Are volunteer programs empowering — or exploitative?

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.

Laura Morris, 28, an editor in Paris, spent five months as a volunteer for a small NGO in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and seven months as a volunteer for an organization that provides care for the elderly in London. Morris says she understood why the Cambodian organization did not pay her — she was the only foreigner there, and they could not have afforded the salary — but she thinks that the London nonprofit simply took advantage of a tough job market and gave her work that should have been performed by a paid employee.

“I volunteered for it, so it was my decision to work with them, but I was also asked to do work that I absolutely should have been paid for, that was much higher than entry-level,” Morris says.

Read and hear more of the discussion, including seven more perspectives, at