February 22, 2010

The Paradox of Volunteering and AIDS in Ethiopia

Emory's Laney Graduate School recently started putting videos about graduate student research on their website.  Today I watched the first one that featured Kenneth Maes, a graduate student in Anthropology talking about his research on volunteer AIDS caregivers, food security and mental health in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  His research highlights profound contradictions involved in relying on a volunteer labor force in AIDS treatment programs in Addis Ababa and underscores the necessity of addressing poverty and social inequality.  Kenneth's work is so inspiring that I decided to write about it here.

Kenneth points out that many public health programs, like those that address AIDS, rely on volunteers to fill labor gaps.  And although there is considerable variation in programs, contexts and volunteers, volunteerism in low-income countries clearly has benefits and costs.  In Addis Ababa, most of the volunteers in his study come from low-income households.  While they are motivated by spiritual beliefs, poverty - particularly access to food and other basic needs - threatens to undermine their motivations.  Food insecurity, especially following the global food crisis of 2008, is a source of stress for caregivers and those they care for. 

So here's the paradox:  while AIDS in Addis Ababa is being addressed by sophisticated and expensive anti-retro viral drugs, those who care for AIDS patients and those who are being treated for AIDS do not have secure access to basic needs such as food.  This, according to Maes, threatens to undermine AIDS care programs.  In order to address this paradox, and many others, policymakers must address the underlying causes of social inequality.

Research like Kenneth's is vital.   It underscores the importance of understanding development programs from the perspectives of participants and the need to create jobs and economic opportunities to combat food insecurity.  To see the video about Kenneth's research go to:


Sita Ranchod-Nilsson

Sita Ranchod-Nilsson

Director, Institute for Developing Nations,
Emory University