Certificates, stipends, and food: A compelling mini-series

I’ve worked in the development sector for close to 8 years. Granted, I started a little too young. There are things that I cannot unsee and emotional labor I never got paid for. I must say, this blog is really helping me to offload the machinations, ideas and sometimes downright shocking things I have heard and seen working in the field. Many of them are not constant, organizations close, focus areas change, donors leave and people get passive, but three questions have stood the test of time and in 8 years, I have never really sat down to dissect and address these irksome questions.

Disclaimer: They are probably Irritating to the privileged liberal in me, dealing with understaffing, tight budgets and a healthy dose of cynicism.

And, here they are, the questions every development worker has probably heard at least once, packaged in a compelling and palatable mini-series:

  1. Episode 1: Will we get certificates?
  2. Episode 2: Do we get stipends and of course…
  3. Episode 3: Will there be food?

Episode II: Will we get stipends?

The definition for your benefit: A salary is paid to an employee who is on the payrolls of a company. It is usually a compensation associated in exchange for the services of the employee. Stipend, on the other hand, is a form of salary, such as for an internship/training. It is usually paid as an enablement for someone to work who is usually unpaid

“My best memory of last year was getting that SMS that the money has landed in my account”- volunteer at a review session

Because I’m a rebel, and it’s the end/beginning of the month—your salary probably just came through and you’re having “beginning of the month salty crack snacks”, I’m going to start with the second episode in our mini-series—do we get stipends?

So, the stipend issue is a sensitive one. As we know, the unemployment rate is staggering in South Africa. However, international donor funding, which we are pretty much addicted to, frowns upon salary provision for community work within programmes. Essentially, the idea is that, if you are a community member, a good African citizen, you should want to work towards its betterment. Never mind the fact that walking from A-B in the sweltering heat of a semi-rural town, almost melts your face off, you probably haven’t had any breakfast and you are either unemployed or severely underemployed. The idea is that project funding should be used, for just that, project activities. Not salaries.

“Please can you send my stipend to me via cash send, I have debit orders on my account that have bounced”

Most organizations, call their community staff “volunteers” and pay them a stipend to circumvent this issue. But, volunteers sometimes get so dependent on stipends and they become a central focus of the work, which halts as soon as funding dries up. This means that stipends are used as motivators, threats, excuses, and rewards and community development becomes unsustainable. I remember one review session where I asked a group of volunteers to act out the highlight of the years’ work and guess what? They acted out a scene where the bank notification came through on their phones, indicating that the stipend money had come through. I was gutted and amused at the same time because this is the reality of the situation on the ground. Money matters.

“Oh, I changed my number again”

So, after dealing with late night calls for even later payments, underperforming volunteers who cannot be disciplined through normal channels because they are not employees and could potentially derail a whole programme because of sour grapes, I have a few kernels of wisdom to share around the stipend issue:

  1. Volunteers will tell you that they have debt on their bank accounts and that you should rather use “CashSend” or “Ewallet”. Communicate upfront policies on payment. These payment methods become very costly to the project and are a little more difficult to track.
  2. Volunteers will sometimes, actually a lot of the times, change their cell phone number to avoid debt collectors, so ask for number updates every month, if you choose to use these money sending tools. Also, remember that “whatsaap numbers” are rarely the same as “calling numbers”
  3. Volunteers should be encouraged to find alternative sources of income and funding for their activities. Always support job searches. Work yourself out of a job as a development worker.
  4. Always pay stipends on time and make sure volunteers know the difference between a stipend and a salary, a volunteer, and an employee.
  5. Make volunteer agreements that clearly state the difference between volunteering and full-time employment—if anything goes wrong, you will be taken straight to the CCMA!
  6. Respect stipends as a valid source of income, no matter how small the amount.


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