Development & Education

Are volunteer programs empowering — or exploitative?

Volunteers serve food to people at a Saylani Welfare Trust food distribution centre in Karachi, Pakistan, in June, 2013. As part of a Tracking Charity series discussion we want to know, are volunteer programs empowering — or exploitative?

Credit:

Akhtar Soomro/Reuters

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

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

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, 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, 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.

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