COVID-19 has hit almost every country in the world, heavily affecting communities at all levels. What has been unprecedented has been the inability of national governments to be able to respond adequately and consistently. The gap in the response of the government has been filled by civil society manned by millions of volunteers, who despite facing the effects of the pandemic in their own lives, have stepped up to work around the clock to prevent the transmission of the virus, communicate effectively with the public, help communities already affected by the outbreak to maintain access to basic social and protective services, and reduce the economic, social and psychological impact on people. These volunteers have provided a range of services, according to needs and existing capacities, risking their lives working in this crisis with many not having access to basic health insurance, nor insurance to support their families should they be injured and unable to work or killed.
Volunteering is part of the DNA and fabric of local communities, highlighting the best that can be achieved when people come together to serve. Throughout the last 100 years or so, we have seen the tremendous good that has come about when people of their own volition have come together at times of tragedy to serve those in need. The current pandemic times are once again a reminder of that human fraternity.
Yet as we appreciate the contribution of volunteering in the age of COVID-19, we must also recognize that the concept of volunteering has evolved and needs to evolve to meet the needs of people on the ground amidst changing expectations and needs. COVID-19 has highlighted the need to really rethink volunteering.
Volunteering was always thought of as a prerogative of the privileged and elite in the 19th century: an act of charity by the better-off towards the disadvantaged. You volunteered your time because you had time to spare. In days of old, you had time to spare because you were not that focused on working or earning a living and it was the past time of the idle rich. Hence volunteering at one stage was also seen through a gendered lens because it was mainly middle- or upper-class women who were able to devote the time to ‘volunteer’.
But this concept does not match the lived experiences of many volunteers who are also members of the communities being supported as well as the experiences of many young people taking up the cause to serve the downtrodden whilst also getting viable life-skills.
The concept of 'How can I make a change in the world today?' inspires millions to work every day to make this a better place for all, many of them even putting their lives at risk.
Volunteering is at the heart of community development and perhaps one of the most powerful ways to engage in the life of a community, to create social connection and to develop a sense of belonging. Thus, volunteers can act as a catalyst for the people around them, prompting and helping others to take action, and helping people rise from apathy to being active citizens, engaged in the development processes that affect their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. Many people who have had to flee their home country have taken on volunteering roles in their new host countries. However, there is a dark side to the celebration of volunteering. In the context of decreased state spending, volunteers offer a form of cheap labour for service delivery. Narratives refer to local knowledge and relevant skills, but too often, it is not the skills and knowledge that are needed as much as a willingness to work for free.
The 21st century has brought new opportunities for volunteering as more and more people prefer to self-organize, as this sustains community and individual autonomy by avoiding dependence on outsiders and allows people to set their own development priorities. There are also new challenges that have arisen in a context where existing crises have not stopped, and there are new hazards including climate change and weather-related shocks. These new challenges are likely to exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and lead to new vulnerable communities sooner than we are ready for because of food insecurity, displacement, health risks, lack of access to adequate clean water and more. We have already seen this with the effects of COVID-19. In addition, we are now seeing radical global changes with radical impacts on all communities around the world. Changing technology, scarcity of resources, the way we use land, the nature of infrastructure, the way we produce and consume, and how we organise work and information flows – all this is already in a state of transition. We are at a time when our world is interconnected as never before, not regrettably by peace, prosperity, human rights and rule of law, but increasingly by conflict, and the denial of human rights, by climate change and inequality. Unprecedented challenges over the next decade will result from a growing global population and a natural environment under threat, and the unprecedented opportunities that a data rich and educated society has for engaging.
Thus there is a need for volunteering to address these challenges and to evolve to meet these challenges. This starts with a change in the dominant idea of volunteering for donor service delivery influenced from European and North American experiences. Volunteering needs to promote the development of healthy, resilient individuals who are truly able to become agents of change within their communities, beyond their services within an organization. This will be achieved when we are finally brave enough to allow volunteers to decide for themselves and tell us what they need, what we can and should do. The future of volunteering must be one driving local innovation, decision-making and accountability, delivering agendas for others identifying activities that allow volunteers to propose and engage on personally relevant, local issues.
In this sense, Volunteering also can contribute to the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) when established infrastructures are missing. Volunteering stands at a crossroads: one in which it is understood and promoted in terms that fit the histories and ideas of Europe and North America, or one that reflects diverse ideas and experiences, an agent for change, based on their local knowledge and capacities for innovation.
It is a time when voluntary service is needed more than ever invigorated by diversity and plurality better suited to the challenges facing the world. As the outgoing Secretary General of the United Nations has said, “Volunteerism is a source of community strength, resilience, solidarity and social cohesion. It brings about social change by fostering respect for diversity, equality and the participation of all. It is among society’s most vital asset.”
In this sense the Global Technical Meeting on Reimagining Volunteering for the 2030 Agenda co-hosted by The United Nations Volunteers (UNV) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) from the 13-16 July is a welcome opportunity to have a discussion on what the next generation of volunteering looks like and how it can be leveraged as a transformative force for the SDGs.
(Amjad Mohamed Saleem is a political scientist with extensive knowledge and experience on peace building, humanitarian affairs and development work. He has a particular interest on interfaith conflict resolution and a focus on South Asia. He has worked for different international organisations on peace building and humanitarian action).