Volunteering brings benefits to both society at large and the individual volunteer. It makes important contributions, economically as well as socially. It contributes to a more cohesive society by building trust and reciprocity among citizens…
In the past, volunteering was often seen in isolation of the wider social and cultural context in which it took place…
- there is a school of thought suggesting that volunteerism is on the decline, that the economic and social stress created by factors such as unemployment, natural disasters and civil conflict lead to more self-centred behaviour as people concentrate on dealing with their own immediate problems of survival;
- focusing on the situation within the United States, Robert D. Putnam (2000) gives multiple examples of this decline in informal social connections as well in voluntary organisations: time dedicated to informal socialising cut by 1/3 over the last forty years, parents and teachers associations membership from 12 million in 1964 to only 7 million today, Red Cross volunteering or Women Voters membership decreasing respectively by 61% and 42% since 1970; (1)
- in recent years, however, several evidences support the opposite. Consider, for example, the 10 million people, mostly from their own communities, who volunteered in the year 2000 to support the immunisation of 550 million children against polio and whose contribution, in economic terms, has been estimated at more than US $10 billion;
- consider too, the 300 million volunteers from over 100 countries who campaigned to ban antipersonnel landmines… and the Mine Ban Treaty that was subsequently signed in Ottawa by 122 states in December 1997.
- in some European countries like Sweden and Germany, for example, volunteers were until recently regarded as amateurish ‘do-gooders’ and relics of the past to be replaced by paid professional staff capable of performing tasks more effectively and efficiently. If there was a role for volunteers in the modern welfare state, it was a marginal one at best, i.e., to supplement professionally planned and delivered services; (2)
- other countries saw no need for volunteers at all. In Japan, for example, the government drew up contingency plans for responding to natural disasters in which volunteers had neither place nor role. Dealing with disaster was seen as the primary and exclusive domain of the state administration. When the Kobe earthquake hit in 1995, conflicts soon erupted between a government too slow to respond, and the thousands of Japanese citizens who had spontaneously decided to volunteer their services to help ease the critical situation; (3)
- in the former socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the very concept of volunteering had become suddenly obsolete, being contaminated by decades of state and party-led requirements to contribute time and efforts freely for some common social, cultural or political cause. After 1989, countries in the region set out to modernise their social service and health care systems paying very little attention to the role and potential contributions volunteers could make to improving state-run institutions, many of which were under-funded and short-staffed; (4)
- finally, in developing countries, a great diversity of indigenous forms of volunteering co-exists next to ‘western’ ways. For example, in Nigeria and Ghana, like in many African countries, ‘village associations’ of volunteers can be found in nearly every rural and urban community. Rooted in the local culture, they provide communal services and assistance in times of need. These associations exist next to local chapters of organisations like the YWCA or the Boy Scouts, modelled after their American or British counterparts; (5)
- at the same time, however, like many countries in the North, most developing countries until recently regarded volunteering as a matter of low priority and very few put policies and programmes in place to encourage volunteering. (6)
(1) The International Federation of Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies reported a global drop in volunteers from 250 million in the late 1980s to little over 100 million in 1998. Even though this drop is in part the result of the disintegration of former Soviet-type Red Cross societies in Central and Eastern Europe, the decline in volunteering for organisations like the Red Cross is also pronounced among the developed market economies of the European Union. As a consequence, the Federation is reconsidering the role of volunteers, and searching for ways to upgrade their status in national Red Cross/Red Crescent societies. [www.lse.ac.uk/collections/CCS/pdf/CSWP_10_web.pdf]
(2) Kistler et al, 1999. Reported in Anheier, Helmut K.and Salamon, L. M. “Volunteering in Cross-national Perspective: Initial Comparisons”, Civil Society Working Papers, Centre for Civil Society, LSE 10, 2001.
(3) Deguchi, 2000 (ibid).
(4) Kuti, 1997 (ibid).
(5) Aneheier, 1987 (ibid).
(6) Aneheier and Salamon, 1998 (ibid).