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Appallingly limited view of volunteering
18 January 2006, 11:57
by Jayne Cravens

In an article on the World Volunteer Web in December 2005, a university student in Yemen asks, "How can you volunteer if you have no income, no money and are concerned about the means to provide your kids with something on their plates every night? With all due respect to those calling for Yemenis to volunteer, I say, 'Please be serious!'"

In an article from the BBC, reposted on the same site, Tom Geoghegan says, "the prospect of unwaged employment might not be so appealing if you're a cash-strapped school leaver who wants to help mum put food on the table. "When volunteering is so often presented just one way -- as a state-sanctioned free labour activity -- these responses are completely justified.

Current promotions of volunteerism, whether in rich or poor countries, are focused primarily on government-endorsed activities: the state or large corporations, through their sponsorship of such campaigns, encourage people to work without pay to address community and social needs, the gain being a better community, improved self-esteem for the volunteer, and less money needed to pay for such action, as volunteers aren't paid. It's an appallingly limited view of what volunteering is and its true importance and power, and it's no wonder that the unemployed and the disenfranchised scoff at such campaigns.

The world and its history are rife with examples of volunteering by the unemployed and disenfranchised to positively affect people and the environment in confrontation to the state or other power structures. These activities have sometimes empowered the volunteers as full citizens for the first time. Those who organized in the Southern USA in the 1950s and 60s to register voters, to shine a blinding light on social injustice and to stop Jim Crow, the American version of apartheid? They were volunteers, they were often socially excluded themselves, and they often worked against the state or local power structures, in order to improve American society and to change their own destinies for the better. Local people engaging in campaigns to counter the practice of female genital mutilation or to improve women's rights, often in direct opposition to local community leaders or long-held traditions? Again, volunteers and, often, people who do not enjoy full employment. Yet, most volunteerism campaigns and conferences ignore these passionate volunteer campaigners, whom Mary Merrill calls both "vigilantes" and "entrepreneurs."

Talking about volunteering as a way to challenge the state or other power structures or to empower people and communities would probably be quite appealing to that earlier-mentioned Yemeni student, or others who are unemployed and disenfranchised. However, mainstream campaigns continue to promote volunteerism as a feel-good activity and a way for the state or others to not have to pay people for work -- a message that just does not resonate with so many.

There's also a tendency by such campaigns to equate all community service with volunteerism. However, if a person is paid to provide a service to the community, he or she is no longer a volunteer. That isn't to say he or she, because of the receipt of money, has less dedication than a volunteer; I've certainly encountered UNDP and NGO paid staff members who are every bit as committed and heart-felt in their work as people providing unpaid service. But "volunteer" should mean the person is unpaid, or at least, giving up his or her employment for a significant period of time in order to provide full-time community service. In certain situations, volunteers may be the most appropriate to staff an initiative, while other situations may call for paid staff -- and these situations often have nothing to do with whether or not there's a budget to pay people.

If governments and donors want volunteerism campaigns in poor communities to actually lead to more volunteering, they must radically update their message. They must be prepared to show why volunteers, rather than paid staff, are best for a particular task, beyond that there's no budget to pay such people. They must show how those whom they are trying to entice to volunteer will benefit directly in terms of potential employment or an improved life and a greater voice. They need to point out that volunteering can give a person a first-hand view of the work of the government or others, and a fact-based perspective and voice to endorse or oppose it. They need to explain that volunteers can also have their own agendas for their service, just as those promoting volunteerism do. And governments and donors need to put the individuals in charge of defining their own volunteerism goals and activities, and to be prepared for those activities, at least sometimes, to be counter to the volunteerism campaigner's agendas.

It's a challenging proposition for the mainstream promoters of volunteerism to think and speak so differently. But without meeting this challenge, we will turn generations and groups all over the world off to volunteering. What a tragedy that would be.