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Hum Organ. 2012 Spring;71(1):54-64.

Volunteerism or Labor Exploitation? Harnessing the Volunteer Spirit to Sustain AIDS Treatment Programs in Urban Ethiopia.

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Population Studies and Training Center of Brown University.


Based on ethnographic research in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, this paper describes NGO efforts to encourage AIDS care volunteers to eschew material returns for their labor and instead reflect on the goodness of sacrificing to promote the survival of people living with HIV/AIDS. Consensus analysis of motivational survey data collected from a sample of AIDS care volunteers (n=110) suggests that they strongly share a sacrificial and prosocial motivational model. These results may be explained by several factors, including the efforts of the organizations to shape volunteers' motivations, the self-selection of volunteers, positive reinforcement in seeing one's patients become healthy, and social desirability bias. In-depth interviews examining the motivations and behaviors of volunteers reveal a more complicated picture: even ostensibly devoted and altruistic volunteers strongly question their service commitments. The complexity and ambivalence of volunteers' motivations reflect the profound uncertainty that they face in achieving improved socioeconomic status for themselves and their families amid widespread unemployment and sharply rising food prices. Their desires for economic opportunities explain why local NGOs exert so much effort to shape and sustain-and yet fail to completely control-their motivations. This recasts economically-insecure volunteers' consent to donate their labor as a process of negotiation with their organizers. Future research should explore how models of health care volunteerism and volunteer motivations are shaped by individual and collective experiences in political-economic context.


AIDS care; Ethiopia; cultural consensus; motivation; volunteerism


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