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Where have all the volunteers gone?
by Richard Allen
Volunteering is at the heart of all that the Red Cross and Red Crescent stands for, both as a principle and as a means of putting principles into practice. But the number of volunteers and members have decreased from an estimated 250 million in the 1980s to around 105 million today, one of the most dramatic falls in the Movement's history.
Since the Battle of Solferino, volunteers have been the driving force of the Movement's humanitarian action. The spirit of voluntary service is enshrined in the Fundamental Principles. But, there is considerable ambiguity in the way the commitment to the values of voluntary service is translated into practice. In the present complex and challenging environment, it is useful to examine the role of volunteers within the Movement today.

Less time, more to do
Major social changes have affected the recruitment and working patterns of volunteers in industrialized countries. Renée Guisan, committee member of the ICRC and founder of the International Association of Volunteer Effort (IAVE), testifies: "Before, you had a lot of women who weren't working, and now it has completely changed. The number of volunteers have dropped as more women entered the workforce." Karen Coleman, volunteer recruitment and training manager for the West Yorkshire branch of the British Red Cross adds: "People have more demanding jobs, and women work a lot more than they did, so people don't have as much free time."

Lack of free time and an increase in the range and appeal of alternative leisure activities limit people's availability. An additional difficulty is that standards of care in the health and social sector are increasing. Health and social-care workers - both volunteer and paid staff - require greater levels of training and qualification. A greater degree of professionalism means that volunteers make increasing commitments to developing their skills, and organizations need to spend more on training volunteers. They are also seen to be competing with paid staff. All these pressures are making it harder to recruit volunteers and, significantly, increasing the cost of running volunteer programmes.

In the former Soviet Union, the communist regime absorbed charitable institutions and used them to further the goals of the state. Volunteering lost one critical part of its meaning: that it is work freely given to benefit others. After the collapse of the Soviet system, people were no longer obliged to work as so-called 'volunteers'. The number of people registered as Red Cross members and volunteers fell dramatically as a consequence. Today the newly independent Red Cross and Red Crescent societies are struggling to rebuild the image and spirit of volunteering in a way that is appropriate for their new political and economic environment.
Beating the competition
The huge explosion in the number of NGOs in the developing world means there is much stiffer competition for volunteers and activists in community development than 20 years ago. In 1909, there were 176 international NGOs. By 1993, there were 28,900. Where they were once dominant among the few humanitarian organizations, Red Cross and Red Crescent societies are now having to compete with hundreds or even thousands of NGOs for the interest and commitment of people, young and old.

Volunteering in Africa is further complicated because, as Esther Okwanga, former secretary general of the Zimbabwe Red Cross comments, The concept of a 'volunteer' is itself something very alien. And yet people perform informal voluntary work all the time, but don't recognize it as such. So when the idea of 'volunteering' arrived in Africa it was thought to be something quite new and different. This led to considerable misunderstandings and complications, which are only beginning to be sorted out.

The role of volunteers in developing countries has radically changed, too. 'Service delivery' ideas, in which one - usually privileged - section of a community works on behalf of another - less privileged - section, are common in industrialized nations. In developing countries, these ideas predominate in Red Cross and Red Crescent programmes. They can work in first aid and disaster relief, but are counterproductive in community development. The Red Cross and Red Crescent needs to be flexible in its understanding of volunteering. It must depart from a dogmatic concept of volunteering as service delivery by one section of a community to the benefit of another.
Adapting to a new world
Both the nature of the society within which the Red Cross recruits its volunteers and the nature of the work that volunteers do have changed out of all recognition. To evolve successfully, the Movement must develop a clear understanding of why volunteers are important to its humanitarian mission. It is no longer enough to argue that volunteers have always been part of the Movement and so always will be.

One way of beginning the evo-lutionary process is to recognize the full value that volunteers bring to the Movement. Guisan of the ICRC argues that the economic value of volunteers is not sufficiently recognized. If the time that volunteers give were converted into a monetary value, their work would be recognized in financial statements, and the Movement would in consequence place a much greater emphasis on nurturing its volunteer base.

But even this radical idea undervalues the contribution of volunteering. The value of volunteers is not simply that they deliver services that would otherwise be too expensive to provide. Volunteering is in itself a social, communal act; one that encourages people to be actively involved in working with, understanding and supporting fellow human beings. Volunteering strengthens community links, encourages participation and promotes an awareness that quality of life can be affected and improved by the acts of each individual.

Many people volunteer because they believe in the cause and goals of the organization for which they give their time. In an increasingly competitive world, the goals of the Movement and its values of impartial humanitarian action are being drowned in a torrent of competing causes. The environment, politics, religion, human rights, friends and neighbours, health and social welfare are all causes seeking volunteers and voluntary action.

To the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, volunteering is a way of ensuring that its strong sense of humanitarian values are shared more widely, and that an awareness of the Geneva Conventions - vital in any armed conflict - can be instilled in people who may one day be combatants. Finally, the volunteer network is a feature of the Movement that makes it distinctive from all other humanitarian organizations, and provides a potential channel for real dialogue between vulnerable people and Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, governments and donors.

The Movement needs its volunteers. If it is to continue to attract the support and commitment of people who believe in its cause and are willing to give their time freely, it must be absolutely clear: Why does the Movement want volunteers? What is their role in achieving the goals of the Movement? What do they receive in return for giving their time and dedication? The Movement must shout loudly and clearly, above the noise of all the other causes, about what it stands for and why the largest humanitarian network is still relevant and important to all people in all parts of the world.
Richard Allen
Richard Allen is a consultant working with the Federation on volunteer-related issues.

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