A nation of volunteers

  • Structured volunteerism can contribute to nation-building and to the institutionalisation of political gains
- ANOJ CHHETRI

Dec 8, 2016-

International Volunteer Day was marked recently on December 5. On this day, governments, UN agencies, NGOs, charity and philanthropic organisations commemorate the contributions of tens of thousands of volunteers for the welfare of mankind. Nepal also celebrated it in one form or another and expressed solidarity with the theme of International Volunteer Day 2016 “#GlobalApplause—Give volunteers a hand”. However, the significance of this day is yet to be internalised by those involved in managing state restructuring and institutionalising the political changes made possible by continuous and priceless contributions of volunteers.

The word ‘volunteer’ is commonly and frequently used across all sections of society and fields of development in Nepal and probably around the world. However, there are various terminologies such as volunteerism, volunteering and voluntary action that are used interchangeably by NGOs or philanthropic organisations. Generally, NGOs are considered voluntary sectors in many countries, but many NGOs may not necessarily have voluntary operations because volunteering acts are based on freewill, solidarity, commitment and engagement, as outlined by the United Nations Volunteers programme. 

Examples of volunteerism in Nepal 

In Nepal, volunteering is a part of our culture, entrenched in our traditional values. Our ancestors built rural trails, culvert and temples by mobilising a workforce that generally consisted of volunteers. In recent times, the Nepal government has introduced various development programmes, which included volunteerism as a strategy to harness human resources for accelerating the pace of development. An example of volunteerism is the CPN-UML’s populist programme called Aphno gaun aphai banaun (Build your village yourself) led by a coalition government in 1995. There were similar initiatives undertaken by several subsequent governments, one of them being the Bagmati Clean-up Campaign led by former Chief Secretary, Leela Mani Paudyal. The National Planning Commission has set up a voluntary cell which supports various government projects by mobilising national volunteers. Still, volunteerism’s potential has not been harnessed in Nepal.  

Against this backdrop, whether the Nepal government intends to exploit the full potential of volunteerism when we are struggling to navigate a complex political trajectory of state restructuring and institutionalising the gains of political changes remains to be seen. It is all the more important for the government to do so, given the exodus of youths to foreign lands in search of livelihood options. Volunteerism is a powerful tool to unleash the potential of youths in transforming political changes into socio-economic opportunities, in influencing people’s mindset about gender relations in positive ways, in protecting the environment, and so on, all of which ultimately contribute to good governance. 

Possible government strategy

Good governance is a top priority for the government as well as for donor agencies; millions of rupees have already been spent in building the capacity of local structures through various decentralisation projects. However, looking at the general ambience of government line agencies such as the DDCs, the VDCs and municipal offices, one can easily get an idea of their modus operandi. Most of these offices do not even have a computer and a printer, let alone an advanced network of smart technology for real-time information exchange. The issue is not merely a lack of skills and resources, but also one’s aptitude for learning and strategic orientation towards the application of technology. It takes hours to pay land or property tax in ward or VDC offices—moving from one section to another and through a desperate crowd of people waiting for their turn. This task would have hardly taken five minutes if there was a well-functioning system in place. 

In this context, youths who are skilled in modern information communication technologies  should be engaged in strengthening their capacity and that of our local institutions such as municipal and village councils and wards, so that people can be offered cost-effective and efficient services. The government should call upon those interested to volunteer—not exclusively in the ICT sector—get them registered in the national database and provide them with the best possible environment and opportunities to make a contribution. Based on the volunteers’ interests and expertise, this initiative can be further linked with line agencies. It will not only help the government, but will also engage the youths, thereby providing them with valuable experience in their field of expertise and building their capacity for long-term engagement.

As such, the government should formulate a comprehensive policy framework on volunteerism and test it on the ground with the support of NGOs, philanthropic organisations, and UN and donor agencies. Structured volunteerism can contribute to facilitating discourse on the state-building process and to institutionalising the changes achieved by the sacrifice of thousands of youths.  

 

Chhetri is Deputy Managing Director at the South Asia School of Rural Reconstruction, Kathmandu

Published: 08-12-2016 08:50

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