Service Learning: An Evaluation of Volunteering


The Incident
               On the 27th of July 2006 I was attending a meeting at the British Red Cross Centre in Hammersmith for the Active Members in Organising and Socialising (AMIGO’S). We had arranged to watch a DVD called ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. We proceeded to watch the film and eat some popcorn. Whilst watching the film I noticed that one of the members of the group, Sayed, seemed quite bored and was finding ways to distract himself. About half way through the film, after much popcorn throwing and general misbehaviour (all diligently ignored by Rachel, the co-ordinator of the group and general leader), Sayed got up and left the room with the excuse of getting a drink.
            At this point I received a telephone call from my landlord and took my leave into the garden. As I walked past the kitchen on the way outside I noticed Sayed was inside the kitchen drinking a drink and eating some biscuits. I think he noticed me too because after a few minutes on the phone outside I noticed Sayed had joined me and appeared interested in my conversation. Another reason for Sayeds’ interest in my private phone call was (which I can now appreciate in hindsight) the level of volume my voice occasionally rose too and obvious rather heated and serious tonality I was giving to the conversation.
            The subject matter of the conversation was rent owed to my landlord by my Japanese housemate. My landlord had not received any rent from her for a number of months and he was threatening us with eviction when our lease ran out in just over a weeks’ time. When I put the phone down the situation had not been resolved and I was feeling very anxious and worried, and I believe that Sayed could see this. He asked me what was the matter and I explained my situation to him.
            Once I had finished my tale we began discussing the situation in the UK regarding housing. He was confused that I was not guaranteed a place to live by my university or by the government. He thought it unfair that it was not an automatic right in my own country, especially as the UK is so rich. I explained that everyone is entitled to housing so long as they reach rock bottom, i.e. they are destitute (I have first hand knowledge of this as my family were split up amongst relatives and temporary housing for six months when I was 16) but he still thought it was wrong. He then asked me a very uncomfortable question. Did I think that he would get housing once he had turned 18, or did I think he would be refused and deported?
Feelings and Response
            My initial feeling upon being asked this question was one of extreme discomfort. I did not know how to respond to the question let alone have a constructive comment to respond with. This left me with a feeling of embarrassment and shame, not only for my own inadequacies as a volunteer with the responsibility of guiding and advising my peer, but also for the government, whose policies were allowing this young man of 17 to live in a state of such uncertainty and fear. The gravity of my problems was immediately put into perspective and it left me feeling guilty for not hiding my comparatively small, ultimately recoverable situation from him. What’s more, it was clear (or so it seemed) that I was embarrassed and was unsure as to what answer to give.
            However after this initial discomfort I did manage to respond with an adequate, if not entirely reassuring response, suggesting that although I cannot tell him for sure as I do not know exact government policy and that it seems muddled even to me, and that because he is from an area in the world which has a lot of media exposure in the UK and that our government is fighting a war there (Afghanistan) he would hopefully be better protected by them. This made me feel a little less like a fool and proud that I had come out of the situation with our relationship intact.
            My analysis of the situation is that, although I dealt with the situation when it arose, I should have been more mindful of my emotions. I should not have shown them in front of Sayed and taken myself away from him when I knew he was close by. Divulging personal information is not always the best option in these circumstances even if I am an open person and Sayed is an honest young man who has always discussed his feelings and problems openly to me in the past.
            Usually when we discuss matters such as these at AMIGO’S Rachel is present. She is an expert with dealing with problems involving the refugees in the group, of which there are many. Perhaps I should have asked for further counsel from Rachel after answering Sayed’s question. Perhaps this would have been better for Sayed and I would have learnt more from the situation.
            I can also see that in this instance how Mill’s concept of the ‘sociological imagination’ would have benefited both Sayed and I. Sayed did not seem to have any concept of the political issues that affected him; both in his everyday life and wider social issues of government policy. No one can blame him, indeed it is the concepts of the ‘New Right’ and the ‘Third Way’ that are prevalent in society that contributed to his ignorance. The inequalities that are cemented in policy on many levels of government, by thinkers such as Charles Murray, paradoxically breeds the lack of sociological imagination, as I understand it, that is said to be inherent in the underprivileged.   
