Promoting Volunteerism for Sustainable Development
“Be the change you wish to see in the world”
– Mahatma Gandhi
Volunteering is a distinct human characteristic. It is a socio-psychological bridge connecting the self and the individual consciousness to the collective consciousness of the community. On the one hand, it is an expression of free will of an individual, while on the other; it is an expression of a certain set of values imbibed from society values that enable an individual to locate herself or himself in relation to others. This identification of the self is most pertinently articulated by Mahatma Gandhi. He said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Volunteering can either be a conscious or an unconscious act. A large number of human beings unconsciously volunteer in some way or the other almost every day. Such unconscious acts of volunteering play an important foundation in the formation and survival of various processes of socio – cultural institutions. The conscious act of volunteering is often defined by socially and culturally evolved values. So when a person helps an elderly lady cross a busy road or feeds the hungry, all these acts are defined by a set of socially evolved values.
The socio-psychological need of every human being for a sense of belonging in relation to the other forms the basis of volunteering. The need for a sense of belonging also arises from the need for emotional well-being and for a socio-cultural identity. The need also propels human beings to go beyond the self to reach out to people and nature.
Volunteering as part of Indian Ethos
Volunteering has been the part of Indian culture and tradition since time immemorial. If we look at the fundamental level, in the Hindu philosophy, there is no difference between volunteering or work for the self. It is Karma or duty which is to be performed. The law of Karma, according to Vedic literature, is the law of cause and effect. One may perform pious activities that will produce good reaction or good Karma for future enjoyment. Or one may perform sinful activities which produce bad Karma and future suffering.
Swami Vivekananda had said, “A yogi seated in a Himalayan cave allows his mind to wander on unwanted things. A cobbler in a corner at the crossings of several busy roads of a city is absorbed in mending a shoe, as an act of service. Of these two, the latter is a better yogi than the former.” Explaining the Indian tradition, he further says, “Asks nothing; want nothing in return. Give what you have to give; it will come back to you – but do not think of that now, it will come back multiplied a thousand fold – but the attention must not be on that. Yet have the power to give; so give willingly. If you wish to help a man, never think that the man’s attitude should be towards you.”
Also the underpinnings of Inclusive Volunteering traditions of India can be eloquently put by what Swami Vivekananda said, “But appreciation or no appreciation, I am born to organize these young men; nay, hundreds more in every city are ready to join me; and I want to send them rolling like irresistible waves over India, bringing comfort, morality, religion, education to the doors of the meanest and the most downtrodden.”
Swami Vivekananda eloquently sums up, “How you see what Karma – Yoga means; even at the point of death to help anyone; without asking questions. Be cheated millions of times but never ask a question, and never think of what you are doing. Never vaunt of your gifts to the poor or expect their gratitude, but rather be grateful to them for giving you the occasion of practising charity to them.”
“We have to bear in mind that we are all debtors to the world and the world does not owe us anything. It is a great privilege for all of us to be allowed to do anything for the world. In helping the world we really help ourselves,” he further says.
The Constructive and Inclusive Volunteering
Towards the beginning of the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi brought changes in the concept of volunteer action in India. Mahatma Gandhi added a very significant dimension to the existing philanthropic traditions – his idea of creative, constructive and inclusive volunteerism for human development. He gave special emphasis to the betterment of the downtrodden and the excluded and they were termed as Harijans by him.
According to the Gandhian perspective on Inclusivity, Gandhi was clear that “Swaraj (self rule) for me means freedom for the nearest of our countrymen.” He further says that “Swaraj is a meaningless term, if we desire to keep a fifth of India under perpetual subjection, and deliberately deny them the fruits of national culture. We are seeking the aid of God in this great purifying movement, but we deny the most deserving among His creatures the rights of humanity.”
Mahatma Gandhi laid great emphasis on the selfless nature of service. In his Booklet, ‘From Yervada Mandir’, he writes, “Voluntary service for others demands the best of which one is capable, and must take precedence over service of self. In fact, the pure devotee consecrates himself to the service of humanity without any reservation whatever.” In fact, so much so, Gandhi likes the spirit of service to character. In ‘Art of Living,’ he writes, “We should render devoted service to the world in every possible way, resembling that every one of our brethren has a claim on us. Those who think that they are responsible only to themselves can never be men of high character.”
Volunteering is something one does out of one’s free will. Gandhi puts this eloquently in his Autobiography, “My Experiments with Truth, “Service can have no meaning unless one takes pleasure in it. When it is done for show or fear of public opinion, it stunts the man and crushes his spirit.
