08 May 2004
by Kassem El-Saddik
To volunteer is generally influenced by various factors. Some claim that the more pressing the situation (crisis, disaster or emergency), the more people volunteer; and as the situation returns to normal, people lose their stamina to volunteer.
Personally, I do not agree with such argument. I would say that volunteers are always there. Every society has a traditional understanding and manifestations of volunteering deeply rooted in its culture. This sense of volunteering is diverse and reflected in different forms at any time, although its intensity is associated with the urgency of a specific context. The 300 volunteers who rushed to help the Madrid blast victims (March 11, 2004) illustrate the intensity of volunteering when faced with an urgent situation.
In Lebanon, what are the forms of volunteering efforts? And how did the volunteer sector evolve? Is the sector facing challenges?
Volunteering in wartime
Owing to the breakdown of the public sector, volunteers and NGOs performed many of the functions normally provided by the government. An objective assessment of the situation in Lebanon during the war reveals that NGOs, medical centers and humanitarian organizations were the driving force behind the recruitment (in its primitive sense) of volunteers committed to the welfare of individuals. Volunteers played vital roles in assisting vulnerable people, evacuating the injured, protecting frightened children, and sympathizing with traumatized mothers. Access to medical assistance was arranged for the victims regardless of their identity and stance.
Briefly, the 1970s and 1980s witnessed a boom in ambulatory medical services and humanitarian support reflected in the efforts of brave volunteers on the ground and aid from both international and regional bodies.
Volunteers were – and are always - at the heart of the events. Sometimes they make them; other times they participate in relieving them, depending on the event itself. Volunteer endeavors by young people to improve security in their own neighborhoods are but one form of community volunteering.
Trends in Volunteering
Since the 1991 Tayef Accord to reinstate political conditions, governments have been faced with a massive task of reconstruction, a shattered economy, depleted resources, many thousands of displaced persons and widespread unemployment. Tremendous efforts - though not totally successful - have been taken to rehabilitate social and economic life.
The reconstruction era has shed light on new dimensions of social sufferings and a widened gap between rich and poor, and has caused directly and indirectly devastating environmental and economic problems. In these circumstances, the government has turned to NGOs and volunteer organizations – who had already built up expertise and social capital - to help in myriad ways, from environmental awareness and regeneration, social suffering alleviation, to working with thousands of orphans and disabled people. The general public too has viewed volunteers as agents of change, consequently joining pro-active measures to maintain their rights for a decent life, remedy the drastic consequences of the war, and trigger movement toward social development.
Hence new forms of volunteering started to gain shape, embracing environmental causes, social and psychological reconciliation efforts, preventive rather than curative medical interventions, and building human and institutional capacities. As the volunteer sector experience has matured, new endeavors have been explored and addressed. Volunteering in Lebanon in its modern form is beginning to be seen by the government, NGOs and the general public as not only essential in meeting social need, but also as a means of reconciliation among previously opposed groups, creating solidarity and dismantling sectarianism. Coordination has been appraised; lobbying has been identified as vital to raise awareness and push for improvement, citizenship and human rights have been prioritized. The outcome is a flourishing national volunteer and civil society sector.
In addition, the increased momentum of the voluntary sector (NGOs, Community Organizations, volunteer groups…) in Lebanon can be attributed to the following reasons:
- The 1909 Law governing the NGO sector, giving the rights for a group of individuals, with defined set of objectives, to assemble and initiate an NGO.
- The increased recognition of the importance of public participation in all facets of life, reflected lately by resuming the municipalities’ elections after 35 years of stagnation,
- The successful contribution of the sector during wartime,
- The escalating human, social, economic and environmental needs that need to be addressed, and
- The lack of resources and capacity at the governmental level to meet these needs.
In such a wealthy environment, how can we make the best out of the volunteers themselves? How can we maintain this social wealth, jeopardized by increasing economic and administrative obstacles?
- Developing a national volunteer policy, through the removal of any legal barriers to participation, and provision of resources for NGOs to support mobilization and management of volunteers.
- Assessing and studying the volunteer sector in Lebanon is essential given the lack of baseline data. Little research on volunteering has so far been undertaken.
- Building on the momentum of the International Year of Volunteer 2001 to formulate strategies along the Year’s four elements: Promoting, Facilitating, Recognizing and Networking (Role of the National Committee for Volunteering is crucial)
- Establishing a National Volunteer Center to boost recruitment and facilitate opportunity for both volunteers and organizations. So far, a small initiative has started in Beirut.
- Initiating professional volunteer management and training.
- Opening the opportunity for young people to participate in the decision-making process in NGOs and volunteer institutions. Youth prefer to embark in informal volunteer initiatives rather than volunteer for established organizations because they are hindered from participating in decision-making.
- Exploring and investing in new forms of volunteering (older people volunteering and corporate volunteering, as well as universities, community services, and participating at the Municipal level). Experiences are promising.