Volunteers can make the difference between life and death: Red Cross health advisor

“When disaster strikes it takes a while for the health system to get going,” says Mary Thompson, health advisor with the Canadian Red Cross (CRC). “It is in global crises and emergencies that we see volunteers play a significant role”.

Mary was presenting her findings from a study she has been doing for the CRC on the topic of how to strengthen humanitarian volunteer training overseas at the Fourth Global Symposium on Health Systems Research held November 14-18, 2016 in Vancouver.

“Those volunteers live right in their communities. They are the first responders, so the more confident they feel, the better they’re going to be. In some situations where we work, that can really make the difference between life and death,” adds Mary.

Mary notes that more reliance on volunteers to deliver aid and services requires more training to expand skillsets. This need is currently not being met. The International Federation of the Red Cross recently published a global review on its volunteers – the Red Cross Movement has more than 17 million volunteers across the globe – and concluded that their potential to deliver services in their communities will make them indispensable for the achievement of most of the Sustainable Development Goal targets. Volunteers and volunteerism is especially necessary in fragile settings, where access to normal social services may not be available, or state health facilities do not exist or are under-staffed and under-resourced.

Mary’s research examined volunteer training in Maternal, Newborn and Child Health programs in five countries, including Mali, Kenya, Pakistan, Haiti and Liberia. The exercise included an extensive review of program documents, and the development of a detailed survey tool for CRC field health staff. This was followed up with two in-depth interviews with field staff to verify data.

The study analyzed the variance across countries in terms of the ratio of volunteers to households, what trainers did in their visits, how volunteers are trained and supervised, and how projects can provide support to more effectively promote health in communities.

To date, a total of 2,488 Red Cross volunteers have been trained through CRC partnerships in five countries. The ratio of volunteers to households ranged from 1:10 volunteers per household to 1:36, and findings seem to indicate that the smaller the ratio, the more frequently household visits took place. A mid-term review from one of the countries revealed that the more recent those households had contact with the Red Cross, the more likely it was that an improved water source and a latrine would have been used, and that the children in the house under 5-years would have slept beneath a bed net the previous night.

Data analysis also showed that the ratio of supervisors to volunteers ranged between 1:10 supervisors volunteers, to 1: 25. From this, it is estimated that on average supervisors with 10 volunteers could probably meet with each volunteer every 1 – 2 months (due to distance, transport, time constraints), whereas those with 25 volunteers probably met them only about every 3 – 4 months. Having fewer volunteers to supervise resulted in more opportunities to observe individuals and provide feedback, and increased the probability that volunteers are providing accurate health messaging to their communities.

Mary added that smaller training sessions are more effective than mass training sessions, and ensure time for volunteers to integrate knowledge, and to be observed applying skills. In conclusion, she stressed two things that are needed for successful volunteer training.

“One is technical content, and two is to integrate teaching skills into volunteer training, helping them to be curious, to be good listeners and to see the people they talk to as resources,” Mary says. “It is very easy to say to somebody ‘breastfeed your kid or wash your hands’, but it is a far more effective conversation to ask them what is going well, ‘what is helping you find time to breastfeed your baby, what have you tried that works and why?’. Or to take the time to find out what the barriers are, ‘why is it you’re not breastfeeding? What is preventing you from doing that? What have you tried?’

“That’s, in the end, what I think would help make an effective volunteer.”


Editor’s note: Final copies of the Canadian Red Cross study will be available in early spring 2017 via CanWaCH.


December 15, 2016


Bernice Tiggelaar, Program Officer, Global Health Unit, Canadian Red Cross