What’s killing volunteerism?

New channels of communication must be open between government and grass-roots initiatives that enable progression in the long term.


2017/11/05 Issue: 130 Page: 21


The Arab Weekly
Nadine Sayegh



A recent youth confer­ence, coordinated by UNESCO and the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Interna­tional Programme for a Culture of Peace and Dialogue, in Paris, was meant to enhance dialogue between com­munities and help prevent violent extremism and marginalisation. It proved crucial to understanding how volunteerism translates into long-lasting positive change in a community.

While such projects are indica­tive of positive trajectories in topics such as countering violent extrem­ism, it remains a risk to stoke the passions of the youth when they are faced with structural barriers, often only mendable at the government level.

Participants were from across the world, from Bolivia to Tunisia. Without a doubt, unification of so many individuals from such varied backgrounds, all keen to make posi­tive changes in their communities, is a healthy sign. What is worrying, however, is whether there is much of a chance of making such ambi­tion reality.

This is not to negate the efforts of thousands of community collectives and bodies of civil society attempt­ing to plug gaps left by dysfunc­tional governments. However, what is at risk is that the only change volunteerism advocates stand to make is often restricted. This may explain the drop in volunteerism rates, globally.

The trend in the United States, for example, indicates that interest in volunteerism is reaching all-time lows. The Middle East and North Africa region, with a low culture of volunteerism, has among the high­est rates of unemployment in the world, which seems contradictory, with the insurgence of aid agencies in the region. It may indicate that the structural problem of unem­ployment is related to the lack of in­terest in volunteerism due to factors such as frustration and disinterest.

The South Sudanese art-collec­tive, Ana Taban, translated from Arabic as “I am Tired,” attempts to use art and creation to counter the effects of violence on communities and to bring to the foreground of national conversation social injus­tice, transparency and government accountability. While the initiative is hailing great successes, the South Sudanese remain in essentially a state of civil war.

This raises the question: Can volunteerism make a substantial change, in such difficult contexts?

In El Salvador, some put faith in the Scout Movement to restore the sense of citizenship. In a country ravaged by gang crime and a ten­dency towards strict Catholicism, how do a collective of young and motivated individuals battle armed forces?

Governments should be in service to their communities but this is not appearing to be the case. Government and security forces, in many instances, act against their communities, sometimes causing harm.

While there may be citizens of any given state eager to assist oth­ers, without governance to support them the impact will always be limited to small communities. This incomplete effect, in the long term, is likely to affect rates of volunteer­ism.

New channels of communication must be open between government and grass-roots initiatives that enable progression in the long term. Innovation is required. Without open communication with government stakeholders, we risk completely losing the global culture of volunteerism. The frustrations generated by facing obstacles and limited effect of projects leave no room for growth and diminish interest in community service.


Nadine Sayegh is a freelance journalist based between Dubai and Beirut, focusing on society, culture and regional politics.


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