Volunteering an opinion

Last year one of us clattered down a long, bone-shuddering road to an isolated hamlet in Timor-Leste in order to conduct a focus group discussion of a donor-funded initiative. We arrived at about 11 o’clock in the morning and were met by what felt like half the community to share their (overwhelmingly favourable) impressions. After about an hour, the chief of the village started making theatrical coughing sounds reminiscent of a tired barman looking to get home after a long shift. Other participants started shuffling papers and started peering at mobile phone screens to check the time.

We wrapped up shortly thereafter and asked what the rush was. ‘We’re just so busy with people like you’, one of the more active participants in the group said, puffing down his clove cigarette. ‘We had an NGO earlier on this morning and there’s some rural development initiative coming this afternoon, adding pointedly ‘we’re not getting paid anything for any of this’. All told, he estimated he was involved in about five or so different committees, councils and networks in his suku (village). For those engaged in any sort of development programs in Timor-Leste, the duplicative character of much of these networks are known to hamper productivity and increase the burden on a minority of stakeholders, but that will be the subject of another post. Many programs, rightly and appropriately, want to be inclusive, consultative and gender-balanced, but the result is a lot of time in meetings, consultations, and focus-groups.

It’s exhausting work with the only rewards being empty pockets, full meeting diaries and perhaps the occasional t-shirt or baseball cap with a logo emblazoned on it. For rural people engaged with these national and international entities, days, weeks and months can be spent shouldering the governmental burdens of civil society.

Some obvious questions come to mind. Chief among these is long-term sustainability when expecting agents of the state to work for free, and expecting ordinary people to give up their time representing civil society where no agents of the state are available.

We make these observations with the awareness that court officials and the like would never be expected to work for free in, say, Australia, Europe or North America. But the volunteerism that increasingly appears to be built into the expectations of states and donor agencies alike suggests that the development agenda is operating according to a strange calculus. We humbly suggest that the time and labour of people in developing countries is just as valuable – in terms of both social and financial capital – as that of people in wealthy countries. It is time and labour they are essentially donating to the state and to NGOs. But these are impressions only, and the problems we have outlined here merit further exploration with more focused – and paid – research.

Melissa Demian and Gordon Peake are Fellows at the State Society and Governance in Melanesia Program, ANU. Gordon’s book, Beloved Land: Stories, Struggles and Secrets from Timor-Leste, was winner of the 2014 ACT Book of the Year and People’s Choice Award.

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Melissa Demian

Melissa Demian is a Fellow at the State Society and Governance in Melanesia Program, ANU.

Gordon Peake

Gordon Peake is an affiliate of the Center for Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Studies at Georgetown University, and author of the award-winning Beloved Land: Stories, Struggles and Secrets from Timor-Leste. He is presently finalising a manuscript recounting his time living and working in Bougainville.


  • Very interesting and important post. I absolutely agree that organizations need to recognize the value of people’s time and labor, particularly in the case of research, which likely will not bring any benefit to the participants.

    In Timor-Leste and elsewhere in Asia/Pacific, is the norm for attendants at such meetings not to receive any compensation at all? In many places I’ve worked in Africa, meetings like these would provide meals, in-kind gifts, or per diems – some type of compensation. It’s almost the opposite of what’s described in the article, as per diems for say, a 2-hour meeting can easily be the equivalent of multiple days of labor. It became clear in many cases that people attended almost solely for the goods/money they would receive simply for showing up.

    I’m curious whether this is a regional difference or difference in who the largest donors are in each region, or perhaps due to the aid industry having a larger presence and longer history in some parts of Africa?

  • One of the problems with this analysis is the rather vague nature of the phrase ‘work for free’, its quite important to define what you mean by work, to understand that most work in a subsistence society in not wage labour but leads to benefits further down the track. While doing research with Duncan Ironmonger, the founder of the methodology of the measurement of unpaid work, in the Pacific in the 1980s he told me ‘work is something you could pay other people to do’, thus child care is work, playing tennis is clearly not work because you can’t pay other people to do it for you. Giving your opinion to researchers is not work as you couldn’t pay someone else to do it or it wouldn’t be your opinion. Participation takes time, and researchers should learn more of the techniques of mobilizing volunteers used in Civil Society organizations to make it worthwhile for people to participate in voluntary activity without actually paying them. Another principle of good volunteer management is that volunteers don’t take the jobs of paid workers (except in a very brief or emergency situation). Unfortunately in Timor-Leste not many civil society organizations understand why the Board of an NGO is not paid, but the staff are. Nevertheless the Board would disappear if they did not think it was worth their while to participate, Often some small token payments are made or transport and food made available to help them feel it is worthwhile being on a board or a committee, but it is they who employ the paid staff and determine their salaries. Tomas Freitas is right that the coming of the so called ‘aid industry’ to Timor undermined the volunteer spirit. No one was paid to engage in the struggle for self-determination, yet it was a great action of co-ordination, will and voluntary initiative. Thus is sad to see so few actual membership NGOs mobilizing volunteers for their own style of development. Many tasks for which community members historically would volunteer in the past, like cleaning up the village, were done because people would benefit by the improved conditions, now they sit around and wait for someone to pay them. Management of volunteers didn’t seem to be one of the skills looked for in aid workers during the UNTAET period.