            In this instance I learnt a great deal from my service placement, not just on how to conduct myself better at my placement, but after further thought to the wider implications, the societal implications, that are so real to the people I share my placement with, I realised the actual, tangible, felt implications of academic writers thought on the lives of others.
Section Two: The Structure and Function of the Agency
            The British Red Cross (BRC) is an international charity that responds to crisis all over the world. The BRC’s role in both national and international communities is wide ranging and encompasses a massive spectrum of activity; from wheelchair provision in the United Kingdom (UK) to emergency response to disasters across the globe. The emblem of the BRC is known in all continents and is seen by many as a symbol of hope in an otherwise hopeless world.
            At the core of everything the BRC does are the ‘fundamental principles’ outlined below[1]:
            These principles guide the organisation and its volunteers in every action it does. When an individual becomes a BRC volunteer they are asked to sign an agreement stating that they must adhere to these fundamental principles whenever they are representing them. This is essential to understanding the BRC and its global actions. Humanity is distinguishable from politics, race, religion, etc, and all members of the BRC must look at everyone as equal. All humans have the right to their own way of life and the BRC will offer help to anyone that falls under the category of being human. This universal approach places an obligation on each volunteer to suspend any ideals or beliefs for the good of humanity, no matter what the reason for a particular individual or group of individuals circumstances are.
            The individuals’ right to humane circumstances of existence are pursued through the belief that all humans have an equal right to the services that the BRC offers. The BRC has, in effect, a memorandum from governments to operate outside national boundaries, with the only restrictions being dictated to them by international bodies such as the UN. Of course there are situations were the BRC has been stopped from operating, and does not always have the full support of those in power in any particular circumstance. However the fact is that the BRC is tackling full on many of the issues that national governments are either unable or unwilling to.
            The concept of universality on a national scale, and even more so on an international scale, of course encounters many problems in the real world. Whilst the principle is an admirable one the realities of geo-political circumstance and economic interest result in the restricting of this principle and in some circumstances creates externalities not under the control of the BRC. Take for example the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. In his book ‘Hereos’ (2001: 408), John Pilger explains how after the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, deposing Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge and enabling a new government to emerge, the UK, US and China continued to back the Khmer Rouge and legitimised them in the UN Security Council vote, guaranteeing the UN’s recognition of the Democratic Kampuchea as the government in Cambodia. This geo-political alliance meant that any international aid given to the Vietnamese sponsored government, which was trying to rebuild the country, was illegal. However UNICEF are permitted to operate in countries that are not recognised (as the BRC does) and they formed a partnership with the BRC. The ‘neutral’ status of the BRC meant that both sides of the conflict were entitled to food relief, thus enabling the Khmer Rouge to re-group in refugee camps across the Thai border and continue their genocidal practices in Cambodia. Furthermore the BRC’s neutral status was exposed when it was shown that UNICEF had imposed conditions on the new government before handing over any aid. The ‘partnership’ of the BRC and UNICEF effectively dismantled any pretence of ‘neutrality’, ‘independence’, ‘universality’ and ‘impartiality’.     
            This case highlights the downside of electing a kind of constitution to the operating principles of the BRC. While choosing to see their charity as socially equal, it does place a burden on the rights of the individual. There is no freedom of the individual beyond the constitution. It is true that grass roots decisions can be made; through conferences such as the ‘Have Your Say’ conference I attended[2], but it is only effective up to the point of operating within already strict structural and ideological boundaries.
            However it is true that for many, many people they are a lifeline. In the UK for instance the BRC offers the service of wheelchair lending[3], home from hospital services (help with shopping, collecting prescriptions, etc.)[4], help with scarring, i.e. skin camouflage and help with make-up techniques[5], tracing lost relatives[6] and many more services that are essential to the people they help, but are unfortunately not always supplied by the state.
            Making up this shortfall of services free of charge binds the BRC to volunteer subscription and charitable status. The BRC is essentially dependent on voluntary support, (which numbers some 35’000 in the UK alone)[7] making it dependant on people giving up their time. This is stated in the fundamental principles of the organisation; however I fail to see how else the operations of the BRC would be able to take place if it was run differently. The principle of voluntary service is a not so much a principle more of an organisational necessity.
