Volunteering for Sustainable Societies

by Grace Aguiling-Dalisay, Ph.D.

Chairperson, Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) Bahaginan, Philippines
Keynote Speech, Opening Program
64th Annual United Nations Department of Public Information/Non-Governmental Organizations Conference Sustainable “Societies, Responsive Citizens: Commit, Encourage, Volunteer”
Maritim Hotel, Bonn, Germany
3 September 2011

Under-Secretary General Kiyo Akasaka, Lord Mayor Jurgen Nimptsch,  UNV Executive Coordinator Flavia Pansieri,  UNEP Executive Director Steiner,  environmentalist Ms.  Vandana Shiva,  64th Annual UN DPI/NGO Conference Chair Felix Dodds, esteemed dignitaries, conference participants and partners in volunteering, good morning. On behalf of Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) Bahaginan in the Philippines), let me start by thanking the conference organizers for the invitation to give a Keynote Speech at this Opening Program. We are honored by your recognition of our work.

I have been asked to speak about volunteering and sustainable societies, and I will attempt to do that in the next 7-10 minutes. I do so in the context of the opportunities given me as a developmental psychologist,  volunteer and volunteer program manager in the Philippines.

From this lens, I understand human development as the process whereby children grow up to be healthy and socially responsible adults; that development unfolds as children, youth and adults participate actively in their life-long process of change and growth.  As such, human development is influenced by the interaction of children’s individual capacities; the nature of their immediate personal relationships; the psycho-socio-cultural and physical environment at the community, national and global levels; as well as the predominant thinking and behavior of the world’s decision-makers in a given era.

In their life time, children become adults who are committed to achieving their full potential, with the best interests of future generations in mind. In a real sense, healthy psychological development is anchored on the principle of sustainability: living a balanced life and enjoying the earth’s resources in a way that passes on to those who come after us, the same privilege.

However, optimum growth and positive change across the life-span have been increasingly compromised, even truncated, by financial insecurity, family instability, socio-cultural inequity, armed conflict, and geologic upheavals. Children have been clearly disadvantaged when their physiological, socio-psychological and economic needs are unmet by their parents; and by the communities, business corporations, schools, churches, and governments they are inevitably part of. The collective and inter-generational capacity to create societies of active citizens is further threatened by the absence, or soul-less implementation, of policies and laws aimed at the reduction of poverty, disadvantage and marginalization.

Under these circumstances, demands for reframed challenges and innovative action can be daunting. Inevitably, sustainability is propelled by people who willingly serve outside the call of duty, share needed time and skills professionally -- minus the professional fee, and contribute to the betterment of people other than those they are obligated to support. This is who volunteers are.

It has been these volunteers who have been the catalysts for change both at the individual level --  running waste segregation management programs for parents, providing meditation and spiritual exercises to flood survivors -- AND at a macro level – working with communities to lobby for the implementation of  laws against illegal logging, or working with government education officials in curriculum revision for a culturally appropriate and gender-sensitive education for sustainable development.

 Armed with their skills and unencumbered by the restrictions of the paid work place, volunteers are able to bridge turfs and address the multi-dimensional, multi-sectoral challenges brought about by poverty.
The UN Declaration of 2001 as the International Year of the Volunteer espoused four ( 4) pillars of the celebration: the promotion, recognition, facilitation and networking. As we celebrate IYV+ 10 this year, allow me to call attention to two of this four: Recognition and Networking. 

