Prior to arriving in Malawi I read several articles about the country’s young population. Malawi has a population growth rate of about 2.75%, which is high in comparison to other countries. With a fast growing population, Malawi has a young demographic with 46% of the population under 15 and 73% of the population under 35 years old.

When reading about the high concentration of youth in the country, it was not surprising to discover that, on average, it takes five years for Malawi youth to find employment after finishing their education. Additionally, the highest concentration of youth employment in Malawi is in the informal sector of the economy. The high rates of unemployment and precarious work positions among Malawi youth present opportunities for the development of youth engagement strategies within the country.

Since I originally came to Malawi with the intention of volunteering full time for the Technical, Entrepreneurial and Vocational Education and Training Authority and the Malawi Milk Producers Association, when I considered youth engagement in Malawi, I was focused on agriculture and entrepreneurship. However, after changing positions to work with the World University Service of Canada’s (WUSC) Malawi office as a Program Support Officer, I have been introduced to a different form of youth engagement in Malawi– national volunteering.

A national volunteer refers to an individual who volunteers in their own country. Before arriving in Malawi, I was not aware that the Uniterra program offers national volunteering positions. After getting a better understanding of the concept in the Uniterra context, the idea of national volunteering in Malawi became more interesting to me after I attended a meeting chaired by the United National Volunteers (UNV) program.

UNV is currently working with the Malawi government to create a Volunteer Framework for the country. While the meeting I attended had several stakeholders which have both national and international volunteer programs (for example WUSC, the Voluntary Service Overseas, and Ladder to Learning) the focus of the discussion was primarily on engaging and supporting national volunteers in Malawi.

While the proposal of national volunteering in Malawi may seem simple, especially from a Canadian perspective where volunteering is often a common act, when discussed during the meeting, volunteering was described as something almost irrational. One of the stakeholders stated that when individuals discussed national volunteering in Malawi, people respond “working for free? You have to be crazy”. The sentiment was shared by other stakeholders at the table who had heard similar statements when they engaged in volunteer activities after completing their university degrees.

However, while volunteering might seem crazy to some people, it is important to also consider the future benefits associated with the act. At the meeting with the UNV, which consisted of approximately 12 individuals, at least half of the people had earned their current work positions through volunteering. While I am not naive enough to suggest that volunteering is a solution for all members of Malawi’s population, because a volunteer position certainly does not buy food, pay the bills, or erase the legacy of colonialism in Malawi, the stakeholders at the UNV meeting did suggest that volunteering presents an opportunity for some members of Malawi’s young population to build their capacity to secure positions in the formal economy.

Before volunteering is accepted as a form of capacity building in Malawi, there is a need to change the perception of the act. While volunteering may not be an immediate source of income for Malawians, it has the potential to create opportunities for the future and work towards the country’s national growth strategy which focuses on “building a productive, competitive, and resilient nation”. Additionally, volunteering must be approached in a local way. This might involve organizations arranging for the transportation of volunteers to and from work or providing them with a meal during office hours. By lessening the financial burden of volunteering, it becomes more accessible to a larger proportion of Malawi’s young population.

Although volunteering may not be an option for everyone in Malawi, it has the potential to support the country’s growth. Just as Uniterra’s Students Without Borders program does not solely benefit the partner organization, but also offers opportunities for youth to gain work experience, national volunteering can support the growth of Malawi’s GDP and help diversify the country’s workforce by benefiting both organizations and volunteers. By supporting national volunteering in Malawi, organizations have the potential to promote education, economic opportunities and empowerment for youth in Malawi, which addresses the key objective of WUSC as a development organization.

Click here to read an article about a Malawian national volunteer working with the UNV to promote the use of local products.