            Internationally the BRC responds to both man-made and natural disasters, as and when they occur. Together with its partners it is part of a larger family that includes both Red Cross and Red Crescent ‘societies’ or taken collectively the ‘International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ (ICRC) . The ICRC is currently in the middle of a 10 year plan called ‘Strategy 2010’ that aims to modernise the running of the organisation[8]. This plan was formulated by the managerial hierarchy at the General Assembly in 1999. National societies under this umbrella do operate with a great degree of autonomy, as do all levels of the managerial structure, allowing greater freedom of choice on how particular initiatives and programmes are run. The ICRC is currently in the middle of a 10 year plan called ‘Strategy 2010’ that aims to modernise the running of the organisation. This plan was formulated by the managerial hierarchy at the General Assembly with stated aims such as improving the way national societies are run, with specific adherence to the fundamental principles and humanitarian values.
            Even though there is a distinct absence of political rhetoric in any of the BRC’s literature it is undeniable that the BRC has socially conscious elements to it. Whilst it takes the nasty veneer off of some of capitalisms effects on society it most definitely respects existing power. In fact, given that it is a charity, New Right thinkers would not object to its operations.
            With links to government through the social services it operates at a local level, supporting communities through programmes like the AMIGO’s scheme, Kent asylum project involving talking, assisting and listening (KAPITAL) and Canterbury helping unaccompanied minors scheme (CHUMS)[9]. Its place in civil society is large and has an enormous amount of connections with other organisations such as Millennium Volunteers in Hammersmith.
            There is also an element of educating wider society to the problems of the people it helps through, for example, presentations in local libraries by refugees and asylum seekers on issues such as AID’s, and giving first aid classes to all its volunteers for free[10].
Section 2: Ideological Concepts
            I believe that the BRC is fundamentally an organisation designed to give charity. Its aim is to achieve equality of human need, i.e. all those that need help will be given it. This striving for equality of human need can be seen in many charitable actions. It sees each human as having a fundamental right to treated as a human and when that human needs for something, to make them feel completely human, the BRC in almost all cases acts to the best of its capabilities.
            The BRC believes in the education of those its helps, empowering them to be the best people they can. As can be seen by the examples I have given there is no prejudice as to who receives this education. Also the education it gives to its members directly helps those who most need it. They do not see the poor or destitute as having created their own situation, in fact they withhold any judgement on the human race. They seem not to agree with the intellectual arguments of thinkers such as Charles Murray. However this empowering of individuals does not have an actual circumstance changing effect. By this I mean the BRC does not give people more rights, I mean that they educate them to the position they find themselves in. This is of course done in a strictly non-political way.
            The need for charitable intervention by institutions like the BRC can arguably have been on the increase ever since the notions of the freedom of the individual, free markets and shrinking state policies, espoused by thinkers from the New Right, became part of government policy in the 1980’s. Whilst not all of these ideas have held sway with modern streams of thought such as the ‘communitarians’, the free market most certainly has. As Holman outlines in ‘A New Deal for Social Welfare’ (1993) with the coming of the ‘free market’ and its’ supposed economic equalising effect, all individuals are rendered free but not equal. All those that fail to succeed under these conditions are deemed to have failed due to their own failures as individuals. This is where private charities such as the BRC should operate (Friedman, 1980), at the level of destitution.
            The BRC does not only operate with those who are destitute. They also operate with people who are above destitution, but need one of the services they supply. They may embody most of the elements of a charity that are permissible to a New Right thinker but they do go beyond this: In educating the needy to their position in society they enable them to operate from a base above destitution. The BRC may not educate the people they help politically, but they do often create the circumstances by which they can move on to a place where they are able to get to grips with modern society and possibly challenge those elements they see as abhorrent. They do operate on certain levels, however, as the New Right envisaged them; taking on the responsibilities normally associated with the state. This duality means that although the BRC is operating on a platform of equality of human need, and the government allows the freedom of individuals to pursue equality of economic situation through means other than government itself, the situations of the people it tries to help will never reach the level of social equality through the BRC.
            This lack of political maturity, and the almost blinkered way in which it operates in society means that in many respects it is hard to pin down exactly where the BRC stands. Or I could be harsh and say it stands nowhere, and I would probably be closer to the truth. I have argued that the BRC has elements of socially responsible thought to it, elements of social equality even. However a line must be drawn here because the BRC are in no way socialists: They are a charitable organisation. They do not criticise (openly at least) governments or international institutions, they do not analyse why the people they are helping need help and do not offer alternatives to how things should be done. There education is limited to raising awareness of issues, and does not seek to educate those it helps to the real, political reasons for their position at the bottom of society. They are a kind of bandage that is trying to heal a cancerous wound, always willing but ultimately doomed to exist as a charity. By this I mean they never actually aim to stop at source the problems they are compelled to help.
