What Community Volunteering can Teach you about Development

By Stephanie Levy - 25 June 2021
What Community Volunteering can Teach you about Development

In this open letter, International Development Guest Lecturer, Dr Stephanie Levy encourages current students to explore opportunities available around them where they can put theories they have learnt over the last year into practice, and gives her own experience volunteering for a homeless charity as an example. 

Dear Students,

This time of the year, many of you come to us for advice and help in preparing for job or internship interviews. This is a pleasant opportunity for us to get to know you better, understand your aspirations and why you chose development studies. This year there are fewer opportunities abroad for field work, but there is a world of other opportunities on your doorstep which could provide you with a unique, rich and invaluable experience of some of what you have learnt this year.

“No unconscious bias or privilege here – you are what you do”

Here is an example. About a year ago, I joined a local grassroots organization that provides food, necessities, clothes and advice to people experiencing homelessness. It started rather simply: my local bakery and coffee shop was throwing away food that did not sell at the end of the day. I asked if they would be willing to donate that to a charity I knew, if I was to collect it from them every day at closing time. The managers were pleased at the idea of not throwing kilos of perfectly good food away anymore and supporting our local homeless community – they do so anonymously, with no economic or commercial incentive. Hundreds of meals have since been donated every week, collected fresh every day; luxurious organic pies, cakes and bread loaves went from the designer-made walls of this coffee shop to the hands of rough sleepers.

Image credit: Stephanie Levy

Ten months on, a dozen more of our local shops and restaurants, caterers, bakeries and cafes have joined the initiative and contact us every day to offer their unsold products. Sometimes, it is a few sandwiches; sometimes a whole three-layer rainbow cake. The quantity is becoming larger by the week, and we share donations with two of our local food banks and sister NGOs, who in turn contact us when they have surplus to share. All saved from landfill.

This small neighbourhood effort is one piece of a large, complex structure spread across London, led by an incredibly efficient, committed and creative team who has been building links of trust and respect in our streets for nearly a decade. Helping them each day, an army of volunteers distribute food, hot drinks, sleeping bags, and sanitary products. The volunteers are of all ages and backgrounds, all sharing the same passion and commitment that I hope has pushed my students to choose development studies. A dense and colourful network, more socially diverse than any setting I’ve ever known. Among the volunteers is the only time I can think of when I am not asked about my job or my background. The reason is simple: no one really cares what you do, or where you come from. No unconscious bias or privilege here – you are what you do.

Image credit: Stephanie Levy

“You cannot design policy or programs without understanding the context”

I wanted to share this experience because I believe you can learn from this kind of volunteering work a lot of what an internship or field work experience would have taught you – you can also put into practice a lot of the concepts that you learn this year. Here are a few examples.

We work with the NHS to extend access to the Covid vaccine to homeless people, who are five times more likely to die of Covid than the rest of the population. The NHS agreed to waive the identification requirements to allow for populations excluded from our health systems, such as rough sleepers and illegal migrants, to be protected from the virus – a simple measure that increases our ‘social welfare’ (DV 491 course). I suggested that we offer a luxury treat at the vaccination centre to provide an incentive against the vaccine hesitancy that we were faced with. We later found out that good old cinnamon buns have more appeal (and incentive power) than fancy chocolates. I also proposed to record the response rate to the vaccine invitation, by the volunteer gender, age, familiarity with the guest. A quantitative analysis of the data will help improve NHS strategy to increase take-up from a population that is hard to reach, with high vulnerability and need for medical care. A creative student could design a randomized control trial to find out what works best to improve the vaccine intake of this population, excluded from all official statistics.

Concepts that appeared in articles and lectures on Development Studies courses – administrative capacity, targeting strategies, environment impact, cost benefit analysis – need to be applied. Do we buy more cheap sleeping bags that may not be adequate for the worst winter nights, or choose fewer expensive ones, and not be able to provide bags for all rough sleepers?

You might have studied this year the challenges and trade-offs that policy makers face when designing a targeting strategy that is efficient and avoids excluding the population it aims to reach, under information and data constraints. These are the kind of trade-offs we face too. Here is a trivial example of that. When young ladies with Selfridge’s bags came out of the tube this week and asked for a hot chocolate with marshmallows, we served them with no question asked. Everyone who comes to us for coffee will get one: the stigma associated with coming to us for help is reduced this way.

The environmental impact of food waste reduction will also resonate with some of your master’s course content, stimulating your thought on how policy incentive could help achieve domestic targets.

Image credit: Stephanie Levy

Homelessness is the ultimate illustration of what multi-dimensional poverty means in our modern societies. Social cohesion, unequal access to public services, social welfare, preferences for redistribution – all concepts that you will recall as you start working for our guests. Above them all, social protection as a human right.

You cannot design policy and programs without understanding the context. Talking with our guests will help you understand the reality of living in poverty; the meaning of scarcity; the challenges they face surviving on our streets; the risks and constraints they deal with every day. Some of those you may already know, others you can’t imagine.

“What you will learn there, we cannot teach in our courses

As in rural Zambia, here too individuals living in poverty are highly vulnerable to financial shocks and stresses and excluded from economic processes. While you will not have the colourful markets and the picturesque African light to charm you – and the streets of London are grim, especially at dawn in December – you will develop and apply your sense of humanity, satisfy your desire to help, fulfil your aspirations to make a difference. And, if you are lucky, you will meet, on both sides of the coffee tables, individuals you will remember all your life.

There is an incredibly dense, rich, creative and resourceful and sometimes a bit crazy, invisible world around you, active 365 days of the year. Mostly invisible and yet often more efficient than local councils themselves and national schemes at meeting the needs of the most vulnerable around us in a tailored and compassionate manner.

Lockdown has been difficult for many of you: online learning challenging and the lack of human contact frustrating. You can find in community volunteering what you have been missing in your student’s halls this year. So, as my colleagues often say: ‘give a shift!’ Wherever you are, there is an initiative you can join, or create. What you will learn there, we cannot teach in our courses, yet it will make you a better development practitioner when you get to apply all you have learnt this year.

After months of talking to you via screens, I am looking forward to meeting you in person at one of our outreaches.



Stephanie Levy is a Guest Lecturer in the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics. Her research focuses on poverty, social protection and public policies in developing countries. She holds an MSc from the Sorbonne University and a PhD in development economics from Toulouse University.

This was first posted on the LSE's International Development blog. The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Photo by Liza Summer from Pexels

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