Academic journal article Law and Contemporary Problems

Volunteering in Cross-National Perspective: Initial Comparisons

Academic journal article Law and Contemporary Problems

Volunteering in Cross-National Perspective: Initial Comparisons

Article excerpt





Volunteering has not only become an important issue in the United States; it is also receiving much more attention in many other countries. In many ways, volunteering enjoys greater political and cultural recognition today than it did in past decades. As frequently happens, however, greater awareness seems related to the extent to which an issue is seen as problematic, or as something beneficial that no longer can be taken for granted. The environment, the family, community, and social security are cases in point, and, as we suggest in this article, so is volunteering, particularly when seen from a cross-national perspective.

In the past, volunteering was often viewed in isolation from the wider social and cultural context. However, volunteering is much more than simply the giving of time for some particular purpose. In fact, as a cultural and economic phenomenon, volunteering is part of the way societies are organized, how they allocate social responsibilities, and how much engagement and participation they expect from citizens. As discussed below, the role of the state and the nature of state-society relations are important aspects that shape the role of volunteering cross-nationally. Not surprisingly, the fortunes of volunteering as a social institution are, and have been, changing over time, and vary by cultural and political context. The purpose of this article is to shed some initial light on volunteering in different parts of the world by exploring the conceptions and patterns of voluntary action cross-nationally.

In some European countries, such as Sweden and Germany, volunteers were, until recently, regarded as amateurish "do-gooders," as relics of the past to be replaced by paid professional staff capable of performing tasks more effectively and efficiently. [1] If there was a role for volunteers in the modern welfare state, it was a marginal one at best, that is, to supplement professionally planned and delivered services. What is more, other countries saw no need for volunteers at all. The Japanese government, for example, drew up contingency plans for responding to natural disasters in which volunteers had no role. [2] Dealing with disaster was seen as the primary and exclusive domain of the state administration. [3] When the Kobe earthquake hit in 1995, conflicts soon erupted between a government too slow to respond, and the thousands of Japanese citizens who had spontaneously decided to volunteer their services to help ease the critical situation. [4]

In the former socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the very concept of volunteering became obsolete, contaminated by decades of state and party requirements to contribute time and efforts freely for some common social, cultural, or political cause. After 1989, countries in the region set out to modernize their social service and health care systems. In doing so, these governments paid very little attention to the role and potential contributions volunteers could make to improving state-run institutions, many of which were under-funded and short-staffed. [5] Finally, in developing countries, a great diversity of indigenous forms of volunteering coexists with Western ways. For example, in Nigeria and Ghana, like in many African countries, village associations of volunteers can be found in nearly every rural and urban community. [6] Rooted in the local culture, they provide communal services and assistance in times of need. These associations coexist with local chapters of organizations like the Y oung Women's Christian Association or the Boy Scouts, modeled after their American or British counterparts. [7] At the same time, however, like many countries in the north, most developing countries, until recently, regarded volunteering as a matter of low priority, and very few instituted policies and programs to encourage volunteering. …

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