Every year, the United Nations (UN) observes December 5 as the International Volunteer Day. The UN estimates that there are over 1 billion volunteers globally, often in their own home countries in efforts that seek to transform their communities. To rightly acknowledge this contribution, the theme for the 2017 International Volunteer Day is “Volunteers Act First. Here. Everywhere”, to underscore their role in serving communities affected by natural disasters, armed conflicts, food crises, health emergencies and forced migration.
Volunteerism as a transformative tool
The State of the World’s Volunteerism Report (2015) released by UN Volunteer Programme (under the aegis of UNDP) defines volunteerism as “activities undertaken of free will, for the general public good and where monetary reward is not the principal motivating factor.” The power of volunteerism lies in its potential to transform not only the communities that the volunteer serves but also themselves in the process.
Closer to home, Kozhikode district in Kerala saw a number of volunteer run community initiatives, enabled by the District administration under the umbrella initiative “Compassionate Kozhikode”, launched in 2015. What this programme demonstrated is that age was no bar for volunteering and neither was one’s social origins. Volunteers from all walks of life — students, teachers, psychiatrists, architects and social workers — actively contributed to the revamping of the mental health facilities in Kozhikode. A community owned project named “Operation Sulaimani” to tackle hunger with ‘dignity’, that has till date catered to more than 40,000 beneficiaries, is also entirely volunteer-driven.
A community owned project named “Operation Sulaimani” to tackle hunger with ‘dignity’, that has till date catered to more than 40,000 beneficiaries, is also entirely volunteer-driven.
What followed in these cases was a ‘give and take’ relationship between the volunteers and the communities, with an unprecedented emotional investment by the volunteers, reiterating the view that volunteerism is ultimately an extension of human relationships. In our ever changing, fast-paced, digitalized lives where quality of real-time human interactions is deteriorating, volunteering presents an opportunity to delve deeper into motives beyond money and more importantly, to create and nurture compassionate communities.
In our ever changing, fast-paced, digitalized lives where quality of real-time human interactions is deteriorating, volunteering presents an opportunity to delve deeper into motives beyond money…
Conflict resolution and community ownership
Compassion – to be distinguished from charity or benevolence – can also be an effective administrative tool for resolution of conflicts, be it at the local, national, regional or the global level. Many conflicts often stem from insecurities and anxieties, fueled by a lack of empathy. In such contexts, actively involving children and the youth to work in an area affected by communal riots or enabling them to spend time at an old age home can gradually alter perspectives and go beyond the narrow divides set by class, caste or religion.
In Kozhikode, another spillover effect of the volunteer-run initiatives was a greater sense of ownership and solidarity among the community members. For instance, the initiative “Manichitrathoonu” involved cleaning up of public spaces like streets, walls, bus stops etc and decorating them with paintings, which saw a great turnout of volunteers – both local citizens from different age groups and even international tourists. The increased sense of ownership resulted in local citizens actively thwarting miscreants from vandalizing the cleaned up areas. Unlike in a conventional top-down model where ownership is enforced through rule books and fines, this participatory approach led to growing civic sense and buy-in of the idea.
The increased sense of ownership resulted in local citizens actively thwarting miscreants from vandalizing the cleaned up areas.
Getting them on board
The initiation for volunteers can be ideally done through informal gatherings that include “colorful and fun” activities such as painting public spaces. This slowly sets the ground for them to get involved in more formalized modes of engagement such as working with old age groups, mental health patients or the differently abled.
To attract and sustain the interest and enthusiasm of volunteers, adopting innovative ways of engagement is crucial. Technology in this regard is a great enabler. An example of a good attempt in this regard has been the ‘DigiSevak’ project, an online volunteering platform run by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology which aims to connect and match various government departments with the skills and interests of volunteers registered on the same. Also, the government should be willing to move away from traditional approaches of citizen engagement to more informal platforms such as social media, where hierarchies are sublimated.
The government should be willing to move away from traditional approaches of citizen engagement to more informal platforms such as social media, where hierarchies are sublimated.
Volunteerism and governance: Possibilities for India
The State of the World’s Volunteerism Report (2015) of the UN themed “transforming governance” illustrated through national and local case studies from countries such as Kenya, Lebanon, Brazil and Bangladesh, the role played by volunteers in contributing to the ‘good governance’ agenda by improving participation, accountability and responsiveness.
In India, the idea of volunteerism, often translates into the idea of “Seva” (selfless service), practiced in different religious denominations. But volunteerism also transcends religious boundaries. Formal institutions that exalt volunteerism too exist in India.
But volunteerism also transcends religious boundaries. Formal institutions that exalt volunteerism too exist in India.
The legacy of National Service Scheme (NSS) dates back to 1969 as one of the oldest government-sponsored volunteer initiatives, with offshoots in schools and universities across the country. However, there is a need to mainstream such disparate initiatives to ensure that they don’t limit their scope to specific religious groups or student run clubs but involve each and every citizen. In that sense, the idea of volunteerism as a culture still needs to be inculcated into the Indian ethos.
This presents a great opportunity for the Indian government to tap into the massive reserve of human resources for nation-building. For instance, with over a population of 1.3 billion, India can tap the potential of its working age population, say over 50 billion people, who can contribute an hour weekly, to locally and nationally relevant projects.
With over a population of 1.3 billion, India can tap the potential of its working age population, say over 50 billion people, who can contribute an hour weekly, to locally and nationally relevant projects.
A national volunteer framework and legislation would be a right step in this direction. This would act as a guideline for policy makers and implementing entities at the district and local levels – government departments, schools, universities – to adapt it to their respective contexts for mobilizing volunteer participation. This can also bring in more legitimacy to the exercise and serve as an incentive for implementing entities at the district and local levels to encourage volunteer-led initiatives.
This partnership driven model can be premised on multi-stakeholder alliances with academia, NGOs, international organizations such as the UN and other actors to understand the needs and priorities in different areas – be it disaster management, education, primary health etc and match it with the relevant skill sets of a national pool of volunteers.
Ultimately, outside any formal structures and frameworks, the litmus test to embrace volunteerism should be compassion, which underscores the evolution of an individual, leading to the creation of more compassionate communities.
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(The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of HuffPost India. Any omissions or errors are the author’s and HuffPost India does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.)