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Are Volunteer Programs Empowering — or Exploitative?

Categories: Sub-Saharan Africa, Cambodia, Gambia, Senegal, Development, Health, Humanitarian Response, Ideas

This article by Angilee Shah for The World originally appeared [1] on PRI.org on December 19, 2013 and is republished as part of a content sharing agreement.

Giving time to a cause you believe in can be extremely rewarding. As Demba Kandeh, a volunteer worker in the Gambia, explained, “Volunteering is a beautiful thing.”

But when do volunteer programs empower and when do they exploit? Does building this kind of workforce benefit communities? Would essential services simply not be provided if it weren't for volunteers, as several people told Amy Costello in her investigation of volunteer health workers in Senegal [2].

With help in part from the Global Voices community of bloggers, we found perspectives from around the globe.

Laura Morris, 28, an editor [for Rising Voices [3]] in Paris, spent five months as a volunteer for a small NGO in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and seven months as a volunteer for an organization that provides care for the elderly in London. Morris says she understood why the Cambodian organization did not pay her — she was the only foreigner there, and they could not have afforded the salary — but she thinks that the London nonprofit simply took advantage of a tough job market and gave her work that should have been performed by a paid employee.

“I volunteered for it, so it was my decision to work with them, but I was also asked to do work that I absolutely should have been paid for, that was much higher than entry-level,” Morris says.

Demba Kandeh, 26, is a journalist in the West African nation of The Gambia who volunteers for Humanity First, an international development and relief organization. He believes it is appropriate — and necessary — for small charities in poor countries to rely on volunteer labor.

“Poor countries like the Gambia or small NGOs can't afford fully paid staff for all the work that they really do. And all this work is really beautiful, and the only way to carry on is through volunteers,” Kandeh says.

Andrea Coleman, 66, is co-founder and CEO of Riders for Health, an international non-profit organization that manages ambulances and other health care-related transportation in seven African countries. Her organization does not rely on volunteers. She believes large NGOs should pay their workers.

“I can't think of a reason why international NGOs would recruit volunteers and not pay them,” Coleman says.

Faisal Kapadia

Faisal Kapadia, 38, calls himself an “accidental relief worker.” He helped start the volunteer organization SA Relief in 2005 after a massive earthquake rocked northern Pakistan. He says that using volunteers allows his organization to mobilize and make decisions quickly, without having to wait for approval from a distant central office. “A volunteer structure adds a lot of flexibility,” he says. “I feel that a group of people working together in a relief situation is much better than a formalized structure because it reacts faster.”

Jamal Badr

Jamal Badr, 33, volunteers on the executive committee of Hemmat Shabab, a youth-focused development organization that helps poor families in Yemen. Badr says his organization struggles to retain volunteers because it cannot provide even simple perks like transportation or meals. He says his charity appeals to volunteers by connecting with their cultural values. “We talk about Islam, which encourages people to do volunteer work.” says Badr. “But we never tell people that we will pay them. We don't have money. This is the reality.”

Eduardo López Therese

Eduardo López Therese, 64, volunteered for the Peru Red Cross for about 30 years, providing emergency relief and comfort to survivors of disasters. It is not just charities that benefit from volunteer programs, he says. Some volunteers benefit from their work for the charities. Lopez Therese says he has seen medical volunteers use the Red Cross to sign up new patients for their private clinics. “I never thought about taking advantage of people whom we helped,” López Therese says.

Marietta Le, 26, is a journalist who works for Átlátszó, a Hungarian NGO that investigates government corruption. The organization relies on volunteers. She says volunteers provide more than free labor; they help spread the word of the organization's efforts and they genuinely want to be part of the organization’s successes.

“You can involve more people in your work. It's a sort of promotion or advocacy for our work,” she says. “Volunteers can say they helped Átlátszó with a story that helped fight corruption in Hungary.”

Vera Weghmann, 28, volunteered for War on Want in London for six months in 2012. She says that too many volunteer programs replace entry-level jobs with unpaid volunteers and interns. This contributes to what she calls the “elitization of the nonprofit sector,” creating an environment in which only people with financial means can afford to gain the work experience required to get a job.

“I'm not against volunteering in general,” she says. “But I do think we need to distinguish between volunteering which is volunteering, and volunteering which is an abuse of unpaid labor.”

Have you volunteered for a nonprofit organization? Share your own experiences and follow the hashtag #TrackingCharity [4] on Twitter to discuss.