            So when you see interplay between the BRC and existing power structures they do not take Marshall’s ideas of exploring the relationship between the individual and institutions into praxis (1995: 104). The BRC undertakes no sociological exploration and does not wish to discuss the possibilities. Marshall believed, as many social democrats now believe, that a “modified form of capitalism” can live with “forms of collectivist social policy” (1995: 104) and it is true that to a certain extent the BRC improves the possibility of this. What the BRC does not do is fight for this ideal. They let the powers that be decide the grounding for social life and stand back ready to help those that fall through the net.    
            It is possible to say then that the BRC operates with a mandate to improve the condition of humanity, and specifically those at the sharpest edge of de-humanising practices. Theirs is an ethos of ‘equality of humanity’, resulting in the number of humans operating equally on a social level. This increase in social equality, however, is not a political aim but a humanist aim, borne of charitable roots. However the BRC’s lack of political ideology results in them fulfilling the station set aside for them by New Right thinkers. While their intentions are good they ultimately fail to achieve social equality because of their lack of conviction to challenge or formulate their own political ideals
            While on my placement I had a number of conversations with Rachel from the BRC about the work we were doing, what it was hoping to achieve, and how we thought it could be improved. I believe that on most issues to do with the work we were doing with the members of the AMIGOS was of a very positive nature, and I could see how what we were doing was benefiting them in their everyday lives. What we did disagree on was differing ideas on how much the participants of AMIGOS should be politically educated. I felt that although we were helping them to be function properly in a first world capitalist society, we should also be helping them to question things that were wrong.
            This line of thought was strengthened upon reading ‘The Sociological Imagination’ by Mills. His concept that people (or at least academics who can pass on their learning’s) should have a deeper understanding of society; both from a subjective, personal point of view and a more objective, structural one, resonated with me. In particular his ideas on what the key troubles of our time were and how he views us as experiencing ‘uneasiness and indifference’ (1967: 11).   
            These reflections and what I saw as a gap in the learning experience of the refugees I was involved with really helped me strengthen some deep ideological viewpoints I had learnt in lectures and from my own readings on British society. I could see the real effects of a consumerist society on a number of differing peoples from differing backgrounds. I could see how people from a Muslim faith had real trouble understanding a number of issues. For example a conversation I had with a member of the group after watching a Hollywood film was incredibly enlightening as to how a Muslim would be alienated by how man is depicted in the entertainment industry. In the film superhuman feats are achieved by the main character. To the member of the group these things could only be done by Allah, not man, and he found this strange and negative. Even more galling was the idea that you are seen as outside mainstream society if you do not enjoy this kind of experience.
            The idea that the BRC are engaging with people on a level that merely reproduces society was one I found unappealing. This had a real effect on how I viewed the concept of service learning as a whole. Whilst I cannot generalise my experience to the whole volunteer sector my feelings and reflections are still very real. Were we just producing good capitalists, good consumers? Or were we producing good citizens? I feel it was a mixture of both. This contradiction in the BRC and how it operates has influenced further writings in other modules. Specifically the point that although I hold ideals and points of views about British society, I can learn from people who have very different ideas on issues and that although I am perhaps more educated as to what ideological currents run through government you can never replace the actual experience of those who live it. Through the experience of my placement I can see the genuine joy and happiness an organisation such as the BRC fosters.
            I also learnt how despite the efforts of the people involved with the BRC and affiliated organisations the structure of British society is up against them. Particularly concerning the lack of resources that the Social Services have and how this affects young refugees. Cutbacks from central government have meant that the people who need the help most are often those that most suffer. From my perspective at my placement it seems that it is the little things that disturb the lives of the people I was trying to help, things like only budgeting for bus tickets and not tubes and locating them far away from their schools. These examples give an idea of how someone in an already precarious position can be made to feel even more uneasy and possibly indifferent to British society (perhaps Mills would agree?). It is also important to note that sometimes the AMIGOS found it hard to vocalise these frustrations precisely because they do not have an adequate knowledge as why these things are happening to them and why our government does not protect them fully.  
