Print Edition - 2015-06-21  |  Free the Words

Unpaid armies

  • Nepal has the chance to make volunteerism more effective and accommodating
- Simone Galimberti
Unpaid armies

Jun 20, 2015-Over the last months, many commentators have rightly praised the incredible role played by individuals and informal groups of citizens in the aftermath of the devastating earthquakes. The resilience of an entire nation was embedded in the civic endeavors of thousands of persons united by the common spirit of solidarity and empathy. The responsibility that these volunteers took during the entire humanitarian and emergency phase was a testimony to the social capital that Nepal has. Their work was so impactful that it does not come as a surprise that the Nepali government wants to harness the power of volunteerism to rebuild the nation.

While the recognition is certainly important, it remains paramount that we properly define the term ‘volunteerism’ and think about new ideas on the future course of action for the entire sector.

Volunteerism is a broad and diverse terminology involving formally registered organisations and, importantly, individuals and informal groups. The hallmark of such organisations and groups is their non-financial dimension, which implies that monetary allowances or stipends are more an exception than the rule and they are not profit-making enterprises.

Though volunteers play a crucial role in times of disaster, they are, broadly speaking, ad-hoc entities that come into play mostly during critical times. Still, however temporary their activities might be, we can always implement plans and policies to get the best out of them and help them operate better. And the fact that that government is mulling the creation of another high-level commission to coordinate the mobilisation of volunteers in post-earthquake works offers some room for fresh thinking. Here are some suggestions for the government before it goes ahead with the creation of the aforementioned commission.

Revive the network

Since the government already has an organ to oversee volunteer works throughout the country in the form of the National Development Voluntary Service (NDVS), it would not be useful to create another commission. Let us try to make the best out of the existing infrastructure. The NDVS, under its new leadership, works well and it is efficient. Further, it already has a well- established network of volunteers throughout the country. If provided with adequate resources, this organisation can play a coordinating role that is needed to ensure effectiveness among all volunteer-based initiatives. The fact that this body is part of the National Planning Commission is definitely an advantage in terms of aligning its projects with Nepal’s reconstruction goals.

Right framework

Though expectations are always high when we think of the impact that volunteers can achieve, we should not forget that volunteers are often the solution when no other alternatives are available. Volunteers can do lots of things to bridge the gaps that no one else is ready to fill in, but they should not end up becoming the government’s alternative.

There is no doubt that the mobilisation of volunteers should, if possible, always be in coordination with the government and other stakeholders. But such partnerships should be flexible enough to recognise the independent nature of volunteering action and strong enough to ensure impact maximisation. For this, realistic monitoring mechanisms should be put in place so that we can not only track down the actions of volunteering groups all over the country but also measure their impact.

Also, it is high time the government formally endorsed the National Volunteering Policy that was drafted a year ago. Though imperfect, having a policy in place would be an intermediary milestone towards the more ambitious goal of having a legislation governing the sector.

Beyond government

We should go beyond the assumption that volunteerism is the exclusive monopoly of not-for-profit sector. Corporate houses have a role to play in society, and they can do so by going beyond the facile model of corporate social responsibility and by introducing new and innovative philanthropic efforts. They can endorse corporate volunteerism programmes that directly involve their staff in community development works, including skill-sharing pro bono services. This practice has been recognised as having a positive impact on the performance of the employees involved in the volunteering action as well.

We should not forget that every single citizen can play the role of an active citizen by engaging in volunteerism. Marginalised groups do not necessarily need to  remain at the receiving end. Persons with disabilities, those belonging to minority groups and those coming from the margins of society can also show that they can be of use to others if the mechanism is accommodating enough.

The quakes have shown how, in times of dire need, the skills and dynamism of individual citizens and informal groups are not only unstoppable but also highly effective. By leveraging the work done by volunteers in the aftermath of the quakes, we have here a unique opportunity to strengthen the entire volunteering ‘infrastructure’ in the country.

Galimberti is a co-founder of ENGAGE and editor of Sharing4good

Published: 21-06-2015 08:18

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