Should Volunteers Who Live in Poverty Be Paid?

Across the developing world, many international charities rely on local, volunteer staff to perform all kinds of work. Many volunteers provide low-level assistance to organizations. However, thousands of volunteer healthcare workers are bringing vital skills and expertise to rural areas, which suffer from a severe shortage of doctors and nurses.

Many praise the “volunteer spirit” that makes rural healthcare possible, but what about the well-being of the volunteers themselves, many of whom are poor?

We wanted to explore the debate over whether community healthworkers should be paid. So we headed to the West African nation of Senegal where they’re rolling out a national healthcare program that relies on some 20,000 volunteers. The story is part of the Tracking Charity series I’m producing with PRI’s The World.

I spent time at a rural clinic, about an hour outside Senegal’s capital, following volunteer healthcare worker, Awa Diagne.

Awa Diagne (seated, far right) and her volunteer colleagues care for new mothers and infants.

Awa Diagne (in white) and her volunteer colleagues care for mothers and infants.

Awa, a mother of five, told me she’s been working at the clinic six days a week for a decade, without pay. During my time with Awa, I saw her expertly treat a range of patients with varying medical needs.

Awa Diagne cares for a patient wounded in an accident.

Volunteer healthworker Awa Diagne cares for a bricklayer wounded at work.












If Awa lived in a developed nation, she would likely be paid for her work. But nonprofits, international donors and local governments insist there just isn’t enough money. The alternative to a volunteer system, they say, is no medical care at all. But Awa says solutions must be found. “Look at our work and our activities,” she told me. “We deserve to be paid. The government needs to find solutions to help us.”

Here’s a short video about Awa, which I produced with The World’s Sonia Narang.

And The World’s Angilee Shah produced a discussion about the debate over volunteerism, which you can see here.

Just as I was getting ready to post this story, I came across this New York Times piece questioning the NFL’s use of volunteers at the Super Bowl. It’s worth reading an entirely different take on the role of volunteers and the debate over their right to payment.

Thoughts on either/both stories?


  1. A good topic for discussion; thanks for raising it. I partner with a Ugandan group that provides educational support for the many grandmothers and aunts in the community who are supporting orphans. We have two men who are there full-time, keeping the office open, and doing errands, all as volunteers. We try to keep office expenses down so that a decent percentage of the income we get can go to help the families directly. But when I saw how dedicated these volunteers are, I decided to earmark my donation to the organization as a “staff supplement” to provide lunch and a small stipend to each volunteer. I wish I could do more. Maybe we have to make it clear to donors that in paying staff, we are also helping people who are poor, and have families, and paying people for work done is a much better solution to poverty than simply giving it away.

    • Amy

      Thanks for sharing your perspective, Sally.

      It’s wonderful that your organization is able to keep costs low so that most donations go directly to families in need. However, I think you’re wise to earmark a portion of donations for the volunteers who help make the program possible. In that way you’re enabling volunteers to put food on THEIR tables, too (or to spend the income in any way they see fit).

      Thanks again for weighing in.

Leave a Comment