Our year of volunteers
by Jean Milligan
The Red Cross Red Crescent Movement has
97 million members and volunteers.
Four years ago, the 52nd General Assembly of the United Nations
designated the year 2001 as the International Year of Volunteers.
As such, the International Federation's World Disasters Report
2001 is devoting one of its chapters to the issue of volunteers
in natural disasters. This excerpt highlights the Japanese experience
after the Kobe earthquake.
The story of volunteer response during natural disasters
tells us about much more than the efforts of people trying
to rebuild their city or country. In the face of disaster,
people often respond spontaneously and generously, selflessly
trying to help their neighbours and community. Volunteers
can be local or from abroad. They can be victims themselves,
yet vital to international and national response efforts.
They can be the first to respond or the last to leave, ensuring
that recovery and reconstruction efforts are completed.
In Japan, lessons learned during and after the devastating
earthquake of 1995 prompted the government to take a particular
interest and role in this International Year of Volunteers.
Indeed, it was the Japanese government which led the initiative
in the United Nations to make 2001 the International Year
The volunteer challenge
The International Federation's president, Dr. Astrid Heiberg,
as well as participants from many National Societies and the
ICRC, were among those attending the 16th World Conference
on Volunteering in Amsterdam early this year.
Here is an excerpt of a speech delivered there by Dr. Heiberg:
The Red Cross and Red Crescent is the biggest volunteer organization
in the world. We have a very long and strong volunteer tradition.
But how is it that today we have problems recruiting and retaining
There is no simple answer. There are different reasons in
different parts of the world. But we can point to some key
First of all, the concept of volunteering has changed
There are many more organizations in the volunteer field,
many of which are smaller, more modern and more targeted on
specific local needs than we are.
Volunteers have higher demands on the tasks, leadership and
support they get - and they are less loyal to the organization
if we do not support them well.
In many countries there are fewer young people and many more
pensioners, and more people living in cities. It is a challenge
for old volunteer organizations to adjust to such changes.
The knowledge on how to attract, organize, reward and retain
volunteers has developed a lot, creating a new discipline
known as "volunteer management" and a new type of
professional called the "volunteer manager". Again,
for old and proud organizations like ours it is often harder
to adapt than for newly established organizations.
Needs and vulnerabilities have changed and we need to change
our ways of responding.
Secondly, the Red Cross and Red Crescent is changing
We have professionalized our organizations over the last decades,
introducing staff in larger numbers and more sophisticated
management systems. But too often we have tended to "forget"
that staff are there to facilitate volunteering, not the other
We are becoming more mission-driven and more focused on local
vulnerability. This has shown us that our local structures
are at times too weak.
And thirdly, we have some internal, structural and regional
We must build on local culture and traditions. In the past
we did not pay enough attention to the fact that volunteering
is different in different countries. Even in the rich part
of the world there are two main streams of volunteering:
In Western Europe volunteering traditionally has happened
in the context of membership organizations. Members organize
themselves in local branches with a democratic and self-governing
structure. This is the approach that has highly influenced
the Red Cross and Red Crescent.
In North America there is a totally different tradition:
a "service delivery model". An organization exists
to do a job and recruits and organizes volunteers to do the
job. They develop attractive volunteer positions and recruit
volunteers to fill them. They manage volunteers as unpaid
staff. The American Red Cross and a few other National Societies
are applying this model.
Whatever model a National Society applies, it has to be based
on local needs, on local vulnerabilities and local volunteers
responding to them. The task for our organizational structures,
and for our staff, is to enable those who work locally and
voluntarily to do so as effectively as possible.
The after-effects of the Kobe earthquake
in 1995 - turning spontaneous help into a volunteer culture.
The lessons of Kobe
In 1995 an earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale
destroyed much of the port city of Kobe in Japan. The toll
was catastrophic: 6,400 dead and an estimated US$ 100 billion
"If we have to find hope even from one of the worst
disasters, the quake created a surge of volunteerism around
the nation, making 1995 the 'start year' of volunteerism in
Japan," explains Aki Okabe, a researcher for the Ohdake
Foundation. Government officials estimate that over 1 million
Japanese spontaneously volunteered in response efforts during
the two months following the earthquake.
Although the risk of earthquakes was well known in Japan prior
to the devastating quake, relatively little investment had
been made in preparedness activities.
When the earthquake struck, buildings and roads caved in.
State-controlled plans couldn't cope with the scale of the
disaster. Thousands of young volunteers assisted in disaster
response, many of them university students volunteering for
the first time. While they were no substitute for a coordinated
and rapid government response, they proved very capable at
saving lives, building shelters and distributing emergency
medical and food supplies to affected areas.
Local authorities did little to encourage the volunteers'
European search-and-rescue dog teams were reportedly impounded.
Qualified volunteer doctors from the US were turned away because
they did not have certificates to practise medicine in Japan.
The Kobe YMCA post-quake report recounts the experience of
two women from the Kobe Citizens Central Hospital. These women
went to local authorities to ask for ten volunteers to assist
with carrying water in the hospital. Water duty, they explained
to the officials, diverted too many skilled nurses away from
more serious and pressing medical duties. The officials turned
them away. When they went back a second time to ask for more
help, they were told to make a written request. Volunteer
Japanese plumbers and electricians were also turned away since
they were not certified to work in Kobe prefecture. But a
year later they were invited back because infrastructure was
taking so long to rebuild.
The start of something
Activism following the Kobe earthquake had
a profound impact on Japanese society. With numerous stories
of bureaucratic bungling and trust in the government's ability
to handle national crisis shattered, the success of the volunteer
response launched an era of civic activity unheard of before
in Japan. Legislation was quickly adopted to facilitate the
growth of this emerging sector and new volunteer-based agencies
were created to address a whole range of social, political
and economic issues including disaster preparedness and mitigation.
Lessons learned from the Kobe experience
abound. But one of the most important is the value of volunteers
in an emergency. It is a lesson that has been learned elsewhere.
Following Hurricane Mitch in Central America in 1998, the
invaluable support that spontaneous volunteers provided to
emergency operations undoubtedly prevented more lives being
lost. As the International Federation's Iain Logan explains,
spontaneous volunteers made "a significant contribution
to the search-and-rescue efforts without which Red Cross performance
would have been seriously limited".
Jean Milligan is a freelance writer based in Geneva.
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