Issues of families and volunteerism enjoy an unusual opportunity to come together and support and reinforce each other this year and more particularly May 15th, the International Day of Families. And the year 2001 has been designated the International Year of Volunteers (IYV) by the United Nations General Assembly1. First a word about the IYV. Volunteerism refers to the propensity to volunteer, the culture of volunteering and to the spirit, values and the attitudes that underlie it. Quite obviously, it includes volunteers. But it also includes the vast resources spiritual and financial as well as the knowledge, skills, experience, devotion and commitment that propel them and that they bring to their tasks.
In a wider sense, volunteerism is seen as "... an expression of people's willingness and capacity to freely undertake to help others and improve society in the spirit of reciprocity."2 It is also seen as being "... both a habit of the heart and a civic virtue. It is an action deeply rooted in the human spirit with a far-reaching social and cultural impact. Listening to, being concerned with and responding to the needs of others are evidence of the highest human motivation. Human beings help each other out of love and compassion. Yet, in its deepest spiritual dimension and symbolic meaning, volunteering is not simply something that we do for others. Our own values and humanity are at stake: we are what we give."3 "Volunteering is a freely assumed moral obligation. We help one another because we feel a sense of satisfaction in fulfilling a moral compulsion to do so. It is not an action imposed by an external authority. By caring and sharing, we become more fully human while, at the same time, enhancing the moral texture of our communities, the social fabric of our societies .... Caring and sharing have been a major component of human behaviour throughout civilisation .... Caring and sharing are a necessity, not a charitable act."4 "Volunteering takes many shapes and forms. From one-on-one support at a personal level to community service, from mutual support in self-help groups to participation in broad-based movements and campaigns, voluntary action is as varied as the creativity of the volunteers, the nature of national settings and the breadth of problems."5 Volunteerism involves giving expression to the concerns of people; demonstrating the validity of a concern for the condition of others; an ability to share with them; an expression of commitment, devotion and dedication; fostering the involvement of others; fostering of relationships; reflecting a the sense of community; an expression of trust and faith in the value of others and community. All of these are fundamental to the formation of social capital. And it is social capital that results from the quality of our relationships; our involvement in the lives of others; concerns for our mutual well-being; our sense of trust and confidence in each other; our sense of community; our willingness to support each other, and our sense of cohesion. These all serve to bind our society together, to give it coherence and strength, an acceptance of others, an appreciation of diversity, an appreciation of and respect for the strength that derives from inclusion rather than from exclusion. All these result from and give rise to participation, involvement, engagement, mutual trust, respect, support, commitment, ... all of which are absolutely vital for the strength and well-being of society.
The UN's Administrative Committee on Co-ordination noted that volunteer service has been a part of virtually every civilisation and society. Defined in the broadest terms as the contribution that individuals make as non-profit, non-wage and non-career action for the well being of their neighbours, community or society at large, it takes many forms, from traditional customs of mutual self-help to community coping responses in times of crisis, and spearheading effort for relief, conflict resolution and the eradication of poverty.6 Among the premises underlying the designation of an International Year of Volunteers by the UN General Assembly (www.iyv2001.org) is that it provides a valuable framework and establishes a favourable environment for the growth and yet more strategic use of volunteer contributions.
A first objective of IYV 2001 is increased recognition of the efforts of individuals and groups engaged in volunteering. Second is increased facilitation of volunteer work by building on factors which encourage, and addressing issues which inhibit volunteer service. Third is enhanced networking whereby volunteer achievements can be disseminated and shared. The final objective is the promotion of volunteering with a view to more requests for the deployment of volunteers and to offers of volunteer service from even more individuals.7 From the above, it has already been noted by many of you that there has been no mention of families. In many ways the activities carried out within families are seen not as examples of volunteerism but as expressions of the loving, caring, sharing, compassion, trust, support, willingness and co-operating that take place and are even expected among family members. These same activities are seen both as examples of time, energy and skill freely given and as activities that are fundamental responsibilities of family members.
The concept of volunteering seems to be applied to activities discharged by family members in providing assistance to other families or in the community. It is almost never applied to activities within families. We are all familiar with family members who will gladly, even eagerly, do many of the family tasks and help fulfil its responsibilities. And, at the same time, we are familiar with those who will resist these tasks mightily.
Even if all this familial activity is not seen by some as volunteerism, it should be apparent that families are the fertile ground in which the values, devotion and commitment essential for volunteerism germinate and take root. It is within families that these values, attitudes and skills, in other words, the ability or capacity, and willingness should be introduced, fostered and cultivated to enable improvement, to foster growth and development, to build relationships, to build self-confidence and trust.
The lead article of the previous issue of Families International (No. 38, December 2000) on the valuation of men and women's work within families was an argument that there is a vast reservoir of creative, thoughtful, caring activity that takes place within our societies to which little if any recognition is ever given. Over time this activity often shifts such that child care, education of children, and elder care, among others, are often undertaken by families to a markedly reduced level in the "more advanced societies". Instead, they are given over to more "specialised" care givers.
Often these activities might seem to be rather mundane such as domestic or household activities, all of which have economic implications, including the production of goods and services involved in getting water, sewing to mend or make clothes, washing clothes, ironing, preparing the fields or gardens for planting, mending tools, ensuring facilities for harvesting and storage of the harvest, raising food, processing of food, preparation of food, cooking, washing dishes and clothes, caring for children, spouse or partner, parents or elderly, community activities, undertaking of any cottage industries, building, repairing and maintenance of the home and so forth. While these all have economic implications they are crucial for familial well-being.
In one case, a valuation of volunteerism has been undertaken. Justin Davis Smith, founding director of the Institute for Volunteering Research (United Kingdom), noted that volunteerism was being portrayed in a much more favourable light and shedding some of its negative images. In the United Kingdom, for example, volunteerism was one of the top five contributors to the gross domestic product (GDP).8 Economics, which is often called "the dismal science", is truly dismal to the extent that it can value the most trivial commodities but is not capable of even recognising, much less valuating, the most fundamental human endeavours.
But of far greater importance is the fact that by focusing on our valuations of only those goods and services that enter the market place, we have implicitly devalued and ignored the far more important activities taking place within our families and communities. And by not having valuations of these activities, we often reveal the most misplaced priorities in our public policy decisions since we often "waste" the investments, the social capital, made by our family members and communities by failing to support and reinforce their crucial undertakings.
Because families can do things that no other social institution can, there is a tendency on the part of governments and communities to believe that families possess inexhaustible resources. Because of this, families tend to become over-burdened and under-resourced with the ever-increasing demands on family members to work and earn outside the home, coupled with the desire of so many political decision-makers to avoid the costs of supporting families with their tasks and functions.
If activities undertaken within the context of families are not seen as being undertaken on a voluntary basis, families are, at the very least, the cradle within which volunteerism is nourished.
Contact: Winston Sims, Vienna NGO Committee on the Family, Martinstrasse 92/3, A-1180 Vienna, Austria, Phone/Fax: 43-1-405 89 01, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org