Volunteering for development: making selves and building citizenship in Sierra Leone

  • Alice Chadwick El-Ali

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


Volunteering and development have become linked in global discourse around how to achieve social change. In this thesis I provide a critical examination of “volunteering for development” through ethnographic enquiry with volunteers and volunteer involving organisations (VIOs) in Sierra Leone. In Sierra Leone, as elsewhere, young people become the target to be empowered through volunteering programmes. I combine an organisational perspective with analysis of individual and collective experiences to show how development as an industry and discursive field works to create subjectivities of responsibility and self-development through volunteering. I explore the interaction between volunteering and development and look at what it produces in terms of selves and citizenship within Sierra Leonean moral and political economies of social relations and exchange. The moral economy of “volunteering for development” creates divisionary subjectivities between those who volunteer working responsibly for the development of the nation, and those who need to be sensitised to look beyond self-interest. I argue that volunteering provides individual and collective sense-making functions, operating as a moral economy of hoped for societal relationality, revealing something about the social and economic meaning of development. Perhaps more than elsewhere, Sierra Leone has endured collective moments of crisis such as the civil conflict and the Ebola outbreak (2014-2016). These moments have shaped the hybridisation of development models with Sierra Leonean experiences of social relationality and change. The role of volunteers during the Ebola outbreak bolstered governmental and non-governmental actors’ efforts to promote the “spirit of volunteerism” within a logic of realising potential and ideals of citizenship rooted in community-action, responsibility, and resilience. Whilst, at the same time volunteering provided opportunities for strategic incorporation into the development apparatus. This thesis conceptualises “volunteering for development” as a “universal template” which takes on divergent meanings within the practices and experiences of organisations and volunteers working around and within the development industry of a given context. Interpretations of development rooted in the need for individual change self-replicate globally but take on divergent meanings through hybridisation. In Sierra Leone, the relationality that volunteering engenders can also be collectively mobilised to form alliances around different visions of what being included in development means and claims of how development ought to function. Looking at organisational narratives alongside volunteers’ experiences reveals contested subjectivities of morality and citizenship.
Date of Award14 Feb 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorJoe Devine (Supervisor) & Luisa Enria (Supervisor)


  • volunteering
  • development
  • Sierra Leone
  • citizenship
  • NGOs
  • labour

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