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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 of Volunteers.

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 volunteers?
There is no simple answer. There are different reasons in different parts of the world. But we can point to some key trends:

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 way around.
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 differences

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 in damages.

"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' efforts.

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 new

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
Jean Milligan is a freelance writer based in Geneva.

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