Rethinking volunteering – reverse programs to the global north

The German government and civil society organizations are conducting an interesting experiment – and apparently a pretty successful one, too. Within the last four years almost 2000 volunteers from countries of the global south – development countries – came to Germany for their reverse voluntary service. They work in kindergartens, support local NGOs and international development agencies, support schools and work with elderly people. The important thing: Volunteers don’t have to pay for the stay. Their work and all occurring costs are covered by the government, NGOs and donors. But why?

N.B.: This text has originally been published at our friends from vofair.

Ever since the German government offered the possibility to volunteer as an alternative to the compulsory military service for young male adults, Germany has a strong track record in volunteering locally but also internationally. Since 2008, the government supports long-term international volunteer services for young men and women in the global south financially. Since the implementation of the program, volunteers, participating organizations and organizations from overseas demanded the implementation of a reverse volunteering program. This was almost impossible due to the strict German visa regulations.  In 2013 the government decided to start with a pilot program to gain some first experience.


The idea beyond this reverse program – north to south and otherwise – is to create a learning environment and to enable volunteers and their environment to make international and intercultural experiences first hand. People who never visited the other side of the world often do not have a good idea about the realities and their images are forged by movies, exotic stories and formal education still heavily influenced by colonial perspectives to those “down or up there”. This idea of global learning wants people to realize the tight economical, ecological and political connections worldwide. The basic idea of this global learning is to create awareness to the fact, that all humanity is living on one only planet that is heavily integrated. This integration results in a common responsibility for each other.


Volunteers who had the chance to see and to understand these interconnections are expected to reflect this in their personal decisions, for example in not buying “fast fashion” or drinking fair trade coffee only, but also in their professional life. Equipped with profound international experiences, language skills they are expected to become decisions makers that also reflect the sustainability of their decisions. But of course it is also about connecting people, building networks of like-minded people and making friends.


This impact of this volunteer program is hard to describe and not easy to measure. But there are implications that suggest that the experience of a volunteer trip abroad is much more effective with young people from the global south volunteering in Germany. During their stay, they come in contact with at least hundreds of locals (Germans in this case!) who then have the chance to get to know a “real” Asian, African or South-American who will tell his or her own story and with whom they may become friends.

Also, a stay in Germany is almost a guaranteed career boost for the participants after returning home and with their learning experience they can be influential and confident decision makers.


Of course, the idea of equality among the participants is also a driving factor for the implementation of this program. There is simply no reason why some young people should have the chance to volunteer with public support only because of their German citizenship. If Germans expect to be welcomed as volunteers worldwide, it appears to be a question of fairness to receive and support volunteers in Germany as well.  


The success of the program is currently evaluated, first results of the evaluation are expected to be released in November 2016. Without anticipating, it is probable that the program will be continued and expanded. One result of the program is for sure: Sending organisations from Germany have learned what it means to receive volunteers.