Motivation Towards Voluntary Social Services: An Example of the ‘Apas’ in Bastuhara Colony

Caption: Conducting informal discussion with a group of female volunteers at Bastuhara Colony in Khulna

In a world driven by monetary transactions and material pursuits, there are individuals who willingly dedicate their time, skills, and energy to non-paid work. But, what motivates these volunteers to engage in unpaid work, when the pressures of earning a living and fulfilling personal needs loom large? In our recent field work in Khulna, we crossed paths with a group of women who, despite their financial hardships, have found a way to give time to their community by taking on voluntary work.

Our purpose of this write up would be clearer if we discuss this with evident data. ‘BIGD’ is conducting collaborative research in Khulna named ‘Durdiner Diary’ (Chronicles of Hard Times) with the Institute of Development Studies, UK. This study is designed to understand the governance needs of the ‘new poor’ population in Khulna in the context of Covid-19, although our writing is not primarily focused on that.  Of the four selected areas for this study, the Bastuhara colony in Khulna city is one such colony where we came across a group of voluntary female social workers. People rely on them for economic and social support. And this support has been around for a long time. The head of the group Jamila apa (pseudonym), has been affiliated with several NGOs and government service sectors since 1997.

The Story of Becoming Apa [1]

Jamila apa got married at a young age, to a husband who was struggling financially. Consequently, she was looking for an earning source. She signed up for an NGO that launched tailoring training in Bastuhara. The NGO however turned out to be a farce, as they took a registration fee and fled with the money. She went to seek support from a local (murubbi)…Mannan Sharif (a respected figure in Bastuhara as a freedom fighter) who convinced them to join the training in the first place. But he couldn’t give a solution or compensation. He suggested they contact then MP Kalam (pseudonym). She immediately gathered all the women who registered for the training and went to the MP to resolve the issue. He suggested they form an association for helping women so that he can formally offer some allowance for them to start their own training on tailoring. Jamila apa then approached Mannan Sharif again and he helped them to get in touch with the Department of Women Affairs, where she went to explain their woes. The DoWA told her that the registration process of their association would require a lot of investment of time and effort. As part of the registration, they were required to form a committee of 9 members including a president, a vice-president, a treasurer, a secretary and general members. Jamila Apa was selected as the president by the rest of the members even though she had less education than some of them. They felt her courage and her knowledge of using both formal and informal channels to solve their problems and this cemented her position as the lead. Since then till today, she has been connecting people to access services and solve people’s grievances. The trust she gained from people eventually helped her to successfully build a team.

What Do the ‘Apas’ Do?

‘Apas’ essentially act as intermediaries between the beneficiaries and service providers. They have a committee of 10-12 women. Initially, they started working with NGOs such as BRAC, Nobolok, Karitash, ASA and many more in implementing incentives like cash distribution among the small business owners, house renovation projects, skill development training etc. Their work has since expanded into working with the government too.They are connected with the city corporation, their commissioner and ward councilor- “The ward councilor or commissioner will not do anything without informing us”, quoted by Salma apa (pseudonym), one of the volunteers. Their responsibility is to help the NGOs and the local government to identify the suitable beneficiary in the colony by providing their household profiles and recommending suitable target groups as per their evaluation.

When the people in the community encounter challenges, they ask the apa’s for assistance a lot of the time.They seek their suggestions and assistance to get TCB card, VGD card, ration card etcetera. People get birth certificates, and trade licenses via their network. The colony people approach them when they find it difficult to access the service providers directly. In fact, our participants claimed that it’s easier for them to reach the authorities via this informal channel rather than following the formal procedure. Moreover, communication barriers can severely hamper accessing services. Our participants mentioned more specifically about the government schemes. To avoid the bureaucratic affliction, they consult with this group.

Most of the time they offer their skills, effort and time without monetary pay. The reality of life is that people have to earn an income to meet their needs and wants. But these female volunteers are driven by a desire to be of service to other people, and a byproduct of this effort has brought trust, respect and ultimately a distinct position within the community. Some of them acknowledged that spending time in community work gave them a sense of leadership and empowerment; factors they stated were more gratifying and motivating than a salaried job. Their persistent effort is directed towards a particular goal. Their voluntary works are driven by strategic interests and the pursuit of individual or collective goals like earning respect and leadership from the colony people and utilizing that for the welfare of the colony.

How Voluntary Services Turned into Social Capital?

They claim to earn people’s trust, honor and confidence in return for the services they provide. Jamila apa narrated her acceptance among these people with pride, “Colony people expect to witness me as an election candidate but I don’t want to get involved in politics. I earned people’s trust and love, that is enough for me.” Her disinterest in running as a candidate is because of the disrespect women go through in politics. Providing services to the people of her community seems more honorable to her. Not only is she able to help and provide services to others, but she also emphasized how she also receives help and support when she needs it. Kulsum apa (pseudonym), another member of this group, shared her strategies to be on good terms with her fellow volunteers. She works according to the instructions she gets from the members who belong to a comparatively more commanding position as they work by maintaining a hierarchy. Her statements demonstrated her aspiration to be like Jamila apa someday so that she can achieve the equal level of respect and trust of the community.

The case of the social worker group of Bastuhara is an example of assuring ‘social capital’ by participating in voluntary social work to gain people’s trust, and love, have strong positional grounding in the community, as well as get reciprocal help from the community. As per Pierre Bourdieu’s narration, the conceptualization of social capital is based on the recognition that capital is not only economic, and social exchanges are not purely self-interested, and need to encompass capital and profit in all their forms. For him, social capital is a resource that individuals and groups can leverage to their advantages within social networks and structures. In this case, the group of ‘Apas’ and their useful networks are the resources for the community that they utilize to meet both personal (NID, birth certificate, VGD card) and collective (infrastructural developments) demands. Providing voluntary services is the mechanism for the volunteers to sustain their position and leadership within the colony, to mobilize their social capital. Their expansive connections with the NGOs and government service providers play a major role in the community development. These volunteers hold the power of helping people to access such services which ensures a distinct position for them. As social capital emphasizes on utilizing objective relationships among individuals or groups, they could be a suitable example of such objective exchanges. The ‘Apas’ may not get any immediate feedback from the people they are helping, but their voluntary role has an impact in the long run. This vision motivates them to engage themselves in a wider social network despite the limited or no monetary gain.

*These views are based on our own observations and reflections from the data we have collected, and have aimed to shed light on ‘voluntary work’ from an anthropological lens. Our goal was to show that a phenomenon like ‘voluntary work’ is more than just a mere act of social service.



[1] The term used to address the social workers within the colony


Rabeena Sultana Ananna is a Research Associate and Madhuri Goswami is a Project Assistant at the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD)