World leaders are counting on volunteers to help
attain the Millennium Development Goals. But why then is
the volunteer contribution so grossly under-counted? What
can we do to support them?
When the torrential monsoon rains caused the Indus to break
its banks and rage through northern Pakistan, Fawwad Sherwani,
a 36-year-old Pakistan Red Crescent Society (PRCS) volunteer
from Karachi, immediately joined the relief teams.
Working both in PRCS camps and in the Karachi ‘control
room’, Sherwani helped assess the needs on the ground
and communicate that to headquarters. He helped establish
routes to get aid to victims via boats, jeeps and helicopters.
An experienced aid worker who has responded to earth-quakes,
suicide bombings and cyclones, Sherwani doesn’t think
too much about the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) when
he puts on his Red Crescent vest and cap and rushes off to
an emergency. He just likes to help people and, even though
he doesn’t get paid, it’s his job, what he was
But as 2011 (the tenth anniversary of the first Year of
the Volunteer) begins, global health and political leaders
say the consistent efforts of volunteers such as Sherwani
are critical to achieving global Millennium Development Goals,
a series of eight development targets that governments have
pledged to meet by 2015 (see box).
Take the case of polio. Health experts say that volunteer
efforts — including the extensive networks of National
Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in countries such
as Afghanistan and Nigeria — are one reason why the
disease’s eradication is now in sight. The network
allows vaccination programmes to go the ‘last mile,’ reaching
deep into communities that are often hard for outsiders to
access. During a measles campaign in Mozambique’s Nampula
province, for example, Red Cross volunteers helped achieve
a 97 per cent coverage rate, compared to 88 per cent in other
rural areas (a critical difference when fighting diseases
that develop resistance and spread quickly).
Volunteers are key
With only four years left before the 2015 MDG deadline, there’s
still a long way to go. Even with polio, and the advances
against measles, eradication is far from assured. On issues
such as poverty and children’s healthcare, there are
complex obstacles — natural disaster, desertification,
armed conflict, global warming, urban violence, chronic food
insecurity, financial crisis — that gets in the way.
With insufficient levels of government and private sector
resources available and many challenges in accessing vulnerable
communities, many are turning to volunteers as a key resource.
As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said recently, “Achieving
the Millennium Development Goals will require the engagement
of countless millions of people through volunteer action.”
Because they are rooted in their local communities, Red
Cross and Red Crescent volunteers are able to bring vaccination,
emergency relief or critical drug treatments even to areas
of armed violence (Baluchistan province in Pakistan, in Somalia,
or in remote areas of Afghanistan, where Red Crescent volunteers
help deliver polio vaccine during prearranged ‘tranquility
Volunteers also have a social impact, which is harder to
quantify, but which contributes to community stability and
recovery, particularly during conflict. A volunteer for the
Red Cross of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Patrick
Zaboninka Mayara travels by bicycle and on foot to deliver
Red Cross messages that keep families in touch, sometimes
reuniting children and parents separated by fighting.
In Beirut, Lebanon, Mohammad ‘Frisco’ Mansour
teaches other youth volunteers how to use games and simulations
to bring international humanitarian law and humanitarian
norms to life for 8- to 18-yearolds. “They learn, through
these games, that war needs to have limits and that humanitarian
values are to be respected,” says the 25-year-old Lebanese
Red Cross volunteer, speaking of the youth who attend the
seminars. “Otherwise the pain will be too great to
suffer and the price too high to pay.”
Often, volunteers give even when they themselves have their
own needs. Volunteer Morlai Fofanah dedicates time to promoting
non-violence and tolerance in rural communities in southern
Sierra Leone. After a road accident damaged his spine while
returning from a mission, this first-aid team member now
does much of his volunteer work with the aid of crutches
or a wheelchair.
Volunteers are also able to reach into pockets of poverty
or vulnerable communities in developed or transitional
countries. In the quiet countryside village of Rö,
for example, just outside Stockholm, Swedish Red Cross
volunteer Christina Lindholm organizes summer camps for
caregivers whose partners are living with dementia, Alzheimer’s
disease, aphasia and multiple sclerosis. The camps’ activities
and its social network contribute to improving health and
reducing the vulnerability of both patients and those caring
for them, according to studies by the Swedish Red Cross.
In the streets of Shenyang in north-east China, meanwhile,
volunteers for a group called Fireflies (supported by the
Red Cross Society of China) make house calls to HIV-infected
patients who often cannot get healthcare through normal channels. “We
can’t get operations in ordinary hospitals — very
few places will provide treatment to HIV-positive people,” says
Xiao Jie, who is himself HIV-positive. “People look
at HIV sufferers as bad. They think that good people will
not get this disease.”
