3 May 2017

Weltwärts-volunteers: Asset or burden?

Lukas writes:*

"Learning through active help." This is the motto of the international volunteering-program weltwärts (lit. ‘out into the world’) sponsored by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). This program stands out amongst many others because it is explicitly labeled a ‘developmental’ voluntary service. One of its main goals is “to make a contribution to support partner projects in terms of help for self-help and to strengthen civic structures in developing countries”. This implies the claim to contribute to the development of those countries.

However, I am quite skeptical of this proposition. In 2014/2015, I participated in weltwärts myself and volunteered at a grassroots-development organization in Rwanda for one year. I was only 19 years old at the time of departure and had only recently finished High School, just like the average weltwärts-volunteer. Most participants are this young, some even younger, and do not have any professional qualification whatsoever. This makes it highly doubtful that they can actually make a contribution to the development of their host countries. On the contrary, the employment of unexperienced volunteers might even do more harm than good and ultimately only benefit the volunteers themselves. So, what, if any, are the benefits that these volunteers bring for their host countries? And are they perhaps outweighed by their costs?

Benefits: Support in daily work and ‘eye-catcher’

Let’s have a look at the supposed benefits first. Some argue that weltwärts-volunteers directly add value to their host organizations’ work by supporting them with daily tasks, through the different cultural perspective they introduce, or by possessing useful skills, e.g. computer skills. A survey on behalf of BMZ in 2011 found that more than 80% of the weltwärts-host organizations confirmed this statement and consider the volunteers’ work as a contribution to the development of their projects. However, approximately one third could not confirm that volunteers possess the necessary knowledge to work with target groups. Furthermore, 36% indicated having problems finding tasks for volunteers and half of the organizations complained that volunteers could be better prepared. According to my own experience, I can only confirm these observations. For instance, I was able to support my host organization by translating project proposals to German. However, I could not communicate with target groups, such as rural cooperatives, during project visits, because I did not speak the local language Kinyarwanda.

Other common arguments for the direct benefits of weltwärts for host organizations include: Host organizations benefit from trainings financed by weltwärts as well as from networking opportunities [pdf]. Moreover, by employing volunteers host organizations gain in prestige, importance and reputation, which might be useful, for example with regards to their collaboration with authorities. Concerning networking, in the 2011-BMZ-survey, 76% of host organization reported increased dialogue with sending organizations in Germany, more than half of which made use of those organizations’ existing networks. Furthermore, more than one third could increase their cooperation with other weltwärts-host organizations as well as with other German and international actors. Regarding trainings, however, very few host organizations benefitted. Concerning reputation, on the other hand, more than two thirds of host organizations indicated increased visibility and reputation through their participation. Moreover, 31% of them made used of their increased reputation to sensitize political decision-makers and authorities and half of them for advertisement on behalf of their target groups.

Costs: Interference with labor markets and high opportunity costs

Thus far, it seems like there are indeed some benefits for host organizations. But at what costs do they come? First of all, weltwärts-volunteers are free labor and most of the time do not possess any skills which could not be sourced locally as well. Therefore, a volunteer might be doing a job which could also be done by a local. However, because the volunteer’s labor is free, employing a volunteer is cheaper than hiring and paying a local employee. Thus, weltwärts might interfere with local labor markets in host countries and contribute to unemployment. And indeed, according to the BMZ-survey, 31% of volunteers indicated that they are in fact replacing a local employee.

Furthermore, opportunity costs that accrue to host organizations due to their participation in weltwärts can be high. Every year, host organizations have to devote resources to integration and mentoring of new volunteers. This resource expenditure on volunteers could come at the expense of the organizations’ project work. According to the BMZ-survey, 40% of host organizations reported that their participation in the program meant devoting additional resources to the support of volunteers. In several cases, host organizations explicitly complained about the resource-intensive administrative tasks resulting from their participations. A few of them even indicated that these tasks come at the expense of their project work.

Bottom Line: This analysis represents only a very limited account of the impact of weltwärts. At the end of the day, to establish the actual net effects of the program, it requires a more rigorous and comprehensive assessment of its costs and benefits, including its indirect and long-term effects, their quantification, and the accumulation of more than merely observational and anecdotal evidence. This represents an important task for future research.

* Please comment on these posts by students in my growth & development economics course. It really helps if you highlight unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data, etc.


  1. Hi Lukas!

    Thank you for dedicating some time to discussing the value added of volunteers. I think it’s an important topic! When I was 18 I also participated in a volunteering project: I went to India with my class and our task was to teach maths and english to a slum-school. In contrast to you, we only had two weeks to make a difference, at least that’s how the program was promoted…! I remember feeling so disappointed in our achievement and project. Ever since, my perception of volunteers and even NGO’s has changed. Overall, I think you make very good points in your blogpost. For your own benefit, I will focus on a few things you might want to consider as well…or not! ;).

