Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Moral Value of Volunteerism and Other Myths

As I settle into my job, I read more and more about other NGOs and programs that tout the use of local volunteers. m2m always pays local staff members, despite the fact that this is often controversial, can be a big fight in budget negotiations and is repeatedly the first thing funders and governments try to cross off the expenditures list. m2m insists on paying Mentor Mothers, the new mothers living with HIV who counsel pregnant women and new mothers about prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, and Site Coordinators, who are also mothers living with HIV that manage the m2m sites at clinics and hospitals. The reason for this is that, to quote Paul Farmer (or paraphrase; I hear it often here but have not come across the original quotation): “volunteerism is a tax on the poor.” Asking locals to volunteer means that they are taken away from performing tasks and jobs that contribute to household income. Furthermore, providing a Mentor Mother with a salary identifies her as a professionalized peer counselor and (with hope) can empower her. Many MMs have never held a paying job, and their income from m2m supports their families, gives them access to better living and dietary conditions, and trickles through the community, as MMs support local businesses.

This, for me, is one of the great strengths of m2m. We treat our staff as professionals and are able to hold them accountable for their work. The MMs are seen as part of the healthcare system and not below it (though admittedly there are occasional problems related to HIV-status-based discrimination at some clinics or just snobby healthcare workers who see the MMs as lower, even though they often do the work of trained nurses). Furthermore, the MMs are role models for pregnant women and new mothers living with HIV, since they went through the same situation in terms of being HIV-positive in pregnancy, going through PMTCT care, or disclosing their status to their families and communities, and now have jobs and live positively and successfully.

So, when I read these blurbs about how great it is to recruit volunteers instead of paying staff a wage, I don’t understand. It makes the most sense in terms of cost cutting—asking locals to do jobs that benefit their communities for free. It seems that NGOs, however, seem to know that promoting local volunteerism is on shaky ground because they always seem to go further, to try for an extra justification, which usually boils down to this: volunteerism promotes responsibility, sustainability, and self-reliance. I don’t particularly understand the whole “sustainability” and “self-reliance” argument. It’s not sustainable because volunteers are by nature transitory—very few people can volunteer for their whole lives. Volunteerism can give someone skills and training, but down the road, self-reliance goes out the window: if people do not have jobs, they cannot rely on themselves to provide for their families. It’s a vicious cycle, and a cynic might say that promoting volunteerism also promotes dependence and cements the NGO as a fixture in the community: refuse to pay the local person a wage but give them the medicines and food they cannot afford to buy (this is a topic that I find a bit uncomfortable because I believe in providing free medicines, food, and other support, and I certainly don’t want to undermine NGO work or state-sponsored welfare, but sometimes aid workers have to admit that NGO practices create cycles of dependence that deepen and worsen over time).

Now, I volunteered in Sierra Leone for nine months, but I considered that a luxury, just as when I used to be a vegetarian, I knew that it was a luxury to refuse to eat something. I was lucky enough to be able to choose to be a volunteer. For those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to afford to volunteer, it almost becomes a duty: I should give back for all that I have been given (again, uncomfortable territory—if you haven’t read Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” go do so and you’ll see why). But those same notions of volunteerism should not apply to low income countries. If people are so poor that they cannot get food on the table or buy a bed net for their children, then it is immoral to ask them to volunteer, even if the service provided will better their community. NGOs need to learn to stand up to donors and funders and say that the people they serve will be infinitely better off if they are hired as paid or compensated staff.

And NGOs also need to understand that the NGO world should be fundamentally unsustainable, that NGOs should work themselves out of a job. I’m not saying that all organizations should leave a particular country to fend for itself or that devolution to national governments is going to happen overnight, but we in the NGO sector should hope to be unemployed in our lifetimes, should hope that the jobs that we set out to do—seeing an HIV-free generation, eradicating malaria, ending violence against women, eliminating land mines—should also be eliminated because they have been completed. NGO work should not be a business, which is not to say that aid workers should not be paid or have good working conditions or that we should work on a shoestring (the old colonial approach, by the way) and do without the overhead or operational/administrative costs that support programs. But that is a larger discussion. More important, first and foremost, is that NGOs should pay local staff members instead of demanding that they work as volunteers. This is the first step towards helping build more prosperous, self-reliant, and innovative communities, a way to build empowerment for the future. Because without economic prosperity, good health is hard to find.

Further Reading:
I've linked it above, but The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle by Ann Goggins Gregory and Don Howard in The Standford Social Innovation Review is a good read about why overhead cost restrictions for nonprofits is not a great idea...If you want to give to a nonprofit, please make sure your donations are unrestricted.

No comments:

Post a Comment