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Do ut des: the frontier of volunteerism

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How has volunteerism changed with the pandemic? Was it for the better? Asking ourselves questions, we could be able to grasp what is to be found at the core of volunteer work, even though the complexity that revolves around the topic makes it difficult to come up with a clear answer.

According to The Guardian, volunteerism in areas like Britain can be traced back up to the Middle Ages and, since then, it has evolved into more complicated and intricate forms: from civil society to international projects, from local activities to international aid. But what is volunteerism? A 2001 UN definition laid out the three main elements to it: “the activity should not be undertaken “primarily” for financial reward […]; it should be undertaken of an individual’s own free will […]; and the activity should benefit someone other than the volunteer, while recognising that they, too, may gain significant benefit.”.

As Covid hit almost every aspect in individual and collective lives, volunteering activity was not spared. Many argue that even in this case, the pandemic may have given the opportunity to understand better what can be found to be at the core of volunteering. “Voluntourism” – namely “tourism in which travellers do voluntary work to help communities or the environment in the places they are visiting” – has always been considered as one of the problems attached to volunteer work. In this sense, volunteering is often depicted as an elitist experience, it always being more about what one is able to receive than about what can concretely be given, leaving – almost every time – volunteers who return home with a “moral surplus”. So, does this fit into the definition above or must there be more to it? Can some sort of “moral balance” be achieved?

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As hinted above, the pandemic has given the chance to people to try out a new way of volunteerism, one from a distance; the experiences of some long-distance volunteers have shown that much can be done if one commits to the cause. Still, the risk of “othering” can be present: volunteering as helping “strangers”, creating a cleavage between the volunteer-giver and the stranger-receiver. One gets to wonder whether the actual goal of volunteering is giving or taking, whether through striving a compromise can be reached; all in all, when you depart for a cooperation or humanitarian aid mission, you are acknowledging that you will always have your way out; that however long the period you spend there will be, you will almost always have a different “home”, routines and habits waiting for you when you get off that plane.

When you volunteer, it is not hard that a know-it-all attitude falls into your lap, and you may be very much inclined to approach it and accept it. And to a certain extent, this attitude may even turn out to be productive, at least when it interacts with an individual (collective, even better) pro-activeness to reach results and concrete objectives. On another note, this could be counterproductive if you were trying to take everything on your shoulders, attempting to take care of every single aspect of the work of volunteers. You must be part of a broader environment, a broader project and goal, favouring interaction rather than wanting to reform everything based on your ideas (be they good or bad).

What must be understood is that there is no clear-cut answer to whether these practices are completely right or completely wrong: a lot of nuances appear. What is crucial is that we are able to understand how, through a volunteering experience, we can become a hundred times richer than we were before leaving; thus, we have to try and manage to share some of this richness to concretely give back to others, otherwise the balance will never be even. The goal would be to try and avoid the ‘othering’ and focus more on the ‘altruistic’ part, cooperating rather than helping, building rather than gifting. Opening your mind to the right attitude can create a permanent link between you, the place you go to, and the people you meet; immerging yourself in the experience, humanity will be found at the core of it.

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Brindle, D., 2015. A history of the volunteer: how active citizenship became the big society. [online] The Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/voluntary-sector-network/2015/jun/01/a-history-of-the-volunteer-how-active-citizenship-became-the-big-society&gt; [Accessed 15 September 2022].

Gharib, M., 2021. The Pandemic Changed The World Of ‘Voluntourism.’ Some Folks Like The New Way Better. [online] NPR.org. Available at: <https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2021/07/15/1009911082/the-pandemic-changed-the-world-of-voluntourism-some-folks-like-the-new-way-bette&gt; [Accessed 15 September 2022].

Collins English Dictionary. 2022. Volontourism definition and meaning. [online] Available at: <https://www.collinsdictionary.com/it/dizionario/inglese/voluntourism&gt; [Accessed 15 September 2022].

Doerr, N., 2015. Volunteering as Othering: Understanding A Paradox of Social Distance, Obligation, and Reciprocity. [online] core.ac.uk. Available at: <https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/234820042.pdf&gt; [Accessed 15 September 2022].

Author profile

Just an average guy that read “On the road” a bit too soon and was led to tending to fall in love too much with too many things. In Bocconi I am studying International Politics and Government.

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