A simple explanation of volunteering

To volunteer one’s time to solve local or international problems is commendable. Volunteers are special. They look around them and seek to improve their neighborhoods, their environment, and the lives of people or animals. They give much of themselves when faced with what they consider social injustice or crisis, often placing themselves in peril. Nobody should doubt that volunteers are empathetic, passionate, deeply feeling people that simply need to help.

Unfortunately, volunteering equates to putting a bandage on cancer.

The allegory

Imagine you live with three roommates in a flat. Let’s name them Alex, Bertha, and Corey. Each of you has a private room and you all share the flat’s kitchen, bathroom, and living room. None of the residents own the flat, but Alex is the one that acts as the liaison between the owner and the tenants. For doing so and for taking care of the bills, he receives a discount off his monthly rent.

Alex never cleans up his messes. He leaves his dishes in the sink every day. Being a terrible cook, he often burns his food. When it rains, he leaves on his muddy shoes when he walks to his room rather than take them off at the front door. When he watches television, he leaves his socks stuck in between the sofa cushions. He never uses the scrub-brush after he uses the toilet. He brings home friends and guests and they all stay up late making noise. He cuts his toenails in the kitchen.

Alex is, in short, an absolute nightmare of a roommate. There are various paths open to the rest of you.

  1. If you’re sick of dealing with Alex and are non-confrontational, you can simply find another place to live. That requires a lot of effort, though, and you really like living with Bertha and Corey.
  2. You can force a discussion with Alex in order to get him to mend his ways. Getting together with Bertha and Corey, you can sit in front of his door so he can’t get out, make noise while he’s trying to play video games, and generally make a nuisance of yourselves until he has no choice but to speak with you and come to some sort of arrangement.
  3. You can all get together to remove Alex from the flat, using violence if necessary. Committing murder and dumping Alex’s body is extreme, but it IS an option.
  4. You can contact the landlord and make a case for why YOU should be the flat’s liaison, thereby ousting Alex from his position of privilege.
  5. You can rationalize Alex’s position of entitlement and simply do his chores for him without comment. Whenever he leaves dishes in the sink, Corey does them. Bertha picks up his socks and shoes and leaves them in his room. You make sure to do his laundry and leave his clothing folded on his bed.

Alex as a democratic government

The whole point of having a government in a country is to provide solutions for its citizens, including infrastructure, services, and security. If citizens feel their needs are not being met, it is their right to pursue a course of action to effect change. Above, in our example, we have a number of options:

  1. Emigration – You can always leave your nation and try to find a home that is more in line with your personal ideals.
  2. Dissension/demonstration – By getting together with others, you can try to pressure the powerful to act upon your group’s needs. This used to work when elected representatives still felt personal shame but has become less and less effective over the years. Now, snagging votes and maintaining position seem to be the sole motivations of those in power.
  3. Revolution – Replacing an entire top level structure is difficult if not impossible at this point in history, but it is the only option that genuinely wipes the slate clean. Well, for a short while at least.
  4. Political opposition – In modern democratic nations, becoming a part of the political process is often the only way to garner a modicum of power, thereby claiming a position from whence to effect change.
  5. Volunteering – This shifts focus from one institution to another. Basically, government errs or exploits as much as it likes because someone will pick up the slack and clean up the mess.

Of all the ways people can participate in the direction of their society, volunteering is the most temporary and least effective. If, rather than donating their time to put out fires, volunteers within a nation got together to push a prioritized political agenda, they would get a lot more done and the effects would be much more permanent.

By tolerating, if not outright supporting, an entire range of organizations and causes in which people can participate as volunteers, we are acknowledging that the reasons for their existence are insurmountable through politics.

A problem without a clear solution

In a sense, volunteering benefits a self-serving and powerful sociopolitical elite. By accepting the responsibility to fix the mistakes of that elite, good-hearted volunteers simply enable injurious actions to continue.

Compassion has a place, though, particularly when something is immediate. You don’t see someone drowning in a river and call a vote or convene a committee, you jump in and pull him or her out. In much the same way, there are social issues that are temporary and require us, as compassionate and decent human beings, to roll up our sleeves and pitch in. What we should not do is tacitly permit the entrenchment of a problem in society and expect those of surpassing conscience to deal with it for us.

I’m sure most people have heard of the parable “The Star Thrower”, by Loren Eiseley. It has been retold as an argument in favour of social humanism for decades. The basic story is that a passer-by encounters a little boy on a beach throwing starfish into the sea because the tide has stranded them. When challenged with not being able to make much of a difference because there are miles and miles of beach and thousands of starfish, the child throws one into the water and claims he has made a difference for that one.

It’s a cute and heartwarming story and it makes a fair point, but I’ve always hated it. The child certainly makes a difference to a few of the starfish, but the situational shift is temporary. His actions do nothing to address the root cause of the problem. Can he return tomorrow to do the same? Will he bring others with him in order to be able to help more starfish? Would it not be better to get to the root problem of why starfish are being stranded and address that larger issue, if possible? This is the key difference in focus for volunteers: immediate relief over lasting change. As mentioned, immediate relief is absolutely necessary in some cases. We shouldn’t allow problems to become a part of our social backdrop, though, and this is exactly what’s happening. We have become inured to massive issues because charitable organizations, acting as champions, have shifted responsibility away from the political arena.

It can be argued that by remaining extra-gubernamental, charitable organizations can focus on their core propositions and address the primary issues that are their reasons for being. In democracies, what is a hot topic one moment may fade into the woodwork the next. Different ideologies jockey for position in increasingly polarized nations, making it impossible to get anything done. Yet, the attempt has never really been made to attack problems before they begin by taking power and directing it in a positive direction. Charities are, by and large, reactive and always will be. They can’t set policy to avoid tragedy, and this is why they will never be effective in the long term. They are, in essence, the maid service for national governments and the United Nations.

A great example of this is the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, or UNICEF. It was founded in 1946 to provide emergency medicine, food, and aid to children living in countries devastated by World War II. That was just over 70 years ago. There are still wars, there are still children in daily danger. There was an immediate need for UNICEF in 1946, but it has done little to effect lasting change. If UNICEF became a political party or at least an adjunct to one, along with the hundreds of other charity organizations that defend children, there would be a massive, concerted force for good in parliaments and congresses worldwide voting against war and strife at every turn. Perhaps the fact that regional leaders for the organization make over USD 500 000 per year has something to do with it. Or it may have to do with the vast number of employees in paid positions worldwide that depend on the organization for their livelihood.

I would venture to say that genuine, lasting change can only come about when people engage in a political process. If, instead of participating in disparate initiatives, volunteers were to come together as a unified political force, they could genuinely change the world.