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Volunteering for the 'right' causes
20 March 2006
by Mirko Bagaric

You might not know it but Australia is in the midst of an illuminating wide-ranging natural social experiment. The results say a lot about the distorted nature of the values and priorities of many Australians.

More than 20,000 supposedly time-pressed Australians (and in particular, Victorians) applied to spend upwards of 100 hours volunteering to help run a third rate sporting event (the Commonwealth games can’t hold a candle to the Olympics and World Championships), while non-profit social services can’t get enough volunteers to assist people who are homeless, elderly and  infirm.

What does it say about the human condition that many of us gladly give up our time and energy to help conduct an event that will add nothing of value or permanence to the well-being of any person, yet we refuse to assist those in genuine need?

On the one hand volunteerism of any nature should be encouraged. In an increasingly materialist and competitive world people are becoming more self-focused and it is refreshing to see a large number of people banding together towards a common project.

Viewed more broadly, however, the news is not all good. Volunteerism is a finite quality. And hence it’s important to pick your mark regarding how you expend your compassion gland. Every hour spent telling spectators which tram to catch to a ho-hum sporting spectacle is time taken away from assisting those genuinely in need.

Australia would be a far better place if every Commonwealth Games volunteer had terminated their involvement with the games and spent the equivalent time and energy performing an important social service which would demonstrably assist a needy person.

Better still the volunteers should work their extra hours in their day jobs and donate the extra money to feed some of the starving in Africa who are dying at the rate of about 30,000 people a day. Even if the games volunteers don’t have the capacity to work more paid hours, simply donating the money they would have spent on travel and food during the games to Africa would be a far better utilisation of their energy and resources.

Hopefully, some Commonwealth Games volunteers will be so uplifted by the experience that they will turn into volunteer junkies and in the process stumble on some worthy causes. Still the world would have been a better place if they acquired this appetite doing something that made a world a better place at the outset.

So why are Australians overdosing on volunteering for the Commonwealth Games and yet often failing to step up to help those in need?

The volunteerism aberration that is currently occurring in Australia is symptomatic of a broader shortcoming of the human moral and mental psyche. It seems that we are wired in such a way that we only extend sympathy in relation to suffering or unfairness that is either geographically proximate to us or connects with us in other tangible ways, such as where the victim happens to be one of “us”. At any point in time we are aware that there masses of people  hungry in distant parts of the world, yet this barely registers on our consciousness radar. We remain unmoved by the present famines in Malawi and Niger or the war in the Congo, which recently claimed its four millionth victim.

But there is in fact more to be learned from the games volunteering phenomenon. The most common reason that is advanced by people in the Western countries for ignoring the hungry cries from distant strangers is that we are too time and resource poor to help those who are so poor they are dying of hunger.

This excuse starts too look a bit wonky in the light of the games experience.

The explanation for the volunteerism glut more likely relates to our widespread desire for recognition. The games will be big and bold; the sexiest event in town for two weeks. It seems that we are simply a self-interested bunch after all.

In any event, the message for games volunteers who don’t discard their games “duties” after reading this article is to have your fun, which is what this is mainly about. If you want to do something that will contribute to social utility, all the hard work still remains to be done - your compassion credit register is still on zero. So how about spending the same amount of time volunteering towards helping people that are experiencing genuine suffering and distress?

Reports about four weeks out from the games indicated that 1,500 volunteers had already thrown in the towel. Hopefully they have decided to direct their spare time to more worthy causes. It is hoped that those who fulfil their games activities will do likewise once the party is over - after all many Australians never get to party at all.

So what would this mean for the games? They would be a lot more expensive for the government (they would have to pay for people to do the grunge work) and the games would run less smoothly. The Victorian Government would pay close to the full economic cost for the games, making it less likely that it would bid for another similar event - especially given that so many tickets - about 300,000 - went unsold.

If events like the games can’t fund themselves it is best that Australia does not bid for them in the future. They have no intrinsic or significant value. That’s why you probably can’t remember where the Commonwealth Games were held or who won the blue ribbon event (the 100 metre dash) at the last games, just as these games won’t even be a pinprick on the social utility radar a couple of weeks after the party bash that is the closing ceremony.