposing that addressing the systemic causes of our world should be the key imperative of the post-2015 agenda. In a post-financial crisis, mid-climate change, staggeringly unequal world, risks bring the kind of complexity and uncertainty preventing the collaboration mindset we need to create better patterns and relations for living.

To achieve the systemic sustainability needed for the success of the sustainable development agenda, Brookings Institute outline four elements for a new mindset in international relations:

  • The post-2015 agenda is perceived as universal agenda and not just a ‘Global North’ imperative to the ‘Global South’
  • Solutions integrate sectors and issues, foster collaborations within and between government
  • Political leaders at the domestic level use the ongoing issues to communicate to their electorates the connections between local issues and global causes
  • International institutions create horizontal synergies between agendas, policies and actions instead of creating competing agendas.


I propose a fifth element, eloquently summarised by Mia Birdsong in her TED Talk, ‘The story we tell about poverty isn’t true’:

‘What if we recognized that what’s working is the people and what’s broken is our approach? What if we realized that the experts we are looking for, the experts we need to follow, are poor people themselves? What if, instead of imposing solutions, we just added fire to the already-burning flame that they have? Not directing — not even empowering — but just fueling their initiative.’

This ‘fuel’, discussed in this blog, is the fifth element of a new mindset for international relations; to not direct – not even ‘empower’ – but fuel the initiative of people disadvantaged by poverty by unpacking our assumptions about our role and their role in development.


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