Can government and volunteers partner against the scourge of HIV and AIDS in South Africa?

Compiled by Lebina Shabé [3]

The South African Government and some civil society organisations working in the area of HIV and AIDS have embarked on a collective response to the AIDS crisis. This came after they realised that without a coherent and collective approach at local level, their efforts would not achieve results. Although there are currently no clear policy guidelines regarding volunteer involvement, a number of government departments rely on the services of volunteers and volunteer-involving organisations to advance their work in the area of HIV and AIDS.

This is one of the key findings in an environmental scan conducted for the Nelson Mandela Foundation's 46664 Global Initiative by Volunteer and Service Enquiry Southern Africa (VOSESA) [4] of volunteer-involving organisations in the HIV and AIDS sector.

This is one of the key findings in an environmental scan conducted by Volunteer and Service Enquiry Southern Africa (VOSESA) of volunteer-involving organisations in the HIV and AIDS sector. The study examined the relationship between the civil society organisations and government departments working with people infected and affected by HIV and AIDS, and highlighted the supportive role played by the government in reinforcing the interventions by these organisations. The scan was a qualitative study that included a total of 31 organisations located in three provinces (Limpopo, Eastern Cape and Kwazulu-Natal), and seven national civil society organisations. Fourteen of the civil society organisations were based in rural areas.

The study identified three major ways in which the government assists civil society organisations working in the field of HIV and AIDS:

  • By providing financial support in the form of stipends for volunteers and salaries for social workers, and providing material and administrative assistance;
  • Through the 'Care for the Carer' support programme which targets volunteers who provide counselling to children, families and individuals infected and affected by HIV and AIDS; and
  • Through mentoring which aims to build sustainable organisational structures and skills in community-based organisations (CBOs) by enlisting the help of well-developed intermediary non-governmental organisations. The mentoring pilot project was started by the Department of Health in 2001, and involves more than 50 CBOs and nine NGOs in seven provinces.

Gender trends

The study shows that the majority of volunteers working in the field of HIV and AIDS are women in the 36-55 age bracket. According to the study, a key reason for this is that the 'nature of the work in the field of HIV and AIDS, especially with respect to home-based care, is sensitive and requires a certain level of maturity and resilience'. Men constitute the minority of volunteers in most of the organisations surveyed. This was attributed to the prevalence of traditional expectations that men have to support the family and should be looking for paid employment rather than undertaking voluntary service. For this reason they tend to seek activities that yield some financial return. The study also shows that most organisations working in the field of HIV and AIDS say that their beneficiaries prefer being looked after by older rather than younger volunteers, and once again cultural reasons, including reluctance among older people to bathe in the company of young people, were cited for this preference. Only one of the surveyed organisations recruited younger volunteers, and they worked mainly in peer counselling.

Managing and retaining volunteers

The management and retention of volunteers is a major factor in the sustainability of the interventions. Both the volunteer-involving organisations and government departments use a variety of ways to manage their volunteers. These include establishing and maintaining databases, contractual agreements, volunteer schedules, holding regular meetings between volunteers and volunteer administrators, and communicating with volunteers via mail or phone. Despite these management strategies, some organisations experience a high turnover rate within their volunteer corps, and in some instances this threatens organisational stability and effectiveness.

The study indicates that the major reason for the high turnover rate among volunteers in civil society organisations is that volunteers tend to seek full-time employment elsewhere. Other reasons for volunteers moving in and out of organisations include pregnant volunteers taking time off, or volunteers leaving because of depression caused by the trauma of working with terminally ill patients, and in some cases losing them. These circumstances present unique management challenges for organisations working in the field of HIV and AIDS.

The management and retention of volunteers can be significantly aided by the provision of a small stipend for volunteers. For example, the Department of Health in Limpopo pays its volunteer community health workers a stipend of R500 per month. Given the high rate of unemployment, a stipend can help reduce the turnover of volunteers because it helps cover their basic costs. One respondent captured this challenge by saying: 'The carer who must give out a food parcel has no food on his/her own table and therefore cannot afford to be a volunteer.' According to these organisations deep poverty makes it difficult for volunteers to help, even when they are willing to do so.

