Volunteers construct latrines in Haiti Volunteers construct latrines in Haiti Photo credit: Oxfam / Flickr
Guidelines for working with community volunteers and committees in humanitarian emergencies
by Nicholas Brooks, Oxfam GB September 2010

Drawing from experiences in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Haiti and elsewhere, this article highlights the main issues for NGOs to consider when working with community volunteers and committees during humanitarian emergencies. Every programme is different, so agencies should not necessarily apply identical structures or ways of working with communities in different contexts. However, certain principles should at minimum be considered regardless of the situation. This article aims to improve awareness of these issues, to encourage consistency and best practice in the planning and implementation of humanitarian activities with volunteers and committees.

Consistency and coordination

An ad hoc or uncoordinated approach to working with the community can lead to damaging inconsistencies between different project sites, or across programme sectors. For example, inconsistencies can emerge if the same activities are carried out by paid casual labourers in one location, and in other areas by volunteers. In the Zimbabwe cholera response in 2009–2010, volunteers in urban and rural areas received differing levels of remuneration, even when they were doing identical work. Levels and types of ‘incentives’ (cash, food or other goods given to volunteers to encourage participation) can also vary considerably between projects. The impact of different policies among NGOs and UN agencies should also be considered. Differences between agencies can seriously damage relations between communities, local authorities and NGOs, and can create security risks for field staff.

NGOs entering a new area have a responsibility to understand local agreements regarding volunteers, and to work within these agreements to the best of their ability. This could include common methods for committee selection and composition and incentives. Benefits can also be gained from sharing training and resources (e.g. community meeting places), and learning lessons on legal issues and traditional community structures from other NGOs.
Existing community structures
It is important to understand local practices of volunteering and community organisation before establishing committees or other structures. NGOs should respect and where possible work with established local structures, suggesting minor adaptations (e.g. to promote gender equality) rather than creating new (rival) groups. Health and WASH agencies relied heavily on existing volunteers in response to the cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe, making good use of the existing community health system. Volunteers who had been engaged in previous health campaigns were also mobilised.

Selecting volunteers

A transparent mechanism for selecting volunteers needs to be agreed with the entire community, not just the leadership. While it is tempting to merely accept a list of names from a leader, a group that has been openly selected is more likely to remain accountable to the wider community. The active involvement of women and vulnerable groups, and fair representation of different ethnic groups, should be promoted where possible. Individual volunteers should always be above the legal age of employment in the country: involvement of younger volunteers is more appropriate through specific youth and children’s clubs and activities.

It is good practice to maintain a database of community members involved in programmes – volunteers, casual labourers – recording locations, length of time involved with the NGO, any training undergone and items received, such as bicycles. This documentation should enable the timely mobilisation of skilled personnel in future emergencies, and could be used to minimise employment law issues.

Oxfam’s Toolkit for Water User Associations (WUAs) in Kenya lists the following important attributes for committee members:

•    Use the water source themselves.
•    Have sufficient time to spend on project matters.
•    Trusted by the community.
•    Plan to remain in the village for some years.
•    Representative of different neighbourhoods/water users.
•    Hard-working.
•    Active.
•    Dependable.


Community members have different motivations for dedicating their time and effort to NGO activities. These can include altruism; community spirit; the opportunity to improve social standing within the community; the desire to learn; the importance of clan or tribal representation; and the expectation of financial or material incentives. It is well worth discussing motivations with national staff and informally with volunteers: understanding what makes people want to participate will help in the design of appropriate and transparent committees.

The WASH emergency response in Haiti depended heavily on paid casual labour for digging and maintaining latrines. The rationale for this was that relying on volunteers would not have delivered the scale and speed of response required, particularly in what were assumed to be disparate communities with minimal cooperative spirit. However, the ongoing planning of recovery activities is putting much more focus on community motivation and involvement in longer-term programme design.

If payments or incentives are to be given, it is good practice to use a consistent annual budget ‘per volunteer’ – agreed with other NGOs, if possible. The allocation can then be spent on materials or food or given as cash, depending on community preferences, which may differ, for example between urban and rural areas. This allows for different-sized committees to be treated equally and encourages early discussion of incentives (usually a controversial topic) at the time of project planning and budgeting, both internally and with volunteers.

Clarity of roles and responsibilities

The community should be involved in devising and agreeing the roles and responsibilities of committee members and the NGO in delivering the project. Roles and responsibilities should be recorded and ongoing monitoring can assess compliance with the agreement. A committee constitution can improve transparency and confidence amongst the wider community (e.g. for member selection or spending user fees), and a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the NGO and the committee can help ensure consistency and a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities. This can state the names of those involved, project dates, respective commitments and details of any materials, incentives or remuneration the committee will receive. Note that an MoU is a legal document in some countries, so wording should be agreed with a lawyer before it is signed. Copies should be translated into local languages and read to any illiterate committee members for agreement. Constitutions can include the following aspects:

1.    Clearly defined role of the institution (defined by an objective) and of the individual members who comprise it (who qualifies for membership).
2.    Clearly defined office-holders and their roles (job descriptions).
3.    Frequency of meeting and decision-making (number of people required to pass decisions) and method of decision-making (majority voting or unanimity).
4.    Clearly defined term of office (frequency of elections).
5.    Clearly defined election procedure where members can decide without duress.
6.    Methods of accountability – financial procedures, auditing, book-keeping, sharing information with water users.

