Volunteers are key humanitarian actors in conflicts and emergencies. Yet we know very little about their experiences and needs, the challenges they face, and what can be done to support them. This gap in understanding means we are poorly equipped to protect, promote, and recognize volunteers working in conflict and emergency contexts.
The Volunteering in Conflicts and Emergencies Initiative (ViCE) aims to address this gap. ViCE is led by the Swedish Red Cross, in partnership with the Centre for International Development at Northumbria University, a globally recognised centre of expertise on volunteering in humanitarian and development settings. ViCE has also involved National Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies in Afghanistan, Honduras, Myanmar, South Sudan, Sudan and Ukraine.
ViCE conducts research to guide innovation and shape policy and practice which strengthens the engagement, resilience, safety, security and well-being of volunteers and communities during times of armed conflict, violence and emergencies.
An increasing number of humanitarian volunteers are operating within highly fragile situations, complex emergencies, or protracted conflicts. Most of those volunteers are locals and from the communities being affected.
In dangerous and complex humanitarian settings when some actors have to withdraw and local infrastructures and state services break down, local volunteers are often the only ones who can access vulnerable people and provide first aid, food, water, medical care and comfort.
We depend on local humanitarian volunteers in conflicts and emergencies, even as they themselves are caught up in them. But despite recent media attention to volunteers in Syria crisis, the contributions of volunteers to less well-known crises over many decades has been ignored. Most research on volunteering focuses on experiences in Europe and North America and on international volunteering, emphasising volunteering as an act of charity to the less fortunate.
This means we know and hear very little about the experiences of local volunteers in conflicts and emergencies whose volunteering does not fit these experiences and ideas. Without this knowledge, we cannot understand the challenges they face or support them.
The ‘Listening Study’
As its first major research project, the ViCE Initiative brought together practitioners, volunteers and wider stakeholder to co-design a research approach to understand the lived experiences of volunteers in conflicts and emergencies and jointly develop responses to the challenges they face. Through a series of workshops and events, we worked as a team to understand each others’ needs and the contexts in which people were volunteering.
Our approach focused on listening to volunteers in an open way, avoiding pre-determined questions or ideas, and allowing participants to decide what is important to them and letting them talk about those issues in whatever way they choose. Through this, ViCE has created unique testimony of the experiences of volunteering in conflicts and emergencies.
198 volunteers and 84 wider stakeholders participated in 6 countries. In each country, a team visited volunteers and stakeholders, and asked them to talk about what it is like to be volunteer in that country. These conversations were recorded, translated, transcribed and analysed using practitioners’ views of the most important things being raised.
The findings have been shared through freely accessible working papers, workshops, and pop-innovation labs focused on finding practical solutions to challenges.