Disasters give volunteerism a new image
22 November 2005
by Suvendrini Kakuchi
"We were literally bombarded with phone calls from people who were offering their help to the millions who were affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami. International volunteer programmes must be able to respond to the new demand by proving effectiveness,’’ Mark Goldring, head of Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), based in Britain, said.
Goldring described how VSO turned down most of the inquiries as the organization did not want to send large numbers of British nationals to the affected Asian countries because it is not involved in emergency relief work.
‘'We thought it would be more effective to send financial donations to local volunteer groups already in action in the devastated areas or send volunteers who would work in liaison with the local groups there," he explained.
The tsunami experience of VSO, a leading organization in volunteer work, is one aspect that highlights new trends in volunteerism.
Local communities have certain advantages over foreign organizations during an emergency because they can act faster as they are already on the ground, can speak the local language and also know the culture, which makes local volunteers more effective in providing immediate relief measures.
‘’It is no longer possible to assume that one country has more skills than the other. The importance of collaboration between supply and demand countries to be more effective is a trend that has raised its profile even higher, after the tsunami," explained Cliff Allum, president of Skillshare International, another British organization.
Experts said the term "disaster volunteer" was coined after the December tsunami to cope with a rising interest among ordinary people to contribute society’s development.
The Philippines, a volunteer recipient country that has recently begun to dispatch its own overseas volunteers, is proposing an official scheme that entails a partnership between countries with local counterparts.
"As previous recipients of aid, Filipino volunteers can contribute to developing effective volunteerism programmes," explained Joselito De Vera, head of the Philippine National Volunteer Service Coordinating Agency.
Japan, which is celebrating its 40th year of volunteerism, is also developing new strategies to cope with the demands of disaster relief and its growing domestic interest in volunteerism.
Massaki Otsuka, director general of the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers, of the government-funded Japan International Cooperation Agency, said plans are underway to increase the use of returned volunteers for further humanitarian relief programmes.
‘'We realize that people who have volunteer experience are becoming crucial for the success of government relief operations because they can be tapped for their language skills and first-hand experience in foreign countries, qualities that experts often do not have," said Otsuka.
Some countries have also begun to explore volunteer work in migrant communities to improve bilateral overseas aid programmes.
"We recognize the potential of migrants as volunteers, they can contribute to relief programmes by providing knowledge of the local areas. Migrants provide a gateway to communities to which we have no links," said Karen Takacs of Canadian Crossroads International.
Overall, experts are agreed that the 26 December Asian tsunami has turned the spotlight on the necessity of networking between overseas and local volunteers for efficiency.
Donors have also begun to support programmes that send volunteers with specific skills to countries that share similar cultures and disaster challenges, such as exchanges between African countries.
Yet another innovation is now taking root. France, for example, now officially recognize the work of volunteers as a skilled job rather than a simple personal contribution to society.
Frederique Same-Ekobo, representing the Association of French Volunteers for Progress, said international French volunteers have proved to be successful public investment propositions.
"Volunteers who have returned home, have proved to be an advantage to society because they bring back new sensitivities of other cultures, promoting international friendship among communities at home, work for sustainable development and fair trade organizations, as well as become useful again in public aid during disasters," she said.