Some thoughts after the “World Summit on Youth Volunteering”

“World Summit” sounds quite spectacular and formal, and so it was a nice surprise that we had difficulties to find the venue on the beautiful campus of Barranquilla’s Universidad del Norte. It was a long way to get there from Berlin, passing through Frankfurt, Dallas, Miami and Bogota, and I was hoping to find a place for constructive discussions and meaningful new connections, not a huge show-off event.

Flying over Greenland

But in spite of the encouraging start, the first hours put me into disappointment and nearly anger.

What I saw were bright professionals from governmental or government sponsored organisations presenting their generosity, patting our heads, and telling us that we were the “young heroes who can change the world” – which sounded to me like “yes kids, go on working for us for free, just don’t mess with anything serious”.

Once more I thought, why is this summit not organised by young volunteers, why are the participating young volunteers even required to pay fees to finance the wages of all these generous professionals telling us what heroes we were? I remembered the frustration when realising that we had to leave behind our friend Ivan from Uganda (founder of the Africa Challenge Foundation), who was supposed to join Joseph and me in our three(now two)-continent-anti-corruption presentation. The only support the organisers offered were flight vouchers from American Airlines, which left open for Ivan to pay for his flight from Uganda to an European AA-airport, to organise and pay for three visas, not to speak of the conference fees (reduced for presenters), the travel from Bogota to Barranquilla, accommodation costs and general travel expenditures we all had to cover. I consider it a big and straight forward failure of the organisers, to leave most of the fundraising for the summit to the participants (and presenters), who had use their volunteer time for this, and thereby almost completely exclude people from poorer backgrounds on other continents from participating in the “World Summit”.

A summit of great people - although some were missing...

The first encouraging moment was the speech of Hugh Evans, the founder of the Global Poverty Project, who has dedicated his life to end absolute poverty. His impressive success at young age out of personal commitment and readiness to take sacrifices for his cause inspired most of the audience. When later deciding on the the most memorable quote of the summit, our working group chose his citation of a South African anti-apartheid struggler, who had survived eight months of solitary confinement in a 1sqm cell to forgive his punishers and come back to Robben Island and show visitors around: “There are more important issues than my own issues”.

Besides that Hugh Evans’ story nicely fits with my doctrine to favour self-organised, non-patronised action by young people, he also provided interesting input for thought: As the only plenary speaker, he went beyond the charity aspect of volunteerism, stressing that absolute poverty cannot be eradicated through charity, but through system change. In a smaller circle later he gave an interesting example of how the governance wing of his organisation supports a civil society hero in Zimbabwe, who tries to push through his legal right against the (illegal) claims of president Mugabe.


The volunteering event staff from Barranquilla

Hugh also provided interesting advice for anybody who wants to push for change: Look for mentors, and look for the right mentors for your cause. As sceptical as I am of the danger of being patronised, he did convince me that if one choses one’s mentors carefully and listens to them consciously, they can be an irreplaceable help to increase one’s own capacities and impact. I also appreciated his insistence on the importance of personal integrity, and in particular his main comment on corruption: “By far not enough people care about corruption, and those who do don’t really know what to do about it”. Great analysis of the problem – time to tackle it!


Joseph presenting

The next two days there came quite a few further inspiring speakers, young people who spoke with impressive energy and clarity, showing once more that there is no need to depend on patronising professionals. For my taste though, there was too much repetition of what great heroes we are and how much we can change the world. At some point I wanted to put my hand up and say that I’m afraid we will not change the world. Not as long as we allow the structures to stay as they are, as long as we continue to play the game and let the impact of our volunteering efforts being undermined. Of course we argued this at our panel presentation. But I regret now that I did not raise this at the plenary sessions.


In any case, the real great value of the three days was meeting many great and nice people. I am looking forward to collaborate with many of them, both for Studies Without Borders as well as the FAIR Future Network. Our integrity vow cards also proved quite a success, people pro-actively encouraging us to scale them up to a proper campaign. So quite soon there will be more on this…

Not last, this summit was in Colombia, and so the dancing started as soon as music played. Amazing dancers all around, invited professional ones and hundreds spontaneous ones from the audience… No doubt, the summit was fun. Which compensated a bit for the little space for interesting content. We could only attend one panel presentation per day, otherwise we were put into workshops to contribute to a network the organisers wanted us to commit to. Thanks to the cool people the sessions were fun, but it did not really get clear what the purpose of this was (some cynics guessed the promotion of the organising organisation…).


Barranquilla's carneval queen with a participant

This brings me back to my main critique: Why was it impossible to support the travel, visa and accommodation costs of participants and presenters? Seeing the quite impressive list of sponsors, I could not help asking myself what they were actually sponsoring. Certainly not only the extraordinarily cheap catering at the lunch and coffee breaks. And the venue was provided by the Universidad del Norte, while the event staff were mostly student volunteers. Did the t-shirts (that advertise the said network of the organisers) and the nice looking cotton bags with a pen and a notebook justify 300-500$US conference fees? The technical equipment for stage and sound, and in particular the constant translation between Spanish and English via headphones certainly came at the positive side. Still, I’d be curious to see the complete budget of the summit…

Once again I am thinking, if I consider this event at least for me personally an success, than it was because of the other participants who made a personal effort to come, not because of the money spent on it.


PS: When approaching Dallas I was wondering why the farmers in Texas are cutting such strange shapes into their fields...


...then I thought that the forests must follow the fertile soil around meandering rivers, and the Texan farmers respect the forests...

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4 Responses to Some thoughts after the “World Summit on Youth Volunteering”

  1. Pancho says:

    Hey man, this is a great reflection! It was nice to meet you!.. I am glad I decided to read this!



  2. Agnetta says:

    Thank you so much for sharingFelix. This is great and helpful information for those of us who missed the event. The feedback information is very elaborate and excellently put. Keep up the good work :)

    Much love from Kenya,

  3. Pingback: Youth Volunteering « Management4Volunteers Blog

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