Networking among and for volunteer-involving organizations has opened new partnership choices in development work. These have included mutually-beneficial collaborations once frowned upon by both parties. These include partnerships with the: 1) National Government as when volunteers in the Philippines worked with the government mandated Philippine National Volunteer Service Coordinating Agency (PNVSCA) under the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) and  the Philippine Congress to enact the Philippine Law on Volunteering, 2) Local Government Units,  for Disaster Preparedness Programs in the towns and municipalities, 3)  The corporate  sector, as evidenced by the evolution of community-based Corporate Social Responsibility programs, 4) Faith-Based groups, as in inter-faith   peace-building programs, and 5) academic institutions, for research and training on volunteering. This brings to mind the joint offering VSO Bahaginan and SEARSOLIN, Xavier University  offering of the international training on Volunteer Program Development and Management, the ongoing study of the VSO Policy Group and the International Development Studies, Sussex University on “Valuing Volunteers”; the FORUM and SIF research on “ Emerging Perspectives on International Volunteerism in Asia” ( Brassard, C., Sherraden, M., and Lough, B., IVCO, 2010), and the UP NCPAG and PSSP  research “Extending the Self; Volunteering as Pakikipagkapwa” ( Aguiling-Dalisay,G., Yacat, J, and Navarro, A., 2004).

Learning from these best practices, it is now incumbent upon volunteer organizations and development agencies working with volunteers, to consolidate their efforts for greater development effectiveness, and for crystallizing the unique contribution of volunteerism to society.

Be that as it may, the studies underscore the salience of recognizing volunteerism from a cultural perspective. The understanding of cultural nuances and indigenous traditions are central to how the diversity of volunteer services in Asia need to be appreciated worldwide. In international volunteering in Asia, for instance,  an increasing trend toward South-South, specifically Asia-Asia, volunteering programs has been attributed to the similarity of beliefs, practices, values and economic conditions between the volunteer and the host country ( Brassard, C., Sherraden, M., and Lough, B., IVCO, 2010).

In the Philippines, an understanding of KAPWA, roughly translated as self-in-relation to others, and LOOB, approximated as inner self, are integral to the quality of volunteering. It is the denigration of KAPWA that accounts for interpersonal discord and societal malpractices; in the same vein, it is this collective self that has inspired cooperation and volunteerism. As such “good volunteers” are expected to have both the inner (loob cluster) and interpersonal /social qualities (kapwa cluster) in working with others. ( Aguiling-Dalisay,G., Yacat, J, and Navarro, A., 2004).
Community partners of VSO Bahaginan’s Peace Building Program in Mindanao, for example, have reflected that peace negotiations can be successful only if peace workers themselves have inner peace. The value of personhood-impacts of volunteering is further illustrated by adult education students of the UP Gurong Pahinungod Education Program  this way: “Our teachers braved the rugged terrain to  be with us in this forsaken place that may not even be on the map, they lived with us in impoverished conditions until we completed the school  term, they sacrificed the benefits of employment…They would not have done this if they did not have confidence in our abilities. How could we not believe in ourselves then? How could we not use our high school diploma to improve our community?

A second point in relation to the recognition of volunteers is simply that volunteer contributions to development have to be recognized as such. It has been said that volunteers are the best kept secret of every high-functioning institution, and this may be true, possibly even in the UN.

This conference unfolds this erstwhile  secret as it articulates volunteering for what it is: active citizenship, a development strategy, way of life---as IAVE puts it. Admittedly, the wide spectrum of volunteering definitions can be baffling for development workers of different persuasions. Beyond establishing unifying themes, however, a strict standardization of categories in the volunteer landscape, particularly one emanating from a Western experience, may deny the complexity of volunteerism and its multi-faceted contributions to sustainable development.

May it be, then, that volunteer contributions to sustainable development be recognized by way of both numbers and stories, both graphs and faces, all in a cross-indigenous  way.

In closing, let me share my hope  that children, youth and adults co-create societies:  with a spirit that honors the future as much as the present;  with abilities to proactively change systems, infrastructure and ways of thinking which create divides; with behaviors that respect interpersonal and social relationships; with value for the nurturance of a person’s inner being. My belief is that volunteering contributions are significant in each of these dimensions, and at all phases of life. My belief is that children who live in a world that values volunteering for all, are better equipped to participate fully as responsive members of society throughout their lifetime, and are likely to be volunteers who will continue the cycle of sustainability across generations.

I would like to think I am not alone.

Salamat po. Thank you.

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