Volunteering, freedom and subbotnik

A new global volunteering league table

Last week CAF published its world giving index, a pretty impressive document exploring a whole range of behaviours across the globe. Amongst other things it set out a league table of volunteering rates – ranking countries from 1st position to 135th. I’ve mentioned before the challenge of making such comparisons between countries in a recent blog and for me, CAF’s latest figures – as thought-provoking as they are – demonstrate why we should be cautious in our bid to come up with such lists.

The volunteering league table is published on page 22 of the report and the top ten have been reproduced below. This table reports on whether people volunteered during one month prior to being interviewed, and includes those countries surveyed in 2013.

Country Ranking People volunteering (%)
Turkmenistan 1 53
Myanmar 2 51
Sri Lanka 3 50
Uzbekistan 4 46
Canada 5 44
New Zealand 44
Tajikistan 44
USA 44
Bhutan 9 43
Ireland 10 41
Malaysia 41
Nigeria 41

Do we risk comparing chalk and cheese?

My view on this is basically the same as that of my former colleague Daniel Stevens, who wrote an excellent critique of why we shouldn’t necessarily base too much policy on these findings. His short paper, published in 2011, was written in response to the previous set of results from CAF – which broadly showed the same thing as they do now: that a large proportion of the countries in the top ten are considered to be ‘not free’ and that we may not all understand volunteering in the same way.

So can we assume that Turkmenistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan are merely here because their citizens have been ‘told’ to volunteer under an authoritarian system? Perhaps. Lack of political freedom doesn’t necessarily equate to lack of freewill regarding volunteering, but it can do. The report highlights the culture of ‘subbotnik’ in post-Soviet countries (three of which appear in the top ten) which describes the giving up of a Saturday to participate in ‘volunteering’ or unpaid labour, acknowledging that this could have potentially inflated some of the figures. But Rwanda also has a similar culture (Umuganda day) and they come in comparatively lowly at 76th position.

Cultural understandings of volunteering vary

While I think mandated forms of activity cannot be classed as volunteering, this does potentially raise the question of whether we are at risk of imposing a westernised view of what volunteering is on countries and cultures that are very different to ours. Many countries, particularly in parts of Asia and Africa don’t have a word for volunteering, simply understanding it as just something that’s done as being part of the community (see, for example, some useful research papers by Handy et al and Cnaan et al). We should, however, also be careful not to conflate cultural differences with a lack of freedom for a country’s citizens.

A valuable topic of research – but there’s better evidence out there

One of Daniel’s criticisms of the previous survey was the extent to which it had been used by policy-makers, particularly because the UK had then come in at a lowly 29th position (we’ve slipped to 33rd this time). I’m glad to see that this does not appear to be the case this time and I would again urge caution in using these figures for such purposes. No international comparison is ever going to be perfect but I think there are more useful and accurate examples of surveys out there, not least current work being undertaken by John Hopkins University. And while I think this latest data from CAF is problematic, I nonetheless think that it’s a hugely valuable topic to explore and look forward to future research examining international differences in volunteering.

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Nick Ockenden is an NCVO research associate and former head of the research team. As part of this role he led the work of the Institute for Volunteering Research, where he worked from 2005.

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