Misunderstandings and discrepancies in roles and responsibilities can usually be tackled before they become major problems if there are clear communication channels and regular project meetings with committees.


When volunteer roles and responsibilities are devised, it is not uncommon for communities to allocate unpaid duties to women, whilst the men are given paid casual work. A familiar solution to this problem is to try to ensure that half of the volunteers for a particular project are women. Whilst equal representation is important, it does not guarantee fairness; for example women might be doing unpaid waste clean-ups every week, while the men are digging pits for $10 a day.

It is also important to understand the degree of influence females have in decision-making. Experience indicates that, where women are actively involved in decision- making, the quality of a project is enhanced: in Somalia, one criterion for Oxfam-supported health committees is that women occupy at least 30% of the decision-making positions. The 2002 Water Act in Kenya also requires 30% of decision-making posts in WUAs to be held by women.


A common argument against giving incentives to volunteers is that they encourage short-term involvement, but that participation fades away when incentives are stopped, for instance after the NGO leaves, because the volunteers do not understand the full value of their involvement and have not developed their own mechanisms to ensure sustainability. This suggests that efforts should focus on educating users on the long-term importance of their work, and on developing community-based management structures – for example water point committees that collect fees and do not rely on incentives.

However, in rapid-onset emergencies NGOs are not aiming for ‘sustainability’. The immediate priority is to ensure that essential services are delivered. Opportunities to develop sustainable activities should be balanced with the reality of acute emergencies. Sustainability was an important issue for community participation in Darfur, where the challenges of working with volunteers over a prolonged emergency necessitated innovative approaches to maintain interest. For example, committee celebration days were held in the large camps outside El Fasher, involving singing, dancing and communal food for 200–300 health volunteers. These were extremely popular and effective, fostering participation for a further 2–3 months after each event.


Training for volunteers is essential. Training needs and formats should be developed with committees to ensure that materials are appropriate and to encourage participation. For example, ‘centralised workshops’ (bringing communities from different sites to one location) can discourage women’s participation, as women find it more difficult to leave their camp or village.
Capacity-building plans should consider both technical skills and committee management capabilities. In some situations it may be useful (or required) to support committees to register as official bodies, for example under national water legislation. This can also help enhance sustainability and transparency.


It is important that NGOs do not regard volunteers as cheap labour. NGOs should put in place mechanisms to ensure that volunteers are not exploited through over-ambitious expectations of working hours, and are not exposed to sexual abuse or exploitation through their participation.

Accountability to the community is extremely important, alongside interaction and feedback on how each party is performing. NGOs can go a long way to improving accountability by ensuring a timely response to community concerns and delivering commitments within an agreed timescale. Poor performance on simple matters – such as turning up to committee meetings late – can sour relations. Accountability can also be promoted by making any handover of materials or cash to a committee in a public forum – perhaps during a project launch event – to ensure that the whole community has a common understanding of the programme and is aware of resource donations.

Involve HR

National legislation covering employee rights and employer responsibilities can give considerable rights to volunteers and committees. In Sudan, the lack of a category for ‘volunteer’ in the national labour law was a key problem for some NGOs when volunteers who had been working with them claimed full employment rights. Given the numbers of volunteers working with NGOs, legal liabilities are a high priority. Programme staff should always discuss the formation of new volunteer groups with HR staff. Request specific HR help in understanding relevant labour laws, developing documented systems for engaging volunteers and committees and checking current casual labour and volunteer groups to identify programme and legal risks. HR should treat issues with committees and volunteers with the same rigour, accountability and consistency as is accorded to internal staff salaries and conditions.

Community-based monitoring

Community volunteers can play an important role in participatory monitoring and evaluation of programme activities. However, NGOs should not be over-reliant on volunteers. If NGOs only hold focus groups with the volunteers they know (maybe because they are easiest to organise) these groups will give an unrepresentative opinion of activities.

Contingency planning and exit strategies

Committees and volunteers have a key role in ensuring programmes continue during periods of insecurity or remote management. This needs clear forward planning to establish logistics, communication channels and specific implementation plans. In Darfur, strong relations between committees and NGOs developed over a number of years were very useful when security problems limited access to camps and operations continued through remote management.

The length of time that NGOs will be actively engaged with a committee or volunteers needs careful planning at the start of an intervention, and must be discussed and agreed with the community at this stage. This is relevant in all situations – whether short-term humanitarian responses, development work or chronic emergencies where NGOs might work with committees over many years. It is always difficult to avoid the problems of dependency upon NGO support and ensure 100% sustainability; a clear and consistent exit or handover strategy can help address these issues.

Nicholas Brooks is a Public Health Humanitarian Support Person with Oxfam GB. His email address is nbrooks@oxfam.org.uk.