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(2019-2020) Negotiating the consequences of ‘Doing Good’: How anthropological perspectives inform Student Development and Community Engagement initiatives at the University of Manchester

by | Dec 6, 2019 |

By Arabella Cable, Adam Finn, Mimi Hedfi, Anna Milligan, Heather Rayner, Amber Thornicroft, and Miriam Van Teutem

What it means to ‘do good’ in humanitarian and developmental spaces has increasingly become a source of contention. The Student Development and Community Engagement     Division (SDCE) at the University of Manchester (UoM) provide the opportunity for students to participate in volunteering initiatives which are aimed at ‘doing good’. According to the SDCE division, ‘doing good’ is premised on ‘doing something that aims primarily to benefit the environment or someone (individuals or groups) other than close relatives’ (SDCE, 2019). The act of ‘doing good’ often involves complex exchanges between volunteers and recipients. These exchanges produce different kinds of knowledge and can have unintended consequences for both participants and recipients of volunteer initiatives. We posit these consequences on the volunteers as being related to Mauss’ (1950) conception of gift exchange, Fetcher’s (2016) notion of ‘moral labour’ and the conceptualization of recipients as ‘objects of aid’. We suggest that these anthropological perspectives facilitate an understanding of the complex consequences of ‘doing good’ at UoM. 

The motivations behind volunteering initiatives at UoM can be viewed generally as providing students with an opportunity to ‘do good’ through an involvement in altruistic giving. However, it appears important to note that giving is rarely completely altruistic and this is demonstrated through Mauss’ (1950) analysis of the Gift. We understand that any gift warrants some sort of exchange and this may be found in university initiatives such as the ‘STELLIFY’ award and UoM’s ‘flagship international opportunity’ Team Uganda, in which students completed over 10,000 hours of volunteering during the time it ran. When students are  endowed with a ‘prestigious’ award or certificate after completing humanitarian aid work, it may be argued that this contradicts the common sense idea that The Gift should be given freely without the contagion of personal gain. Contrastingly, Mauss (1950) explored how the giving of a gift uncovers a system in which reciprocation is expected. Whether it is a moral transaction, such as feeling noble and having purpose, hands on aid work, or a transactional force through which to control people and make money through offering aid – which can be considered in the realm of ‘disaster capitalism’ (Klein 2005) – there is always a transaction within The Gift. Thus, this analysis brings to the fore the ways in which a university student may expect an element of reciprocity to come from their volunteer work, most notably the indirect reciprocity of boosted employability and career advancement. Therefore, the consequences of ‘doing good’ may be viewed as exchanges that focus heavily on the benefits for students rather than recipients. We ask, however: Is this necessarily a bad thing? What kinds of things should we pay attention to in this dynamic in order to avoid potentially negative unintended consequences?

Another way of examining the exchanges involved in volunteering initiatives at UoM is to analyse the unintended, and potentially unexamined, consequences for students. When student volunteers participate in institutionalized initiatives at UoM, it is imperative that the university take responsibility for their welfare. The concept of moral labour, most thoroughly explored by Fechter (2016), is pertinent here. Fechter argues for a renewed focus on the process of labour itself, rather than a sole focus on its products. Through ethnographic fieldwork, Fechter highlights the emotional challenges aid workers often face and ultimately makes a call for greater focus on these experiences.  However, it appears the subject of moral labour goes under the radar as university schemes seem to be heavily focussed on what students will gain from them as individuals.  Therefore, it should be asked how these initiatives account for and manage the emotional difficulty experienced by some volunteers. We would suggest that both the university and its students would benefit from pursuing efforts to account for the moral labour of volunteer initiatives. For example, this could be achieved by ensuring volunteers have support networks and people to whom they can share their experiences with. We believe a focus on the moral labour of student volunteers has the potential to maximise volunteer’s efforts to ‘do good’. 

In addition to the consequences of ‘doing good’ for students, it is equally important to explore the potential consequences of these exchanges for recipients.   SDCE volunteering initiatives, such as ‘Team Uganda’, raise the question: when we aim to instigate change in a particular space, what does it mean to become a recipient of that intervention? To simply view recipients as ‘objects of aid’ is problematic in and of itself as this view has the potential to reinforce binaries such as the local’ versus the ‘global’ and the ‘Western’ versus the ‘indigenous’. The reinforcement of such distinctions can create divisions between aid workers and recipients. Yarrow (2008) explores how Ghanaian NGO workers negotiate the difference between ‘Western’ and ‘indigenous’ knowledge when creating a participatory report on fighting forest fires. Although the report aimed to harness local knowledge, local people agreed with it and had nothing to contribute. Local people’s participation in the project was therefore not visible to those commissioning the report.  In this case, the idea of participatory methods and collaboration became obsolete and challenged the NGO workers in ways they did not expect. As part of the consequences of ‘doing good’, similarly to Ghanaian NGO workers, students will face unexpected challenges in their volunteering experiences. Ultimately, this will shape how they negotiate the exchanges made between themselves and their recipients.  It is therefore important that students are made aware of these challenges to avoid the unintended consequence of alienating the very people that the initiatives seek to help.  

The anthropological perspectives outlined above have provided us with a lens through which to view UoM’s volunteering initiatives critically. The concept of the Gift has helped inform the complexity of exchanges between student and aid receiver, whilst looking at moral labour has illuminated the potential implications of carrying out such work. Finally, looking further into aid receivers as objects of intervention has uncovered problems in the way aid is presented to those who receive it. Ultimately, these concepts have allowed us to call to attention a need for further discussions about student volunteering initiatives in order to minimise as much as possible, the unintended consequences for both volunteers and recipients. 


Fechter, A-M. (2016) ‘Aid work as moral labour’, Critique of Anthropology, 36(3), pp. 228–243

Klein, N. (2005) The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Available at: 

Mauss, M. (1950[1923]) The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. [Pp.1-14, 33-43, 65-71] (2019). Volunteers | The University of Manchester. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Dec. 2019].

Yarrow, T. (2008) ‘Negotiating Difference: Discourses of Indigenous Knowledge and Development in Ghana’, Political and Legal Anthropology Review (PoLAR), 31(2), pp. 224-242.