Those with access to the Internet have all seen photos of people returning to their homes after Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc in the US and parts of the Caribbean last week. We have all seen pictures and footage of people helping others out in getting their lives back together.
In the aftermath of a disaster, most people with empathy would want to reach out to the others and try and help them in whatever way they can. We saw it in Pakistan after the earthquake of 2005 and in Haiti in 2010, the 7/7 bombings in London and the 2004 tsunami that affected many countries in Asia. A friend who lives in New Jersey wanted to volunteer in the disaster relief activities but did not know how she could contribute with two children under the age of three. Nonetheless, she was seen asking around if there was any place where children can also be taken for volunteer work. It is all very commendable that people want to contribute in whatever way they can to make the lives of others a little bit better. The difference between developed nations and others such as ours is that the spirit of volunteerism is seasonal and only comes out when we are struck with a disaster.
In most developed countries, there are established volunteer programmes and people are generally encouraged to take part in volunteer activities in their communities. School children volunteer, housewives volunteer, retired people volunteer in whatever way they can; they visit the terminally ill in hospices, work in soup kitchens or schools, help immigrants assimilate in society, manage traffic during rush hours in the towns where the town administration cannot afford full-time traffic police, help raise funds for their communities and assist in keeping the atmosphere clean among other things.
A country like Pakistan can benefit immensely from such a spirit of volunteerism. There is so much that needs to be done and there are so many people who have the time and ability to make a difference in the lives of those who are less fortunate. There are many people who need to be taught how to read and write and other life skills, the state-owned schools and hospitals are always under-staffed and if a greater number of organised volunteer groups, which want to help others, step up to help build the skills of such people, not only will it help in meeting the human resource problem, it can also work as a stepping stone for establishing training programmes for those who want to enter a particular field.
Volunteerism does not just help a small group of people who are the direct beneficiaries but also works for society in general and the individual who volunteers. Their efforts build stronger ties of trust, harmony and reciprocity among its citizens through creating opportunities for participation for groups and individuals who would have remained either indifferent or on the fringes.
There are many groups in Pakistan where Pakistani volunteers can register and contribute in their own way; there is the United Nations Volunteers programme, the Pakistan Youth Alliance, the Pakistan chapter of the World Volunteer Web, The Citizen’s Foundation’s Rehbar programme, among others. There must be several other options in all the towns and cities of the country where one can contribute. Volunteerism is great; not only does it help in building societies, it also tells the volunteers that they don’t have to be rich, famous or perfect in order to make a difference.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 6th, 2012.