TOPICS: Disasters give new image to voluntarism

Suvendrini Kakuchi

Catastrophes, such as October’s earthquake and last December’s tsunami, have given voluntarism a new role and respectability. In Tokyo, earlier this month, international experts said that such was the demand that a review had become necessary, of current volunteer programmes, with an eye to meeting future contingencies. “We were literally bombarded with phone calls from people who were offering their help to the millions who were affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami. International volunteer programmes must be able to respond to the new demand by proving effectiveness,’’ Mark Goldring, head of Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), based in UK, said.

The tsunami experience of VSO, a leading organisation in volunteer work, is one aspect that highlights new trends in volunteerism. Local communities have certain advantages over foreign organisations during an emergency because they can act faster as they are already on the ground, can speak the local language and also know the culture, which makes local volunteers more effective in providing immediate relief measures. “It is no longer possible to assume that one country has more skills than the other. The importance of collaboration between supply and demand countries to be more effective is a trend that has raised its profile even higher, after the tsunami,” explained Cliff Allum, president of Skillshare International, another British organisation.

Experts said the term “disaster volunteer” was coined after the tsunami to cope with a rising interest among people to contribute to the betterment of society. The Philippines, a volunteer recipient country that has recently begun to dispatch its own overseas volunteers, is proposing

an official sch eme that entails a partnership between countries, sending volunteers to work with local ones. Japan, which celebrates its 40th year of volunteerism this year, is also developing new strategies of its own to cope with the demands of disaster relief and its growing domestic interest in volunteerism. Some countries have also begun to work with diaspora communities that represent various ethnic communities in their countries, to improve bilateral overseas aid programmes, a new trend that is still being explored.

Overall, experts agree that the December 26 Asian tsunami has, indeed, turned the spotlight on the necessity of networking between overseas and local volunteers for efficiency. Donors have also begun to support programmes that send volunteers with specific skills to countries that share similar cultures and disaster challenges, such as exchanges between African countries.

Another innovation is the extension of diplomas, such as in France that recognises the work of volunteers as a skilled job rather than a simple personal contribution. Frederique Same-Ekobo of Association of French Volunteers for Progress, a NGO, said French volunteers, returning from programmes in Africa, has proved to be successful public investment propositions.