I recently was privileged enough to attend the Points of Light Conference in Washington DC, where this year’s theme was “Service Unites”. Again, as so often during my time here in DC, I was blown away by the extent of volunteerism that happens in the US! And on every level!!! I could not help thinking how wonderful it would be to have the same kind of ‘volunteer movement’ evolving in my home country South Africa.

During the conference, at one of the receptions, I met somebody involved in doing research on volunteering and coming up with country specific statistics. Interestingly enough, upon her finding out I was from South Africa, she immediately commented about the extent of volunteering that happens there. I found this to be very ironic, especially in light of my personal experiences and accessibility to volunteer experiences.

This of course sparked a great discussion and ultimately, only when looking at the definition of volunteering, was I able to discover where the difference in our perspectives and results stemmed from. Her explanation was similar to a lot of the definitions and explanations I was able to find when asking our trusted friend: Google. One I found to be most comprehensive, on the volunteering.org.uk site, stated the following:
“We define volunteering as any activity that involves spending time, unpaid, doing something that aims to benefit the environment or someone (individuals or groups) other than, or in addition to, close relatives. Central to this definition is the fact that volunteering must be a choice freely made by each individual. This can include formal activity undertaken through public, private and voluntary organisations as well as informal community participation.”

In that case, I can see how South Africa, and possibly many other African countries, would have extremely high statistics in volunteering … we just don’t call it that. That is basic human life, interaction and community living. The elderly and the children are taken care of and looked after by their neighbors, friends and relatives. What little food there is, is shared with those that are in need. And there is generally not an official call for donations in the form of goods and time, or man hours, as these are just given freely within a community.

It seems that in a society where ‘time is money’, it becomes important to ask those ‘that have’ to share that with those that ‘have not’ … and hence the need for introducing an official phenomenon called volunteering. In South Africa, as the ‘developed’ sector continues to increase, the feeling of community tends to decrease and with that a lifestyle based on ‘time being money’ is bringing about the need for official volunteering. Acts of kindness that used to be taken care of within the community automatically, are no longer and with a government struggling to build up a social structure to assist with these services, the need increases for this to be done through volunteering communities. Ironic therefore that we are following a path of ‘development’, when it seems that we are in fact trying to recreate something that we always had, or potentially still have to some extent, but fast loosing, by constantly striving to become a ‘developing’ country. Is that really still moving forward? Does it not seem silly to follow an example where ultimately, what we already have is forcefully being created? Should we not work towards rather maintaining that, as it seems that we actually have the model upon which volunteering is being based, already in place!

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