Saturday, June 25, 2011

Human Kindness is Limitless


Volunteers serve as a catalyst for change in a society. It is important to provide a supportive environment to these selfless individuals and organizations so that they may contribute to true nation building.

The culture of volunteerism is inherent to many societies and supplements State functions. It is also an expression of the spirit of human compassion. Sometimes, however, it may be a response to the failure of State apparatus, prompting people to form support networks with friends and families in times of crises. Whatever the reason, societies at large benefit tremendously from selfless acts of devoted volunteers.

Volunteer work may be defined as work motivated not by material gains or external pressures, but by free will. It may include assisting the physically, socially or mentally disadvantaged in their everyday struggles, running literacy programs, and disease prevention and awareness campaigns etc. by contributing time, skills or resources. A question that often teases the mind is, how the idea of volunteerism takes root in communities in the first place, and whether it is dependent on the level of affluence in societies. A cursory glance at some aspects of developed and underdeveloped cultures around the world shows motivated people in all socio-economic groups, and sometimes more so in disadvantaged groups wherein the element of empathy plays an important role even when financial constraints paralyze action, and we find international charity organizations playing their important role by offering financial support to genuine humanitarian causes. 

In the US, the spirit of volunteerism is inculcated in individuals from a very young age, starting with pre-school children. By involving their parents in educational and fun activities at school, the community takes a teach-by-example route. As we go higher up the educational ladder, this trend is further seen to be strengthened when colleges encourage ‘Gap-year’ volunteer work experiences at home and abroad, taking up causes one feels passionate about, and learn valuable life lessons along the way. Needless to say, these programs benefit recipient societies tremendously as they enrich individual outlook.

The possibilities are endless when it comes to selecting one’s cause – from becoming a part of charities focusing on creating safe and supportive atmosphere for small children, to getting involved in pressing economic situations like provision of affordable housing for low-income families. When choosing social volunteerism as their passion, American citizens are never short of opportunities in their multicultural and multiethnic society. Social volunteerism helps develop a healthy pluralistic culture that focuses beyond religious, ethnic, and racial barriers and challenges misconceptions, thereby promoting social harmony. For example, the Sharon Pluralism Network working in a small town in Massachusetts helps bring “change at grassroots level in the society” through collaboration of seven town organizations “that partner together to support multicultural and interfaith understanding and engagement.”

This American spirit of volunteerism is extended to outside of the country as well, and has benefitted South Asian societies greatly. For example, the charity, CARE, has worked extensively in Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal to fight poverty and social injustice, running literacy programs and empowering women. CARE volunteers worked tirelessly in Pakistan during the 2010 floods alongside local volunteers to provide shelter, health and sanitation, and safe water facilities. Continuing CARE projects in India and Sri Lanka focus on disadvantaged children at orphanages and care centers, helping with teaching both life skills and handicrafts along with basic education, while also supporting the mentally and physically challenged. In Nepal, CARE projects work on special needs education and vocational training at orphanages. In Bangladesh, volunteer work focuses more on improving the local infrastructure that is perpetually caught up in a cycle of cyclones and floods. American volunteers have helped locals in building walls, drainage systems, playgrounds and clinics, and run educational programs that focus on health. Also, CARE projects have focused on food insecurity, maternal mortality, HIV prevention strategies, literacy, capacity building of communities etc.

Pakistan is a land of contradictions. While its rich history of art and architecture stretches back to 5,000 years, the present state of weak governance coupled with threats of terrorism has rendered the country paralyzed on many fronts. However, challenged by the holes in sustained development efforts of the State, resilient Pakistanis continue to take up the roles of builders and sustainers with or without help from international humanitarian organizations. The Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy (PCP) ranked Pakistan as the sixth most philanthropic country in the world. In a 2004 study it noted that more than 200,000 Pakistanis volunteer their skills on a full time basis. This view is supported by a 2005 report by The Christian Science Monitor which states that, “Pakistan has one of the highest rates of philanthropy in the world… 58 percent of Pakistanis volunteer their time to needy causes, giving nearly $700 million a year in charity.” Judging from the success of the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital of Imran Khan which was built solely on public donations worth $22.2 million, to one man’s dream, the Edhi Foundation, which is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest volunteer ambulance service, benefits millions of people in need, this culture of charity is indeed intrinsic to Pakistani society even as it continues to face numerous challenges on a daily basis. Despite widespread corruption in many government departments, volunteer charity organizations are widely respected for maintaining transparency and creating an efficient and effective image of Pakistani volunteers.

Pakistanis living abroad, like Pak-Americans, also continue to support the less privileged in their country of origin. During the 2005 Earthquake and the 2010 Floods, they donated generously towards relief efforts. Many Pakistani-American organizations also contributed time, skills and funds for victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami and for victims of Hurricane Katrina, according to a report in US Dept of State’s The Washington File. Active humanitarian organizations among these included Association of Pakistani Physicians of North America (APPNA), Pakistani Association of Greater Seattle, Association of Pakistani-American physicians, The Council of Pakistan-American Affairs (COPAA) of Southern California, The Organization of Pakistani Entrepreneurs of North America (OPEN) etc. Many Pak-Americans contributed in individual capacities as well.

Conversely, for years American volunteers have also worked through charities and in their individual capacity in Pakistan in relief efforts during times of crises. While their contribution has been invaluable, an important feature of this contact is formation of bonds which go beyond the short period of actual contact and helps dispel misconceptions on both sides. An American volunteer, Dr Mary Burry, visited Pakistan for relief work during the 2005 Earthquake. The Christian Science Monitor later quoted her as saying, “Like most Americans, I had the idea that this is a pretty dangerous place to be…” and the experience “totally changed my concept of Pakistan.” Another American volunteer, Wesley Olson remarked, “I’ve been to eight or nine countries by now - and by far the nicest people I’ve met have been here.” In turn, Pakistanis were also deeply touched by the generosity and dedication of the American helpers.

When all sides prosper due to actions of a few, it is indeed a wonderfully simple way to bring countries closer together. Selfless volunteer work helps develop a culture of kindness and compassion by benefitting the most vulnerable sections of communities, enriching the giver as much as the receiver. It is simply an expression of human kindness that spreads outwards and envelopes everyone in its warmth.

Published in SouthAsia as: Human kindness is Limitless June 2011