Across the developing world, many international charities rely on local, volunteer staff to perform all kinds of work. Many volunteers provide low-level assistance to organizations. However, thousands of volunteer healthcare workers are bringing vital skills and expertise to rural areas, which suffer from a severe shortage of doctors and nurses.

Many praise the “volunteer spirit” that makes rural healthcare possible, but what about the well-being of the volunteers themselves, many of whom are poor?

We wanted to explore the debate over whether community healthworkers should be paid. So we headed to the West African nation of Senegal where they’re rolling out a national healthcare program that relies on some 20,000 volunteers. The story is part of the Tracking Charity series I’m producing with PRI’s The World.

I spent time at a rural clinic, about an hour outside Senegal’s capital, following volunteer healthcare worker, Awa Diagne.

Awa Diagne (seated, far right) and her volunteer colleagues care for new mothers and infants.
Awa Diagne (in white) and her volunteer colleagues care for mothers and infants.

Awa, a mother of five, told me she’s been working at the clinic six days a week for a decade, without pay. During my time with Awa, I saw her expertly treat a range of patients with varying medical needs.

Awa Diagne cares for a patient wounded in an accident.
Volunteer healthworker Awa Diagne cares for a bricklayer wounded at work.












If Awa lived in a developed nation, she would likely be paid for her work. But nonprofits, international donors and local governments insist there just isn’t enough money. The alternative to a volunteer system, they say, is no medical care at all. But Awa says solutions must be found. “Look at our work and our activities,” she told me. “We deserve to be paid. The government needs to find solutions to help us.”

Here’s a short video about Awa, which I produced with The World’s Sonia Narang.

And The World’s Angilee Shah produced a discussion about the debate over volunteerism, which you can see here.

Just as I was getting ready to post this story, I came across this New York Times piece questioning the NFL’s use of volunteers at the Super Bowl. It’s worth reading an entirely different take on the role of volunteers and the debate over their right to payment.

Thoughts on either/both stories?