Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Volunteering, Capital of the Future?

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Volunteering, Capital of the Future?

Article excerpt

Governments are waking up to the economic and social benefits of volunteering, but should not rely on it as a Stopgap for solving society's ills

In a telling recognition of volunteering's place in society, the United Nations General Assembly will meet this December to debate how governments can do a better job of supporting those who contribute to their communities without any financial return. It is an apt culmination to the International Year of Volunteers that has mobilized people in 130 countries.

It is hardly surprising that governments around the world are waking up to volunteering's economic and social benefits. In the United Kingdom, for example, volunteering contributes an estimated [pound]40 billion ($64 billion) to the economy, whilst in Canada its economic value has been put at $16 billion. A recent comparative study in 22 countries estimated that volunteers put in hours equivalent to the work of 10.5 million full-time employees!

But there are dangers in solely drawing attention to these economic justifications, even though they can raise the status of volunteering, in much the same way as the women's movement has long argued in relation to household work.

Governments might be tempted to replace paid workers with volunteers to save money. For one, this overlooks the fact that volunteering requires investment and training to yield a return: a recent study in Europe estimated that every dollar invested in volunteering brought eight in return.

From gift to exchange

More importantly, growing evidence supports what volunteers throughout the world have long known, namely that it is good for society. Academics have developed the notion of social capital to describe the links and connections made by individuals through volunteering. Some studies have suggested that a society rich in social capital will tend to have lower rates of crime, lower levels of school absenteeism and inter-racial conflict, and (coming full circle to economics again) higher levels of economic growth.

While this capital has a role to play in building strong and active communities, it can only be maximized in certain conditions. Volunteering works best in the context of a healthy and well-resourced public sector. It is not a substitute for government services but rather an essential complement--adding value to the services provided by paid professionals. As an essential ingredient of a healthy, democratic society, governments have a vested interest in its promotion, even when volunteers are involved in campaigning activities and speak out against public policies.

The benefits to the volunteers themselves should not be underestimated. It used to be said that volunteering was based on the idea of a gift relationship. Now, most people see it as an exchange, where both giver and receiver benefit in equal measure. Volunteers are quick to cite a rich list of benefits, from meeting friends to learning new skills and gaining a different perspective on life.

Those suffering from social exclusion are particularly likely to benefit. Disabled people taking part in volunteering can aid social integration and challenge the negative stereotypes of themselves as passive recipients of care. For the young, volunteering offers opportunities for self-development and risk-taking, and provides a valuable grounding in citizenship.

For senior citizens, it could help the process of 'active ageing'--some research has even suggested that volunteering is good for health! In short, volunteering provides a classic win/win situation, benefiting both the volunteer and society. …

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