Global conference debates the potential and pitfalls of paying volunteers

Publié: 16 septembre 2011 16:31 CET

By Joe Lowry in Budapest

A stark and difficult set of questions was posed at the Global Volunteering Conference in Budapest today by Eduard Tschan, country representative and head of delegation for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Haiti.

The conference bought together over 200 participants from 65 Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, civil society organizations, academia, governments and the private sector to discuss - and celebrate - the value of volunteers.

Mr Tschan, speaking as a frontline field worker, challenged the concept of rewarding volunteers with ‘a cap and a t-shirt’, and said that in emergences such as the earthquake in Haiti, volunteers should be the first beneficiaries.
Acknowledging that his views could not be applied to all scenarios, Mr Tschan nevertheless said the movement needed to change the way it worked with volunteers. When faced with the belief that paying volunteers is not sustainable, Mr Tschan asked: “Are we talking about the sustainability of the volunteer or sustainability of our programmes?”
Volunteers, he said, have been the life-blood of the Haiti emergency and recovery programmes. The IFRC alone has engaged more than 5,000 people since the operation began, and these were part of a volunteer force of over 40,000, meaning that the six dollars per day that they are paid benefits 200,000 people in the volunteers’ extended families.
“I have worked with [the economist] Jeffrey Sachs and I share his belief that getting onto the first rung of the ladder is the hardest part for the world’s poorest people. A lot of people are taking that first step through volunteering in Haiti,” said Mr Tschan.
“We are talking about real people who want a job. They don’t want a sheet of tarpaulin; what they want is an opportunity, they want knowledge. And we can give it to them. There are many people in this room earning $80,000-100,000 a year; why are we debating whether or not to give people six dollars a day to volunteer?”
The point that pouring millions into Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies could leave them worse off than before major aid interventions was not lost on Mr Tschan. He said it was an issue he discussed regularly with Haiti Red Cross (HRC). Yet he noted that volunteers have been lifted out of poverty through the incentives paid to them in Haiti. They have been able to establish their own livelihoods, rather than depend on aid.
Taking care of volunteers in material terms in Haiti has improved service delivery, he said. But volunteers remain in danger as they are seen – particularly by the gangs who control some areas of the capital – as outsiders, tied to a rich international organisation.  “Are we protecting them?” asked Mr Tschan. “They know the communities best and should be seen not only as a means of service delivery but also as the best local intelligence. Our volunteers have helped us solve serious inter-community violence.”
The devotion of HRC volunteers was illustrated in a video screened during Mr Tschan’s address. It featured Robertson, a volunteer paramedic who said “I don’t see myself doing anything else till I die. And if there is a Red Cross in heaven, I want to be in it.”