Humanitarian and Volunteering

Humanitarian and Volunteering

What is the issue and why is it relevant to volunteering?

“If we don’t do it who will?”.

Over 274 million people are currently in need of humanitarian assistance. Half of the global humanitarian budget is unfunded.  Volunteers remain a critical resource for crisis response. They save lives in disaster-affected areas, set up local systems to deliver food and services to the most vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of them are local volunteers, working in their own communities.

What are the challenges and opportunities?

Some of the issues, challenges and opportunities around humanitarian response and volunteering include:

  • Fully engaging volunteers throughout the humanitarian cycle (before, during and after emergencies)
  • Providing appropriate support and systems to manage risks and promote the safety, security and well-being of volunteers
  • Delivering on the Grand Bargain commitments to effectively ‘localize the humanitarian agenda’
  • Bridging humanitarian–development gaps to strengthen community resilience
What is UNV doing?

UNV produced the 2018 State of the World’s Volunteerism Report (SWVR) which emphasized the importance of understanding the community-based experiences of volunteers.

It also looked at their needs when responding to emergencies and strengthening local resilience processes. The SWVR 2022 looked at volunteer efforts across the COVID-19 pandemic, including preparedness and response efforts.

What does the evidence say?

The important role of volunteers in humanitarian response is still often overlooked, both in research and practice (IFRC 2018). To date, most of what we know about volunteers is anecdotal.



Distinctive contributions of volunteers

  • The SWVR 2018 suggests that communities in crisis value local volunteering for two main reasons. Firstly, volunteering gives people the ability to self-organize around their own priorities. Secondly, communities find that the solidarity, empathy and connections generated through social action provide a form of protection when times are hard. 



Planning and preparedness

  • Self-organised voluntary groups and individuals, often called ‘spontaneous volunteers’, play crucial roles in the immediate response to disasters and saving lives.

  • Approximately 80 per cent of survivors of the Tangshan earthquake in China, for example, were rescued by spontaneous volunteers who were able to quickly self-mobilize

  • Local actors have often been seen as particularly important in contexts where access for international aid actors is restricted.However, even in these environments local volunteers are rarely directly involved in humanitarian planning and preparedness efforts.

Coordination between volunteers and other actors

  • Establishing clear coordination measures between volunteers and other actors is crucial for an agile, efficient and creative response. 

  • Evidence shows that more inclusive models of disaster management are needed to build on the existing capacities and resilience within communities. 

  • Emergency managers must account for time not only to assess protocols to place spontaneous volunteers in appropriate roles, but also to develop management techniques that guide them in those roles following key principles for effective volunteering




Perspectives of volunteers

  • Proximity, trust and embeddedness within communities are essential elements for humanitarian effectiveness. 
  • However, evidence on the lived experiences of humanitarian volunteers remains limited. Recent research by the Volunteering in Conflicts and Emergencies Initiative (ViCE)  found that because local volunteers are at the heart of humanitarian response, they often face risks to their safety, security and well-being.

  • As many ‘volunteers’ are also ‘victims’ themselves, they are faced with the uncertainties of working to manage local tensions as members of those communities while also adhering to humanitarian principles: “Then I come into my senses and say what is happening to me? I am also vulnerable. I can also be a victim. The fact of wearing an emblem is not, is not a bulletproof vest” (Female volunteer in conflict area).

Gender and inclusion

  • Different groups have particular vulnerabilities during crises and need to be mobilised and supported accordingly. 
  • In Bangladesh, the involvement of women and marginalised groups in preparedness has proven not only to decrease the gender gap in mortality but also to promote more inclusive practices for community mobilisation.

Strengthening resilience to shocks

  • Community-based volunteers are not only ‘first responders’ in an emergency situation but also remain long after external assistance has left, helping to strengthen resilience to shocks at local levels. As such, they effectively act as the link between humanitarian action and sustainable development.

  • There has been a progressive shift in research towards understanding local capabilities and how these can effectively interact to drive sustainable action through the humanitarian-development-peace nexus. This is based on the notion of ‘resilience humanitarianism’, whereby crisis response “takes into account people’s capacity to respond, adapt and bounce back”.

Humanitarian Volunteers at the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement

Approximately one million local volunteers affiliated with the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement work in contexts where there is armed conflict and violence worldwide. Local voluntary action and leadership efforts are often explained by a sense of shared responsibilities amongst affected populations: “We feel responsible. We have skills, in first aid and how to respond, give support and we have a duty. It’s not something light. We are rushing to help. We are the first ones there. There is a huge obligation.” (Volunteer in conflict area in North Africa)

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