            I see the plus side of service learning and volunteering as creating more of a sense of community amongst people. Perhaps there are other times and other place for ideological battles and as Rachel pointed out to me, we were there just to make them feel comfortable and safe, something many had not experienced before.  
            How does my placement fit into the ideals of service learning? This is a question I have asked myself many times during my placement. Sigmon (1990) would bracket my experience as a “programme rooted in public need settings” (1990: 57). My ‘programme’ as combined academic learning with voluntary service that fulfils a public need. However, whilst looking at Sigmon’s ideas on service learning I began to question how far my placement had gone to fulfilling his three principles. I followed through his guide to assessing these principles (although I did this alone and not in a group; also using my diary to recollect situations) and found that my placement was a mixed success. For the first two principles I realised that on most occasions those I was supplying a service to were definitely in ‘acquirers’ and not ‘recipients’. In the setting which I usually engaged with the AMIGO group it was they that set the agenda as to what we were to do and they were actively encouraged to do this. The only time that they became ‘recipients’ was when they were involved with BRC initiatives, AIDS day for example, and events such as the ‘Have Your Say’ conference. As for the final principle that “all are learners” (1990: 61), set out by Sigmond, I would judge my placement to be a resounding success. The aim of AMIGOS is for everyone to be seen as a peer, learning from each other through experience, something that I feel was achieved every time I attended.
            This learning curve that I achieved whilst at AMIGOS was helped enormously by my keeping of a journal. It was important to note down any feelings and impressions I got immediately in order to properly recollect my experiences. Reading through my journal I noticed how I went through a number of changes in outlook towards service learning. My initial feelings were ones of elation and surprise. I expected volunteering to be a chore but I found that I got real pleasure from meeting new people, challenging myself in different and unfamiliar surroundings and getting an overall sense that what I was doing was genuinely helping people. I then found that I began to feel like what I was doing wasn’t enough. It was a personal challenge throughout, I certainly do not think I ever started to get bored or see no worth in it. However, after hearing many AMIGOS recall their pasts and analyse their present situations, I began to feel a sense of frustration that we were not doing enough to challenge the social services, government, etc, and this was ultimately letting them down. At present my feelings towards service learning is that it most definitely is a rewarding experience for both parties
             My journal helped me focus my ideas and feelings long after the initial emotions had died down. Journal writing is something that I have tried to carry through to all my academic work. This has helped me to focus and keep hold of ideas that I would normally have either forgotten or not explored to their maximum potential. I hope to continue to keep a journal in all my academic work.
            At present my feelings towards service learning is that it most definitely is a rewarding experience for both parties. I have made some good friends who I have hopefully had a positive influence upon. Through the sharing of experiences; lived, real, everyday experiences, I have come out of it with an attitude that we all need to take part in society more. Service learning is a concept that has many different definitions and ideals. I feel the positives of service learning are there to see and that it must be a concept that helps to build bridges between people who are different, who have wildly differing pasts and who need to feel a sense of community.
Friedman, M. (1980) Free To Choose England: Martin Secker & Warburg Limited
George, V and R. Page ‘eds’ (1995) Modern Thinkers on Welfare Hertfordshire: Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf
Holman, B. (1993) A New Deal for Social Welfare Oxford: Lion Publishing Ltd.
Kendall, J.C. ‘eds’ (1990) Combining Service and Learning USA: Publications Unlimited
Mills, C.W. (1967) The Sociological Imagination London: Oxford University Press (first published 1959) 
Pilger, J. (2001) Hereos London: Vintage (first published 1986) 

[1] BRC publication “Across the World…”
[2] BRC publication “Have Your Say” South Eastern Youth Conference 2006
[3] BRC publication “From where I’m sitting…”
[4] BRC publication “Home from Hospital”
[5] BRC publication “Could skin camouflage creams help you regain your confidence”
[6] BRC publication “The Red Cross in your area”
[7] BRC publication “Trustees’ report and accounts 2003”
[8] BRC publication “Strategy 2010 Mid-Term Review”
[9] BRC publication “Have Your Say” South Eastern Youth Conference 2006
[10] BRC publication “AMIGOS Year 1 Report”

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