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.