Book Review: Volunteer Economies: The Politics and Ethics of Voluntary Labour in Africa

Volunteer Economies: The Politics and Ethics of Voluntary Labour in Africa. Ruth Prince and Hannah Brown, eds., Rochester, NY: James Currey Press, 2016, 270 pp.

In their edited volume Volunteer Economies: The Politics and Ethics of Voluntary Labour in Africa, Ruth Prince and Hannah Brown highlight the importance of volunteerism to contemporary economies and social relationships. Perhaps especially in Africa, where state infrastructures are increasingly dependent on foreign humanitarian aid, the volunteer is on the frontlines of seismic shifts in the way that health care and other social services are accessed and experienced. As Brown and Prince note in their excellent introduction to the volume, volunteering has become a central tenet of neoliberal practice, whereby individuals are called on to fulfill the social obligations once considered the responsibility of the state. This volume brings historical and ethnographic specificity to these trends, expanding the discussion of volunteerism beyond the foreign volunteer–local community dynamic (though this is explored) to examine the meaning and practice of voluntary labor by Africans themselves. This broader scope positions the book as a unique and timely contribution to a growing literature at the intersection of humanitarianism, global health, and the politics of labor and welfare.

If the historical context that shapes the research in this volume is the rise of neoliberal economies, the theoretical aims of the book center on questions of ethics—of care, responsibility, and obligation. The figure of the volunteer raises questions about the most fundamental of human relationships and notions of moral duty. For whom does a volunteer work? And how does a reliance on voluntary labor transform experiences of citizenship and civic duty, perhaps especially when volunteers are from communities far removed from the hosts who receive them? Such dynamics bring into focus the ways voluntary labor is centered around processes of exchange that are often unequal. Ståle Wig’s chapter on the contested practice of using cash as an incentive for participation in development projects in Botswana and Birgitte Bruun’s chapter on the contradictory interpretations of what motivates Zambian volunteers for medical research both emphasize how voluntary labor reveals contested values and moral assumptions. For whom is “voluntary” labor possible, and what are the consequences of privileging such (unpaid) labor with a higher moral value, especially in communities where resources are limited?

Of particular interest to medical anthropologists may be a set of chapters that focus on transnational medical volunteers, including an epilogue by Peter Redfield that takes up the role of international medical volunteers during the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. As a group these chapters, which also include one by Noelle Sullivan and another coauthored by Clare Wendland, Susan L. Erikson, and Noelle Sullivan highlight how transnational voluntary labor, usually pursued as a means of alleviating structural inequities in access to health care, more often works exacerbate such inequalities. In moments of crisis, as Redfield explores in his discussion of Ebola, these inequalities are patently manifest in restrictions on movement, and in the explicit physical risk and vulnerability that some bodies must absorb (Africans) while others are spared (Western volunteers). Sullivan explores the flip side of risk by examining the privileged access young medical volunteers have to knowledge production and career development, often at the expense of Africans who bear the burden of training volunteers or serving as the subjects of their inexpert care. Wendland and her coauthors ask a fundamental and revealing question about global health volunteers: Why is it that North Americans may volunteer in Africa, but African are rarely if ever afforded similar opportunities? Volunteering is often characterized in terms of moral impetus: the work of individuals who seek to “do good” in the world. But as a group these chapters reveal the contradictions inherent in the global health apparatus, one that is defined by an unequal flow of knowledge, care, risk, and reward.

A key ethical tension undergirding volunteerism is a question of voluntary labor’s effects: Does volunteerism bridge or create divides? Is such labor conducive to experiences of belonging, or does such work (as described above) exacerbate experiences of inequality? The answer, of course, depends on the context and meaning attributed to such labor. Another set of chapters takes up these questions by exploring the role it has historically played in African experiences of civic and national belonging. The book’s introduction is especially noteworthy for its excellent historical overview of the forms voluntary labor has taken in Africa, from the emphasis on communalism inherent in the post-colonial projects of Julius Nyerere’s ujamaa and the Kenyan government’s harambee communalism to the “participatory democracy” model that dominates neoliberal states today. Christopher J. Colvin’s contribution, which explores health volunteers in post-apartheid South Africa, examines how such work has become a strategic economic and political resource for African volunteers, a way for groups and individuals to develop relationships of obligation and support, and new experiences of self and belonging that run counter to the market. Michael Jennings’s chapter focuses on the political stakes and civic meaning of volunteering in independence era Tanzania, a period during which foreign volunteers presented a challenge to state-led models of development.]]

If foreign volunteers seem largely motivated by altruistic impulses that view the volunteer relationship as distinctly one-sided—a “gift” with no expectation of return—the chapters focusing on African volunteers emphasize how in many African contexts such labor is considered especially productive, not only morally but also materially and socially. Ann Kelly and Prosper Chaki’s chapter, which examines a malaria control project in Dar es Salaam, places the work of African volunteers within the historical context of Nyerere’s ujamaa program of socialized development, and the ways civic participation is intrinsic to the social experience of space and urban life in Tanzania. Thomas G. Kirsch also focuses on the ways volunteer work is shaped by particular histories and experiences of place, in that instance by examining how volunteerism has become a form of political action in post-apartheid South Africa. As a group, these chapters are most radical in the ways they challenge the reader to think about the kinds of relationships, obligations, and diverse forms of sociality voluntary labor produces.

This edited volume will be useful to a broad constellation of scholars working on the intersecting themes of humanitarianism, global health, labor, citizenship, and ethics. Grounded in rich ethnographic specificity, the chapters provoke sustained conversations about the ways voluntary labor is shaped by different kinds of global and local exchange—of sentiment, work, material support, and knowledge—and the ways the figure of the volunteer is also variable, rooted in diverse histories of obligation, political action, and belonging. The rise of the volunteer, especially in the realm of global health, is significant, and this book is an important contribution to understanding this phenomenon in all its diversity and complexity.

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