Around the world, volunteers such as Fawwad, Christina,
Xiao, Mohammad and Morlai are quietly having a powerful impact
towards achieving the MDGs. But if we are to rely on these
volunteers to help do what governments and the market economy
cannot, what are we going to do to support and protect this
vast, unpaid workforce? And if the volunteers’ efforts
are so important, why is their contribution not even counted
in most national measures of economic productivity and development?
Volunteers for the Nigerian Red Cross Society administer oral polio vaccine in
communities where it is desperately needed. It only takes two drops of the
vaccine to ensure immunization against polio.
1 Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
2 Achieve universal primary education
3 Promote gender equality and empower
4 Reduce child mortality
5 Improve maternal health
6 Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
7 Ensure environmental sustainability
8 Develop a global partnership for development
Volunteer Your opinion
What should the Movement
do to better motivate, protect
and support its volunteers?
What’s your opinion? We’d
like to know. Send your
response to email@example.com
Haitian Red Cross Society
The building housing the meeting room in the Saint-Michel
Hospital in Jacmel, in south-eastern Haiti, is one of the
few hospital buildings that did not collapse during the earthquake
of 12 January 2010. In the room, 25 young people — some
of them Haitian Red Cross volunteers, others members of youth organizations — are
about to do a course on cyclone prevention with Germaine Pierre-Louis, a well-known
nurse and volunteer in the Jacmel region. “Good morning,” she says
briskly. “Thank you for coming this morning in the midst of the hurricane
season. You must be ready to raise people’s awareness.”
Professionally, the 58-year-old nurse is head of the Ministry
of Public Health’s epidemiological and statistical
services in Haiti’s south-eastern department. In her
spare time, she is a volunteer with the Haitian Red Cross,
vicepresident of the National Society and president of the
south-east regional branch. She, along with two other Haitians — Michaëlle
Colin, head nurse at the Port-au-Prince Sanatorium, and Jude
Célorge, a Haitian Red Cross volunteer in Martissant,
one of the capital’s poorest neighbourhoods — were
awarded the prestigious Florence Nightingale Medal in 2010
for their selfless work during the earthquake. They are the
first three Haitians to receive this award since it was established
An impact on MDGs?
In Jacmel, Haitian Red Cross volunteers have also conducted
courses not only on hurricane preparedness, but also on
HIV/AIDS prevention and good hygiene practices. These trainingsessions,
aimed at young people, are designed to help preserve the
living standards of the already impoverished population.
Do they help achieve the Millennium Development Goals of
reducing poverty and reducing disease? “Our education
work enables people to protect their goods and livelihoods,” says
Pierre-Louis. “Thanks to such preventive activities,
disease and accidents can be avoided. This maintains the
status quo but unfortunately does not decrease poverty.”
To genuinely reduce poverty, you have to develop economic
activity, for example, by assisting small businesses such
as rice and coal vendors, some of whom are also living with
Like most volunteers, Pierre-Louis is motivated by immediate
needs. After the January earthquake, for example, she immediately
organized search-and-rescue and relief activities for the
survivors even though her own house was destroyed. What drives
her? “Every morning, I wake up saying to myself that
I cannot accept anyone’s suffering.”
– By Jean-Yves Clemenzo
it isn’t counted, does it really count?
Like his volunteer colleagues in the HIV-support group Fireflies,
Xiao Jie isn’t in it for money, or for any particular
global agenda other than fighting HIV/AIDs in his community.
When asked, however, he agrees his volunteer efforts for
the group have a very real and quantifiable value: at least
1,000 renminbi (US$ 150) a month.
Like many volunteers, Xiao
Jie is unsure about whether this kind of work should be reimbursed.
On the one hand, it should be done by volunteers because
they really want to do the work. But then again, people should
be paid as it helps the government do its job.
Xiao Jie is not the only one to reflect on volunteer values
these days. Indeed, there is a growing effort around the
world to better quantify the volunteer contribution, which
is largely left out of most countries’ gross domestic
product (GDP) calculations or other key economic and development
“The problem is that often what isn’t counted,
doesn’t count,” says Megan Haddock, project coordinator
at the Center for Civil Society Studies at Johns Hopkins
University in Baltimore, USA. “In the traditional statistical
model, the contribution volunteers make to the economy is
absolutely zero. It’s simply not being accounted for.”
If economists, politicians, the media and average citizens
don’t understand the contributions of volunteers or
the input of non-profit organizations, to which they often
belong, then support and legal protection for those efforts
will remain weak, she says.
A recent Johns Hopkins study, based on data from 37 countries,
found that indeed the volunteer contribution was grossly
underestimated. Roughly 140 million people, or 12 per cent
of the population in these countries, engage in some volunteer
activity, according to the research. Together, they
represent nearly 21 million full-time workers, making an
economic contribution worth roughly US$ 400 billion annually.
