Guideline #2 for volunteering overseas

Don’t volunteer to do what a local person could be paid to do

When it gets right down to it, the fundamental reason why people may need aid is that they don’t have enough money to pay for something themselves. Anyone that has enough money could meet all of their own needs. Saudi Arabia has very little local food production, but they don’t have a food crisis because they have the money to pay to import food. People wouldn’t need an aid agency to come in and build school for them if they could earn a good enough money to contribute to the cost of the school themselves. Therefore, one key to alleviating poverty is creating jobs that pay a living wage. By working for free to do something a local person could be hired to do, you are essentially undercutting the local labor market, thereby continuing the poverty cycle.

It is always best to hire local people rather than shipping in volunteers

Imagine living in an area with high unemployment rates, where you and several of your family members are unemployed, can’t find work, and struggling to survive. If you were given the choice between having a group of volunteers come into the area to build a school/house/health clinic for you or instead have people from the area to be  paid to construct the building, which would you choose? If you were given the choice between having foreign volunteers, that may not speak the local language, lead after school programs for your children, or have local people hired to lead those same programs, which would you choose?

By paying local people to build the center or tend the children, more people have jobs and can feed, clothe, and educate their family, rather than relying on the largess of aid agencies. In addition, they will likely buy most food and supplies locally, thereby stimulating the local economy. In contrast, if volunteers are brought in the community looses out on the addition of paying jobs, and there is the real possibility that the volunteers will spend less money in the local economy then local workers would have spent.

Another example contributed in the comments to one of my blog posting was that of foreign surgeons being flown into a country to perform surgeries on things such as cleft palets. The writer commented that local surgeons are often able to do that same procedure. Wouldn’t it be far better to fund local surgeons thereby creating a market for even more people to become surgeons, rather than undercutting the market by paying to bring in foreigners?

The New England Journal of Medicine talks about the problems with short-term medical brigades

I imagine that I’ll have some people that don’t agree with me. They may argue that the aid agency wouldn’t be able to afford to pay local staff to build the school, and so volunteers are the only choice. Or they may argue that they couldn’t attract donors to the project if they paid local doctors instead. I would question the business model of that aid agency. Were the individual projects and the business model developed to meet the needs of the local people or to meet the needs of the donors.

Volunteers should work to build the capacity of the local staff

Instead of volunteering in ways that undercut the local job market, it would be more sustainable and better for the local economy to use skilled volunteers to build the capacity of the local staff. An ideal volunteer situation would use a significant part of that person’s time to train and mentor local staff so that they can eventually do the job themselves. Thereby improving the local job force and decreasing the need for a constant stream of volunteers.

When we had a volunteer accountant work with us he spent a lot of his time training our local accountant as well as developing systems and forms that could be used by her over the long run. This helped increase the ability of our accountant and made our accounting system more user friendly. Your goal as a volunteer should always be to work yourself out of a job.

Volunteer in ways that support rather than undercuts the local job market

If your families well-being relied on you finding work, you wouldn’t want a foreign volunteer, or for many people an undocumented worker, coming in and taking jobs away from you and your neighbors. It is always best to hire local staff whenever possible so that volunteers do not take jobs away from those they are trying to help.
Do you agree or disagree? I welcome feedback that will help clarify, tweak, or improve the guidelines so that potential volunteers can use these to make informed decisions.

Related posts:

Guideline #1 for volunteering overseas
Guideline #3 for volunteering overseas
Guideline #4 for volunteering overseas
Why do we so often give aid in ways that do not support the local economy?
Beggars can’t be choosers, but are they really beggars?