Local volunteers are vital to aid work — but don't always get equal support

Red Cross burial volunteers in Komanda, Ituri Province, DRC. Photo by: Corrie Butler / IFRC

BARCELONA — The recent attack on two Red Cross volunteers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was a stark reminder of the risks for those people giving up their time to support emergency response efforts around the world. The volunteers, attacked while carrying out a safe and dignified burial for a suspected Ebola victim, are now recovering in hospital and receiving psychosocial support.

Unfortunately, “this isn’t just a one-off incident — these are challenges that our volunteers face on a weekly basis,” said Nicole Fassina, operations manager at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in DRC’s Ebola response. “It’s only with these volunteers, and the fact they get up every day to do a life-threatening and a life-saving job, that we will end this outbreak.”

“No organization can work perfectly or deliver its projects or programs without using [local] volunteers.”

— Edikan Mikop, M&E professional

There are currently around 1,250 local volunteers supporting the IFRC Ebola response in DRC. Many have been volunteering with the organization since before the outbreak and, despite the risks, feel a sense of duty to continue.

The work is not just physically demanding, with the risk of infection — it is also mentally exhausting. Volunteers can be called out to 10 burials per day, which takes a toll on them and their families. And there is a constant risk of encountering aggression and violence, due to long-standing conflict in the area, or fears around Ebola and its treatment.

IFRC uses a hyper-localized model which means volunteers are recruited from the region in which they work. They receive community-based security training, vaccinations, insurance, and protective equipment. Risk assessments are carried out each day before they head into the communities, taking into account a variety of factors. The organization also offers its volunteers psychological support activities.

Local volunteers are a fundamental part of IFRC’s work, Fassina said. For this to work, they need to be supported like any other member of the team. 

But although volunteers are central to aid efforts around the world, they are not always able to access the same level of support.

For Edikan Mikop, a monitoring and evaluation professional working in Nigeria, volunteers face the same challenges as any other professional in the aid sector — but often without insurance, a full security detail or other staff benefits, as well as without pay.

In some cases, “volunteers do most of the work ... in the field … and report to the main staff,” who provide technical support, he said. The staff rely heavily on volunteers. In exchange, volunteers get training and experience, which can help them if an internal vacancy opens up.

Between jobs, Mikop has volunteered with various organizations. Some days, his role required him to make long journeys on poor roads and wade across rivers to collect data in rural communities. Other days, he was supporting the administration of HIV tests for children and breaking the news to their parents. This was never easy. Sometimes when people are in disbelief or upset they react badly, Mikop said, adding that on one occasion he had to run for his life.

In the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, volunteers working on health issues for international organizations also face challenges from community groups. One medical professional working with a humanitarian organization there, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue, told Devex that while none of the volunteers they supervised had been physically harmed, it is something they have to consider.

The volunteers are from the Rohingya community and currently living in the camp, which is home to more than 600,000 refugees. Some people in the camp are wary of using the health services the volunteers promote while others, due to religious or traditional views, have issues with women going out to work. For security reasons, female volunteers are paired up with a male volunteer.

The government also makes it difficult for the organization to provide training and other forms of support to the volunteers. It is “our responsibility to think about them, their safety and security, their mental comfort,” the aid worker said. But the volunteers cannot leave the camp, which means all training has to be delivered there, and communication is a “nightmare” since there is no internet connection and the volunteers are prohibited from using mobile phones. This makes it difficult for the organization to check in on their welfare.

Although the volunteers play a critical role in running health facilities in the camp, local regulations make it difficult for them to be treated as employees, which often means they don’t have access to the same levels of support, the professional said.

Mikop agreed that local volunteers play a vital role in delivering programs, providing a level of access to communities that “outsiders” can’t. “No organization can work perfectly or deliver its projects or programs without using [local] volunteers,” he said.

“Even if [organizations] are not paying them ... at least volunteers should receive a reasonable amount, at least some security [and] health insurance” in recognition of the critical role they play.

About the author

  • Emma Smith

    For four years, Emma Smith covered careers and recruitment, among other topics, for Devex. She now freelances for Devex and has a special interest in mental health, immigration, and sexual and reproductive health. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master’s in media and international conflict.