They also make up some 45 per cent of the non-profit workforce.
Studies of eight countries in eastern Europe show that
the non-profit institutions (NPI) sector, which relies
heavily on volunteers, makes up roughly 5 per cent
of these countries’ economic activity — more
than the electric and gas sector, and just less than
the construction sector. From the report Measuring
Civil Society and Volunteering, Johns Hopkins
University, Center for Civil Society Studies.
This volunteerism takes many forms. Mexico, for example,
has a long tradition of informal volunteerism — it
just doesn’t call it that. Voluntary acts of ‘solidarity’,
as they are called, are simply considered part of life; they
usually occur informally within communities and not in connection
with any particular non-profit agency (though much of it
may be church related).
Added up, however, the time spent by people doing various
voluntary acts of solidarity comprises roughly 1.4 per cent
of Mexico’s GDP, according to Jacqueline Butcher Rivas,
who studies volunteerism in Mexico. Herself a volunteer,
Butcher says a better understanding of this contribution
could leverage greater investment and legal protection for
volunteers. “This sector is greatly under-appreciated,” she
During the 2011 tenth anniversary of the Year of the Volunteer,
the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement is hoping to highlight
these issues. While it’s generally believed that its
volunteer network gives the Red Cross Red Crescent unparalleled
access, the Movement itself has not fully quantified the
social and economic value of its volunteers — though
many studies commissioned in recent years have tackled related
In December 2010, the IFRC expects to release a study to
help fill that knowledge gap. Following the methodology developed
by Johns Hopkins and the International Labour Organization,
the study surveys a representative sample of National Societies
on the financial, economic and social contributions of volunteers.
In an era of increased competition for volunteers and their
time, the IFRC hopes the data can be used to help National
Societies garner more resources for volunteer efforts, inspire
and recruit more volunteers, improve volunteer support systems
and convince governments to enact stronger legal protections
The humanitarian shield
According to a 2009 report by UN Volunteers, Law and
Policies Affecting Volunteerism since 2001, there have
been about 70 new national laws or policies enacted to encourage
or regulate volunteering in the last ten years. Burkina Faso,
for example, created policies to promote volunteerism as
a way to reduce unemployment through professional training
and national service.
“There’s been a lot of progress,” says
one of the report’s authors, Catherine Shea, vice president
of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, based
in Washington DC.
In 2001, when the Year of the Volunteer was launched, a
lack of enabling legislation at the national level often
stymied volunteerism. “Several countries’ employment
and minimum wage laws failed to distinguish between volunteers
and employees, making unpaid volunteer activity technically
illegal,” the report notes.
The problem now is that not all the new laws are comprehensive
or strong. In some cases, good laws are on the books, but
the government is not acting. “There’s still
a way to go,” says Shea. “It’s really important
what happens after the law is enacted. Does the government
Consider the case of Bolivia’s 2005 national volunteer
legislation, which also highlights the dangers volunteers
face. Violent political unrest in 2002 and 2003 led to the “mobilization
of volunteers with Bolivia’s Red Cross and fire and
rescue squads”, the UN report notes.
“At one violent protest, a volunteer fire and rescue
worker, Daniel Manrique, was shot in the face. As a volunteer,
Manrique had no insurance, no health coverage and no way
to pay for the multiple medical procedures he needed.”
The resulting outcry led to demands for a national law,
which gave volunteers’ extensive rights and protection.
The effort lost momentum after subsequent elections and the
provisions were never fully adopted.
The irony is that even while working to provide victims
with shelter or basic medical services, the volunteers themselves
don’t have access to healthcare or health insurance.
In many countries, the cost is prohibitive or national laws
don’t provide the framework for affordably insuring
While the IFRC’s volunteering policy calls for National
Societies to provide “appropriate insurance protection”,
the approaches vary widely throughout the Movement. The Swedish
Red Cross provides accident insurance for its 40,000 volunteers,
while other National Societies insure volunteers through
an IFRC programme. When the earthquake hit Haiti in January,
for example, the Haitian Red Cross Society was already preparing
to adopt insurance for its volunteers. The IFRC then provided
the insurance as part of its emergency response.
“The important thing”, says volunteer specialist
Stefan Agerhem, seconded to the IFRC by the Swedish Red Cross, “is
that if something goes wrong, the volunteer’s National
Society takes care of him or her, whether it is through an
insurance system or providing psychosocial support.”
To pay or not to pay
The issue is complicated by the fact that many volunteers
are in fact paid per diems or small stipends aimed at defraying
transportation expenses or a meal during the workday. In
times of emergency, such as the Haiti earthquake, many
volunteers are paid a small daily or weekly wage.