    The UNDP will be publishing its Human Development Report this year on Work, a noted improvement on the use of the word ’employment’ much loved by the World Bank, it is not surprising that Timorese are confused and hostile when so many competing economic analyses are presented to them by different agencies, supposedly here to help them.

    Helen Hill, Vila Verde, Dili

  • A very interesting post and thread. A similar phenomena also occurs in Dili. I have experienced ngo’s flying in to a full schedule of interviews and focus groups. Often these are with members of the community who supply an invaluable insight into the topic under review – as volunteers.
    Of course, the community member is aware that the expert has a well paid job and lifestyle yet they are not receiving any compensation for their time. A very delicate situation.
    But I also agree with other contributors who speak of the danger of payment luring non-interested parties just for the money!
    At a minimum I would like to see the ngo follow up with these groups, acknowledging that the ngo is appreciative of the time and contribution the community member has given and providing them with some insight into the findings of the report. Such an action would show respect.
    There is a danger In Timor, where there is such dependence on volunteers (don’t get me started on the invaluable role of the volunteer teacher), that volunteer-fatigue could set in.

  • Great observation Melissa and Gordon. Being also guilty of taking up large amounts of community members time in unpaid “participatory” initiatives I wrestle with the same dilemma. Volunteering your time for these sort of things is great but people have other tasks needing attention. If you were to pay a fee however you might get people turning up for the fee and not really interested in what is being discussed (although sometimes a free lunch and a t-shirt might generate the same in a poor community). Not sure how you resolve this.
    Related issue is payment or not for actual project activities. I once managed a program in East Timor that spent a lot of time working with communities on sustainable agriculture. It was slow work but eventually enough people started to adopt sustainable practices (such as afro-forestry and no burning) that we could see real progress and a commitment to change with people seeing the benefits themselves and initiating changes without payment. A bigger agency came in and started doing similar work but with more rigid project timelines and targets. Things were not going well so they started paying people to plant trees in agroforestry plots so they could meet their targets and satisfy their donors. A community member came to me and explained that they could see our approach would work in the long run but the money from the other agency was needed too much and they had to take up the paid work on the other project and go slow on the other work. I said it was perfectly understandable. In the long run the bigger project failed and the smaller project eventually generated lasting improvements in sustainable land management and food security.
    That said, I still feel it is big ask as a well paid western development worker to take up large amount of peoples time, without payment, in seemingly endless consultations for “participatory” scoping studies, reviews, evaluations etc. Agree that the problem merits further focussed (and paid) research.

  • The volunteer spirit has been vanished by the aid industry in the last one and a half decades through so many programs initiated and funded by international agencies including malae and local NGOs. Let’s say a 3 dollars cash program as one of the example pushed by the World Bank, it is a good idea in terms of cash circulation in the community but it creates a bad mentality for the future. The limitation of cash transfer in the remote area has encourage communities to attended the meetings. And sometimes they laugh and say it is a win-win solution which we get the numbers of participants as much as we want and plus the photographs, on the other hand they get the incentive of 5-10 dollars a day. Even if there are no outcomes and no follow-ups after the meeting.

    The Opinion above based on 15 years experienced as civil society and still as member of civil society in Timor Leste.

  • Thanks Melissa and Gordon, great post. I witnessed some programs in Timor that build community volunteering into their models. I was somewhat torn on it– while on the one hand, some of them seemed to really give the community a chance to take some charge on their own development (and of course communities should be consulted on and engaged in development projects affecting their communities), on the other hand, I couldn’t help but think that some of the people heading up these groups or volunteering to take on what are paid professions in other countries should actually be paid a wage for what they were doing (I’m thinking of volunteer community preschool teachers or those heading local water management committees– these were some of the examples I saw in person).

    One particularly inspiring community preschool volunteer teacher that I met would walk for miles to voluntarily teach at a second preschool, outside of his community, and outside the program area of the particular NGO supporting the program. He was really passionate about it, and it was definitely a happy development moment to see someone so dedicated to helping children access basic early childhood education. But chatting to the teacher, he expressed how he really hoped he could become a primary school teacher some day, so he could be paid. It was a shame that teaching preschool wasn’t considered a real profession–this teacher was gifted at it, you could see he had done a fantastic job in getting the kids out of their shells and teaching them some basic literacy and numeracy, so important for giving kids a headstart when they get to primary school. No doubt he will be a great schoolteacher if he achieves that goal, and I really admired his ambition as well as his dedication. I also thought the NGO program had done a great job establishing early childhood education in quite remote communities and mobilising community support for it–a task that would no doubt be more complicated if it involved exchanges of cash or salaries. But I couldn’t help but think that being a preschool teacher should be a legitimate, paid profession. It’s tricky to know whether starting with volunteers could help that happen one day, or whether it was actually undermining that and letting the state off the hook.

  • Would this sort of thing happen if people really had power to shape their own development? Perhaps this is one more reason to provide the bulk of aid in the form of cash transfers so that people on the ground decide how it is spent.

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