Last month I attended a meeting in central India for Shaishav, the organisation I volunteer for. I came away from this meeting with 2 main thoughts. Firstly, that spending over 30 hours traveling to get to a 2 hour Q&A session is quite clearly crazy. Secondly, that there is a major level of inconsistency and hypocrisy in a situation where highly paid consultants from international funding agencies are insisting that the salaries of grassroots workers are kept as low as possible, and then complaining when staff turnover is high and staff capacity is low.
How are NGOs ever supposed to develop a strong, experienced and dedicated team of staff when they are not allowed to pay them a decent salary? Even the most dedicated employees would find it hard to turn away a job that is offering double the salary that they are currently receiving for basically the same work. And unfortunately double is not an exaggeration, and in many cases is even an understatement.
It’s perfectly OK to ask representatives from NGOs to spend possibly Rs.10,000 rupees each (around £120, covered by the funding agency of course) flying to a 2-hour meeting, and then spending thousands more renting out hotel rooms and a conference room, along with all the necessary equipment and food, but spending a few extra thousand on employee salaries and therefore ensuring that NGOs have access to educated and experienced staff is unacceptable. Let’s not forget, this is a region where the salaries of even mid-level employees are often under £100 month, sometimes significantly so.
This links back to an interesting article I read the other day on WhyDev (So what if 90% of money donated goes to the program?). In this article, Weh Yeoh argues that this push to ensure that as much money as possible is spent on directly on the programmes rather than the behind-the-scenes work is in many ways damaging the effectiveness of development work. How can a programme be well implemented without the team of managers, accountants, fundraisers, administrators and everything else needed to guide a project from the initial idea to completion?
This does however have an interesting effect on volunteer demand. Because it is often incredibly difficult for NGOs to attract the skilled staff they need with the low salaries that they can provide, many NGOs resort to finding these skills through international volunteers such as those coming through 2Way Development. Despite the pervasiveness of the English language in South Asia, and the fact that even national funding organisations usually use English rather than a local language, the number of staff in an NGO capable of writing at a level high enough to prepare something like a funding proposal is often very low.
Many NGOs are reliant on volunteers to bring new skills to their organisations, or to introduce new concepts. In some cases, this reliance gets to the point where the NGO could simply not operate without these volunteers. In April I visited an organisation close to Pune working with mentally disabled persons, and almost all the care work was undertaken by international volunteers.
This creates a fantastic experience for the volunteer, allowing them to get incredibly involved in the organisation that they are working with, and patches the problem from the NGOs side, but it really is just a patch. This is not a sustainable solution. Even long-term volunteers are not likely to remain for longer than a year or two. If grassroots NGOs are not able to develop the capacities of their own staff, then how can they ever hope to grow, both in size and in beliefs? There needs to be a stronger focus on investing in staff rather than only on programmes, but this cannot be done without recognition from the general public that effective use of their donations requires a skilled team to implement this work. Until this happens though, volunteers will continue to be vital for many South Asian NGOs.