International volunteering – it starts with respect

Australian volunteer Ellen Gallagher (middle) with Alola Foundation colleagues Elisita Roserio (L) and Francisco Guterres (R). Australian volunteers have supported the work of Timor-Leste’s Alola Foundation to advocate for the rights of women and children and nurture female leaders since 2001. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono.

For me, ethics in leadership provides a solid foundation from which to discuss leadership for inclusive development. Ethical leadership is an approach that is grounded in examining and challenging our own values and principles; an approach that requires us to cultivate a well-informed conscience; and an approach that urges us to pursue those worthy challenges that each of us are best fit for and in doing so to act, with courage and compassion, to create something better.

The RDI Conference theme “Leadership for inclusive development”, makes me think of a phrase that I have come across through my involvement in volunteering for a small, innovative, community development organisation (called the Indigo Foundation) which has as its central ethos:  “The first thing we offer is respect”.

This phrase sounds so simple. But is actually quite demanding to live and work by. Skilled volunteers offer technical skills and expertise to the organisations they work with. But the first thing volunteers must offer is respect: respect for the people they work with, and the communities they find themselves living in. This equally applies to leaders who wish to promote inclusive development.

I believe that it is important that we consider the theme of “Leadership for Inclusive Development” both as “a way of thinking”; and as “an act of doing”. Promoting diversity and inclusion are principles to strive to live and work by. But it is not always easy, because being inclusive starts with challenging our way of seeing the world and each other.

It is my experience that the politics of exclusion is often an easier path than the politics of inclusion. Here I am talking not just about big ‘P’ politics but also about little ‘p’ politics: that is the politics between people and within communities and organisations.

When we see something new or different, often the first thing we do is make a judgement based on a series of assumptions. These assumptions come from how we think about and react to a range of human differences. Differences can be cultural and religious; they can relate to gender identities that include, but go beyond, the binary notion of male and female; differences relating to sexual orientation or socio-economic backgrounds; difference in abilities; age and political beliefs.

It is within this complex context of human differences; that inclusive development needs to start as “a way of thinking”. A way of thinking that begins with the offer of respect. A way of thinking that then follows through into our practical actions and into to how we “do” our work.

One of the reasons I love working for the Australian Volunteers Program is that it provides Australians with the incredible opportunity to live in another community, and to understand who faces barriers to development and progress.

Volunteering is an experience that can nurture empathy and challenge us to see our own biases.

At its best, volunteering reminds us of our common humanity and of our global citizenship. We are not all alike, but we are all equal. International volunteers learn that there is value and richness and strength in our diversity; and that an inclusive society can promote and sustain a sense of belonging.

Enhancing inclusive development is a significant focus of the Australian Volunteers Program. Our approach to promoting inclusive development across the program is guided by our commitment to access and equity. It is also driven by the knowledge that a more diverse and inclusive program leads to better development outcomes.

While we have a proud history of supporting work that advocates and provides services for women and girls, people with disabilities and the LGBTIQ community, we know there is so much more to do.

If you or your organisation is interested in partnering with us to support inclusive development, please say hello to the Australian Volunteers Program team at the conference.