“For a major relief operation where you need to have
plenty of hands available to do relief work, instead of just
relying on a volunteer for a few extra hours a week, you
need to engage the volunteers more seriously,” says
In this case, it’s critical that Movement actors understand
and follow local labour laws. In recent years, there have
been a few cases in which volunteers have taken their National
Societies to court for not paying entitlements such as pension
funds. Accident insurance might also be mandatory to people
on the payroll.
The pay issue presents a dilemma, however. On the one hand,
it potentially undermines the spirit of true volunteerism.
On the other, it’s perhaps unreasonable to expect people
to work 12- or 18-hour days bringing relief to others if
the volunteers have no means of support.
As Haitian nurse and Red Cross volunteer Germaine Pierre-Louis
(see profile) notes, it’s unacceptable to ask volunteers
to spend all day working on food, health and shelter for
others, when they themselves have no place to sleep.
“During the earthquake,” says Pierre-Louis, “the
volunteers worked just as well as the professional humanitarian
workers,” bringing the wounded to health centres and
distributing food, hygiene kits and water. “They did
a colossal job.” Pierre-Louis was frustrated that,
at times, she had to lobby Movement colleagues simply to
get tents for some of those volunteers, who themselves had
also lost everything in the quake.
In the end, no amount of laws, insurance or pay will protect
or compensate volunteers for the dangers they face. Considering
the environments in which many volunteers work, deaths
are relatively rare. But they do occur.
In May 2009, for example, an Afghanistan Red Crescent volunteer
was killed along with 13 others during an air strike by coalition
forces reportedly attempting to target Taliban fighters.
In March 2009, three Mozambique Red Cross Society volunteers
were killed by an angry mob that mistakenly thought the aid
workers were poisoning a water supply. And in January 2010,
a volunteer with the Kenya Red Cross Society, Michael Wafula
Sululu, was shot and killed by a policeman as he responded
to the scene of a car crash. The policeman was subsequentlycharged
In theory, existing national, local or international laws
should have protected these volunteers. In reality, there
are no guarantees. New laws and insurance will only go so
far. According to some volunteers, one of the most important
things the Movement can do to protect volunteers is to remain
steadfast to principles of neutrality and impartiality.
In the highly polarized Swat valley of Pakistan, where military
forces and Taliban insurgents vie for power, volunteer Hashmat
Ali says that the Red Cross Red Crescent’s commitment
to neutrality is its greatest asset. “I feel safe volunteering
with the Red Crescent,” explains Ali. “It does
not get involved with all this politics business and that
is its strength. This is why I will continue volunteering.”
Ali first encountered the Red Crescent after the 2005 earthquake
when he helped German and Netherlands Red Cross workers distribute
aid in farflung mountain hamlets. Continued collaboration
led to the development of a medical clinic that now serves
100 to 150 patients each day in the Swat valley. According
to Ali, the biggest contribution of Red Cross Red Crescent
staff and volunteers in Swat is decreasing the maternal mortality
rate — which relates to the fifth MDG.
Ultimately, most volunteers say they will do the job — insurance,
laws, tents, stipends or not. For Fawwad Sherwani, the call
to volunteerism is not a rational calculation based on economic
goals or global development agendas. “It’s a
feeling,” he explains. “You cannot have as much
happiness as when you help a person suffering and he says ‘Thank
This story was reported by Deena Guzder
in Pakistan, Jean-Yves Clemenzo in Haiti, Robert
Few in China and Malcolm Lucard in
Members of an all-volunteer group supported by the Red Cross
Society of China distribute condoms, lubricant and information
on HIV at a local park in Fu Shun city, in the north-eastern
province of Liaoning.
400 billion: Estimated economic
contribution in US dollars of volunteers in 37 countries
studied as part of global research by Johns Hopkins
10 billion: Contribution in
US dollar value of the time volunteers have
spent towards community polio eradication and
vaccination campaigns globally, according to
the United Nations.
78: The percentage by which deaths
due to measles dropped from 2000 to 2008 due to
improved vaccination, assisted by Movement volunteers.
1.4: The economic value of formal
and informal volunteering in Mexico, expressed
as a percentage of Mexico’s GDP.
45: Percentage of the global
non-profit workforce made up by volunteers, according
to a study of 37 countries by Johns Hopkins University.
Germaine Pierre-Louis, a volunteer and nurse for the Haitian
Red Cross Society, looks out at where Jacmel’s former
health facility once stood.
Volunteer Patrick Zaboninka Mayara delivers Red Cross messages
deep into DR Congo’s forests.
Mohammad ‘Frisco’ Mansour teaches schoolchildren
and teenage trainers to respect humanitarian values.
©Lebanese Red Cross
Hashmat Ali stands outside a clinic where he volunteers in
Pakistan’s Swat Valley.