Mahatma Gandhi exhorted the people to take to constructive work for achieving complete Independence of what is termed ‘Poorna Swaraj’. In the Foreword of his Constructive Programme, Mahatma Gandhi writes, “Readers, whether workers, and volunteers or not, should definitely realize that the constructive program is the truthful and non-violent way of winning Poorna Swaraj. Imagine all the forty crore of people busying themselves with the whole of the constructive programme which is designed to build up the nation from the very bottom upward.” He dreamt of the entire country volunteering to take up his constructive program. His 18-point constructive programme included removal of untouchability, prohibition, village sanitation, new or basic education, adult education, women, economic equality lepers, students, labour, kisans, national language, education in health and hygiene, etc. These constructive programmes form the basis of an equalitarian society and a sustainable development process.
Gandhi’s spirit of volunteering and his determination to ensure that the excluded find a place in the mainstream society can be eloquently stressed by the way he himself attended to the Sanskrit scholar, Dattataray Parchure Shastri who was afflicted by leprosy. When he was afflicted by leprosy, Shastri requested Gandhiji if he could be admitted to Sevagram Ashram. Some members of the Ashram objected as they feared infection. People with leprosy during Gandhi’s time were considered outcastes and had no right to stay in the society. Gandhi not only ensured Parchure Shastri stayed in the precincts of the Sevagram, he himself would wash his wounds everyday. For Gandhi everyone was equal in the society and none were excluded. This was the basis of his Inclusive Volunteering approach.
Contemporary Discourses in Volunteering
Globally, in the backdrop of increasing conflicts and discrepancies, the environment for expansion of volunteerism is favourable. According to the report of the UN Secretary General on the follow-up to the implementation of the International Year of Volunteers, 2001; “Opportunities for citizens to be engaged through voluntary action at the local level and have their action at the local level recorded and recognized are steadily expanding. Acceptance is spreading for the idea that all people have a right to development and that active participation through volunteerism is one important avenue for exercising that right. New communication technologies make it ever more possible to build contacts and support networks among individual volunteers and organizations that involve volunteers on a local, regional and global basis.
Meanwhile, the Expert Working Group on Volunteering and Social Development commissioned by the United Nations in 1991 underlines the following benefits of Volunteering:
The Expert Working Group also put forward a typology of volunteering activity; a) mutual aid or self help; b) philanthropy of service to others; c) participation or civic engagement; and d) advocacy or campaigning.
The last two points are a point of departure from the traditional goals of volunteering. Increasingly across the world we find volunteer groups advocating on issues of civic concern like environment, disability rights, transparent government, etc. It also underlines that volunteering extends beyond the actual act of service to helping communities become more participatory and cohesive and to nurturing the development of democratic principles.
A contemporary definition of volunteering has been articulated by the Universal Declaration on Volunteering adopted by the International Association of Volunteer Efforts (IAVE) in 2001 which underlies that, “Volunteering is a fundamental building block of civil society. It brings to life the noblest aspiration of humankind – the pursuit of peace, freedom, opportunity, safety, and justice for all people. All people in the world should have the right to freely offer their time, talent and energy to others and to their communities.” This approach of volunteering is again a marked departure from the classical tradition, and for the first time talks of ‘people’s right to volunteer’.
Yet another important dimension to the contemporary issues in volunteering is the contribution of Information Technology. The digital media has been able to create new forms of networking and social connectedness. Also online volunteering connects required skills to target audiences with unique efficiency. Online Volunteers undertake a variety of assignments for development organizations: translations, research, web design, data analysis, database construction, proposal writing, editing articles, online mentoring, publication design, moderating an online discussion group, or any other services that can be done through computer networks. In short, online volunteering has become an important tool in the volunteering world.
In the backdrop of current scenario where the world faces major challenges of conflicts, climate change and global warming, volunteering needs to flourish, not only as an additive but rather as the cementing factor in society to uphold the world functioning. Technology as a driving force for development is increasingly being seen to have limitations within the realisation of the finiteness of world’s resources. The engine for change has to come from the selflessness and sense of service of the individual volunteer, so that the collective consciousness can be aroused – which is essential to bring about sustainability. The Gandhian approach to development has to not be reinvented but rather rediscovered, where the finiteness of the earth’s resources and the infiniteness of the giving self is understood. In his approach, the Mahatma, urged us to serve the most deprived human being and use this feeling of empathy as our greatest resource, to bring the motivation for sustained action.
In conclusion, I would like to quote what Mahatma Gandhi said in Bapu-ke-Ashirvad, “There is not a single moment in life when man cannot serve.”
*2nd of October is Gandhi Jayanti
**The author is Programme Officer at the Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti.