Volunteerism should always be driven by an inner desire to do something for others, regardless of the recognition or benefits coming with it. Yet in order to allow everyone a chance to contribute, rather than just the privileged few, some sort of symbolic compensation can also be imagined, but they should be very well regulated
With a new wave of the Covid pandemic that, sooner than later, might reach the country, it would be timely to discuss about the overall response to the challenges that come with it. It is definitely a very complex issue that would require tons of imagination to holistically rethink the health services, including the key role that private providers should play not just for those who can afford their services but rather to the entire nation.
There is also a different aspect that should be discussed during such occurrences: an emergency, of any nature, therefore, not only health-related, must be dealt in such a way that citizens can get support from the authorities at the easiest and in the most seamless possible way.
National security agencies, especially the Nepali Army and the Nepal Police and Armed Police Force, are normally the agencies mobilised in the case of a national disaster or any situation that puts the lives of the citizens at risk. Is there a scope to also have another type of help available to the general population, something whose work would be aligned and coordinated with the above mentioned agencies while also freeing them from many duties on the ground? This is the case for a national volunteering corps that could be mobilised whenever an emergency strikes or whenever there is a massive event happening that requires careful crowd management.
For example, I am talking about a national party convention that mobilises thousands and thousands of people or in the case of a religious festival attracting huge crowds of worshippers. In these latter cases, the role of such volunteering corps would be to help handle the multitude of people gathering together. We know, by experience, that in such events, crowd management is not at all organised and potentially is very unsafe from the perspective of possible stampedes.
In such cases, the people's expectations are, quite unrealistically, in the hands of the national security agencies, but why not imagine a supporting national volunteering programme composed of permanent volunteers who would work in tandem with them? If a pandemic or a national emergency like a flood hits local communities, then such corps of volunteers would get into action according to well-defined procedures and strictly adhering to a commonly agreed playbook.
Imagine a variety of duties, but to be clear, the responsibilities of such volunteers would not be related to security enforcement but rather it will be strictly related to the humanitarian aspect of an unfolding crisis.
In the case of a pandemic, the volunteers would be deployed at the entrance of the main hospitals, helping patients get guided to the needed services, or in the case of vaccination, such volunteers would provide support especially to those who are the most vulnerable in terms of age or other health preconditions. For example, they could also support people in filling up forms or distributing water or food as per the demands of each of the situations.
As the country already has a newly established national emergency agency, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority (NDRR- MA), under the Ministry of Home Affairs, it would be natural to have such volunteering corps under it.
It does not mean that the "business as usual" approach, normally related to civil service, would be imposed upon this volunteering programme, quite the contrary instead.
The volunteering programme should be run autonomously, almost independently, possibly through the creation of a specific agency working under the NDRRMA. Flexibility, agility and adaptability should be the key tenets of running this national volunteering emergency service, and this would require very high levels of professionalism and working ethics.
Now let's be clear on one important aspect that often creates confusion when we talk about volunteerism.
Those who decide to be part of this service should not expect a remuneration.
At most, they should get a very symbolic allowance for the time they are deployed.
I want to highlight the "at most" part because it is easy in a country with still high levels of unemployment to think of volunteerism as an alternative to job creation. In certain situations, it is certainly possible to design volunteerism-inspired community service programmes that involve unemployed persons, but there are many risks associated with them.
It is important to remember that volunteerism should always be driven by an inner desire to do something for others, regardless of the recognition or benefits coming with it. Yet in order to allow everyone a chance to contribute, rather than just the privileged few, some sort of symbolic compensation can also be imagined, but they should be very well regulated.
Importantly, any volunteering programme to be mobilised during emergencies would work only if there is a very strong training component, an element that itself would help attract only the most motivated citizens. One way to ensure this aspect is something akin to the training programme that any aspiring trekking guide must undertake: compulsory classes and a final examination.
In terms of outreach, the programme should be rolled out across the country with small units of active volunteers so that they can be deployed within a few hours of a disaster or an emergency. It is not the first time I am imagining such a programme in Nepal.
In many other countries, including Italy, there is a similar programme functioning, and it is a world class example of civilian cooperation during emergencies. Given the risks that climate change brings and possible future calamities hitting the country, it would be desirable to have a conversation for such corps of volunteers.
The international community would certainly be interested to support it as long as there is the political will to make it work efficiently rather than use it as another "rent seeking" opportunity.
A version of this article appears in the print on January 10, 2022, of The Himalayan Times.