In the context of poverty and unemployment, incentives and acknowledgement are thus critical factors in ‘persuading’ volunteers to stay active, because they acknowledge the value of volunteering and express gratitude for the contribution that volunteers make. The organisations surveyed felt that these incentives should at least cover basic expenses such as travel and food. In addition, most organisations believed that recognition of volunteer effort and expertise would reduce the extent to which volunteers look for paid employment.

Another challenge voiced by the organisations surveyed is that in some cases they face competition from government departments for their volunteers. They maintained that they lose their trained personnel to the Department of Health in particular. This suggests that while there clearly is room for collaboration between the government and civil society organisations working in the field of HIV and AIDS, it is important that reciprocal benefits emerge from such collaboration.

Role of training

Volunteers in the field of HIV and AIDS should regularly update their knowledge and understanding due to the evolving nature of the disease and its interventions. This is an area in which organisations feel government departments could offer considerable support by providing regular training for all volunteers, both in government and those attached to civil society organisations.

According to the study, the Department of Social Development does provide some funding for volunteer training in project management, financial management, child care and home-based care. However, the organisations feel that further training is required to familiarise volunteers with how the systems work in the departments of Social Welfare, Home Affairs and Education, since their work relates to some of the operations carried out by these departments. This points to the fact that joint training programmes would be helpful, particularly since most organisations cannot carry out comprehensive and accredited training for their volunteers due to their tight budgets.

According to the organisations surveyed, training has another function: it provides a useful vehicle for recruiting volunteers. This is because some people see volunteering as 'an opportunity to acquire job-related skills and improve job opportunities'. Nevertheless, training does not necessarily foster retention of volunteers since the context of unemployment continually drives people to seek job opportunities, and the challenge is particularly acute among younger volunteers.

However, the study also suggests that training on its own will not necessarily raise the quality of service provided by volunteers. Some organisations noted that it is also very important for volunteers working in the field of HIV and AIDS to have particular qualities such as diligence, empathy and compassion. This, in turn, raises issues regarding screening and recruitment procedures.

Clearly, government departments and civil society organisations are aware that the fight against HIV and AIDS requires a concerted effort by both parties. It is imperative that, through networking, they build on the initial steps that have already been taken, and achieve more strategic collaboration that could bring about the synergy required to deliver services and care to affected people and communities.

For more information about the Nelson Mandela Foundation's 46664 Global Initiative, see

Applicable concepts at a glance

Volunteerism: The concept of volunteering is associated with the provision of services without the expectation of the service being rendered for return or remuneration. It is a social phenomenon that cuts across social groups, traverses borders and is present in all aspects of human activity.

Volunteer-involving organisations: These are organisations that rely on the services of volunteers in order to advance their work.

Volunteer networks: These initiatives aim to share good practices, form a bridge between individuals and groups, and help establish and enhance social cohesion at various levels, providing favourable conditions for collective endeavours.

Gender equality: Women play a pivotal role in family and social cohesion and are engaged in a wide range of unpaid economic activities. Their voluntary and collective engagement in development constitutes a formidable force for social and economic transformation.

Compiled on the basis of UN Volunteers (UNV) (2004): Volunteering for the Millennium Development Goals. (UNV:Bonn) and Thandile Ntshwanti-Khumalo (2005): 'Report of an environmental scan of volunteer-involving organisations in the HIV and AIDS sector and their relationship with selected government departments', Nelson Mandela Foundation: Johannesburg

[3] Vosesa researcher.
[4] The study was conducted in 2005 by Thandile Ntshwanti-Khumalo, managed by Volunteer and Service Enquiry Southern Africa, and commissioned by the Nelson Mandela Foundation.