    Firstly, you highlight the fact that volunteers might be taking away jobs that could be done by locals. While I agree that it makes it hard for the local workforce to compete with free labor, I wonder if anyone would actually be willing to take on these tasks? I think it mainly depends on the location and the type of project. Often, volunteers are sent to remote areas or villages where the population have semi-identical living conditions. In these cases, I think that it may be useful to have individuals with a fresh-eye come help. Now this of course is not a solution by itself: there needs to be a collaboration between the volunteers/organisation and the local population. In your “recommendation” section, this idea might fall under the need for greater preparation of volunteers (which you underlined in the blogpost).

    Secondly, I think it might be good to acknowledge that the pros and cons of volunteering-program heavily depend on the types of projects. Do some issues (eg. medicine) need greater volunteer involvement than other? There might be data online comparing the amount of volunteering -programs in health care vs. farming vs. education for example.

    Finally, your blogpost made me think about the role of direct cash transfers (as discussed in class today). If volunteers cause host organisations to be diverting expenditures away from their project work, would it not be better to directly send money rather than people? If you decide to look into that, you might be able to find data to compare the success rate of volunteering programs versus direct cash transfers, in a particular type of aid (eg. farming).

    Good luck with your final essay, I hope this helps! :D

  2. Dear Lukas,

    Super interesting questions you raise here... Just like Lauriane, I have myself volunteered as an English teacher in rural Thailand. There are a couple things I'd like to say as I experienced them myself, as well as I'd like to put forwards some things for you to think about, also building up on Lauriane's points.

    The first point I'd like to make is related to your statement on '...volunteers are free labor and most of the time do not possess any skills which could not be sourced locally as well.’ In Thailand there is a significant lack of skilled English teachers. The project I was involved in was established because of this. I was told I had taught these kinds more English in two months than some of them had been able to learn in 12 years ...(!) Although my experience may not be representative for all the volunteering projects out there, it does show how your statement may not be entirely accurate and you may want to take these kinds of situations into consideration while constructing your arguments.

    Adding to this, I do think the short-term span of these projects pose a significant cost on them. Because volunteers come and go, there is a constant need to educate these people on the basics of the jobs. These ‘installation costs’ can add up. An additional cost may be the motivation for people to go volunteer. Unfortunately I think a lot of people do not join projects for the sake of helping others but rather for their self-development and CV enhancement. This may limit their motivation and productivity.

    One thought I had was the following: might it be an idea to have volunteers train the local personnel rather than us performing the tasks themselves? I am not sure if this is desirable... Are ‘us volunteers’ skilled enough to do so? And would this make the barrier to join volunteer projects higher so people would be less inclined to join?

    Some food for thought for you! Good luck on writing the rest of your paper.

  3. Dear Lukas,

    I really like the topic for your essay, seeing as it has also been a widely debated issue (the actual contribution that volunteering has to the community's development.) Developing further to what Isabel proposed, I would like to add some of my observations from my volunteering program in Phnom Penh, Cambodia that I believe would support your claim. I would also like to propose another aspect that you could consider in your essay. When I was there, I observed that the teachers that was supposedly teaching English did not know English. Therefore it was the volunteers job to take over the English department. I had one class of 50 students, which implied that a lot of them were not completely focused, but this has more to do with the inefficient educational system of the country. However, we were only there for three weeks and this is clearly not enough time to learn a good base for English. Also, the head teacher obligated us to focus on the theme of animals for three weeks (we did 4 hours of class per day). This denied us the opportunity of focusing on other areas that would have possibly been more useful. However, I do understand that they need more time to learn a specific theme in English. However, the real problem was that once we left, there was no one that could take our jobs, and they went back to going over basic hellos and goodbyes. This is not the most efficient system of volunteering in my opinion.

    I think that the topic of NGOs actual contribution to development is very interesting, and I think that in your final essay it would be interesting to include the following information. You could look into the countries where Weltwarts works at and observe how much money is put into this process, as well as how long they have been helping in those certain countries. From there you could observe the economic as well as social development (using GDP or HDI…) in order to see if their contribution has an actual effect on the countries. However, it is unrealistic that this organisation has any sort of observable impact, therefore, maybe you could look at the the overall money that NGOs contribute to the country and the quantity of NGOs that exist inside the country. Through this approach you could try to infer if these NGOs have a positive, negative or no impact on the country that they are supposedly “helping out.” Also, you could compare two or more countries quantities of NGOs that are present and then see if those that have more are also developing faster?


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