To pay or not to pay?

While planning our first field mapping in Marigat, we were confronted with an issue none of use expected or budgeted for – paying local volunteers for participating in mapping activities. What about the volunteering spirit? How about the sustainability of our project? I was confused, outraged and demotivated.

The explanation came from Samuel, the director of our local partner organisation, who insisted on paying an allowance to local volunteers as a way of compensating them for a day’s work. Apparently, young people – if unemployed – go out every day to find casual work and should therefore be compensated for volunteering. And where does the practice of paying for volunteering originates from? International NGOs and UN agencies initiated the practice of paying locals for helping with manual work (unloading trucks and food distribution), Samuel explained.  Now all NGOs –  international and local – are expected to pay, not only for people to volunteer but also for being trained. In the end, we were left with no option but to pay the allowance and hope for volunteers truly interested in our project and ready to carry on with the mapping after we leave – with no allowance.

On our first day in Marigat, we arranged for interviews with young people interested in participating in our mapping. I was surprised to meet a group of young people already involved in volunteer activities and with some experience in the humanitarian field. Many of them lacked the necessary IT skills but most of them could compensate with great interest and motivation. In the end, our ‘mapping party’ turned out to be a full success. We were able to map a large area of Marigat district which, in fact, would prove much more difficult without our local volunteers (who know the area and speak Kswahili). And on top of the productive work, we had fun!

But this is not the end of the story…

On our first day in Marigat, we also arranged a stakeholders meeting to introduce our project to local authorities and look for interested participants. In short, we presented the project and received some good feedback with a few participants showing interest in mapping with us. And here is where paying allowances comes in again. After the meeting all participants were paid an ‘attendance allowance’ which is simply expected , according to Samuel.

Why do government employees expect to be paid for attending a meeting during working hours? Should they not be interested in a project that might be useful for their own work or the opportunity to be trained without spending a penny or at least happy to get out of the office for half a day?

If you ask me, it starts with an allowance – which might be partly justifiable – but nurtures a culture of payment for every single effort. It starts with an allowances for young people, penetrates people’s views on their role in society and ends in outright corruption at government level. Former British ambassador to Kenya, Sir Edward Clay complained that Kenya’s corrupt ministers were ‘eating like gluttons’. Too far fetched? Maybe but it’s undeniable that corruption is a major problem in Kenya. Why don’t people feel outraged enough to hold their representatives accountable? Because they themselves receive petty bribes in their everyday lives?

But back to development projects.

It might be difficult to stick to principles given tight schedules and tough realities on the ground. But someone somewhere has to start and show that unpaid volunteering and participation are beneficial not only to an individual but to society as a whole. And if not possible, face it, change the strategy or pull out instead of perpetuating a destructive practice justifying it with other/ future benefits. Call me young, call me naïve but “it always seems impossible until it’s done” (Nelson Mandela).




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