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  • Volunteer Economies: the politics and ethics of voluntary labour in Africa ed. by Ruth Prince and Hannah Brown
  • Catherine Buerger
Ruth Prince and Hannah Brown (editors), Volunteer Economies: the politics and ethics of voluntary labour in Africa. Woodbridge: James Currey (hb £60 – 978 1 84701 140 4; pb £19.99 – 978 1 84701 139 8). 2016, 280pp.

This volume takes the moral economy of volunteering in Africa as its central focus. Drawing from ethnographic and historical case studies in a variety of African contexts, the authors explore the relationship between labour in the ‘voluntary sector’ and notions of citizenship, identity and value. In doing so, the chapters in this volume provide valuable insights into the role of power and inequality in reshaping labour markets and determining what constitutes a ‘good’ volunteer.

It is commonly cited that volunteering and the reliance on voluntary labour as a tool of development stem from the neoliberal thinking of the late twentieth century. Although acknowledging the prominent place of this form of engagement within post-welfare societies, this volume also challenges these beliefs by expanding our historical view of volunteerism. It does so by placing contemporary patterns of voluntary labour within a deeper historical trajectory that extends back at least to the colonial period, if not before.

Subdivided into four sections, the book focuses on the practice of volunteering, broadly understood. Relayed through rich ethnographic detail, the authors present diverse case studies, including European youth on gap year excursions, elite African boarding school students volunteering through their Bible Club, low-income African participants in medical trials, and doctors working with Médecins Sans Frontières, among others. Rather than feeling disjointed, however, the volume’s diverse depictions of voluntary labour is one of its greatest strengths. Asking the reader to consider ‘voluntourists’ alongside low-income individuals who rely on clinical trials to access healthcare challenges the reader’s own conceptions of moral economic activity as well as the basic definition of the word ‘volunteer’.

The case studies in this volume add complexity to the landscape of participation by mapping the many intersections of moral and economic activity in African volunteering. Again, the diversity of perspectives portrayed in the case studies makes the examination of how moral and economic interests interact in African volunteering a particularly fruitful exercise. The ethical question of ‘who can afford to volunteer’ has previously been raised by scholars debating the role of volunteering in reinforcing social inequality. However, by considering this question alongside its companion, posed by Bruun (Chapter 4), Colvin (Chapter 1) and Kelly and Chaki (Chapter 2), of who cannot afford not to volunteer, the volume raises new questions about the ethics of the increasing professionalization of volunteering in Africa.

The debate over how labour relates to the public good is clearly visible throughout the volume, no more so than in Ståle Wig’s chapter (Chapter 3) on volunteering in Lesotho. Wig uses the case study of several expatriate volunteers at a local NGO to reveal the discourses of morality that often accompany requests for compensation from local volunteers. These tensions reach their apex during an event [End Page 198] hosted by the NGO where the expatriates’ refusal to provide ‘handouts’, a stance grounded in what they see as best practice within the development community, collides with local norms of hospitality and understandings of global inequality. Within this example, as in many others in the book, the author demonstrates that whether or not an activity is considered to be ‘for the public good’ is deeply related to cultural norms and relations of power.

As the authors in this volume make clear, those with economic and political power are able to set the limits on how much compensation or personal benefit can be derived from voluntary activities before they are no longer considered ‘altruistic’. This power is routinely exercised by wealthy volunteers who see no problem adding their experiences to their résumés, but question the practice of providing transport reimbursements in excess of the costs actually incurred (Wig, p. 80). The story is similar for development workers who pay volunteers but avoid the word ‘salary’ for various moral and ethical reasons (Bruun, Chapter 4; Kelly...


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pp. 198-199
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