Promoting Volunteerism in SAARC

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With the Saarc Summit long over, will the buzz surrounding regional integration fade away too? Can volunteerism come to its rescue? Can a regional volunteerism programme which fosters exchange of volunteers among Saarc members make up for the lack of vigour of the political leaders of the region?


Saarc volunteerism

If you look at the experiences of Erasmus and European Volunteering Service, these long-term investments certainly paid off in terms of creating millions of European citizens proud of their national identities and uniting them by a common, shared sense of  ‘European’ belonging.

Why not then try bringing the people of South Asia closer, especially its youths, by allowing them to spend a reasonable amount of time, let us say between six to 12 months, volunteering in another member nation of the Saarc bloc?

A youth with a bachelor degree could apply for such a programme, go through the recruitment process and if selected, would receive a compulsory pre-departure training package as preparation for the deployment. The participants of the programme will not be considered as development workers but rather full time volunteers living with an allowance just enough to pay their monthly expenses. Homestays could be the preferred ‘lodging’ option to live embedded in their host nations.

In order to avoid many side effects of international volunteerism, especially those related to the perception of international volunteers as junior development professionals, the Saarc Corps, as part of their mandate, should promote  activism and civic engagement with local stakeholders at grassroots level. More importantly, volunteerism should not be considered as a full time profession but a way of living.

The scheme would be entirely managed by the Saarc Secretariat which could sub-contract the implementing responsibilities—marketing, selection of outgoing volunteers and management of incoming ones—to national implementing partners in each Saarc nation.

A call for proposal can be issued and local NGOs with expertise on volunteerism can apply to manage the programme at the national level in each Saarc nation. A governing body chaired by the Saarc Secretariat with representatives of member nations and civil society members would supervise the implementation of the scheme.


Start small

We could start small with a pilot project with no more than hundred volunteers from all the countries. A feasibility study and cost analysis would prepare the ground for its implementation. In terms of funding, the cost could be split among the members of Saarc. International support can be sought as the last resort. I am sure that some international foundations would find the proposal interesting and might be willing to partially fund the idea.


Alliance of volunteers

A regional alliance for the promotion of volunteerism in the Saarc region could be established to make this dream project a reality. Imagine a selected number of non-profits mobilising volunteers and actively promoting volunteerism to form this loose umbrella group.

Let us call it ‘Volunteering South Asia’ and imagine it as a small initiative hosted by one of its founding members. Volunteering South Asia would be the main promoter of the concept of Saarc Corps by lobbying with national governments and private corporations that might be interested to promote it as part of their corporate social responsibility efforts.

The Department of Social Work in various educational institutes could also be part of Volunteering South Asia as universities play an essential role in community service. As proof of the power of universities in terms of social action at the local level are thriving global networks like The Talloires Network based at Tufts University, the US. In Asia there’s the Asia-Pacific University Community Engagement Network (APUCEN) and the AsiaENGAGE both with their headquarters in Malaysia. South Asia could also have a similar network of higher education institutions interested to promote volunteerism. They should all be part of Volunteering South Asia.


In the mainstream

The dream of establishing a Saarc Volunteering Corps would trigger a positive dynamic to create a regional framework of cooperation in volunteerism and service. Working on the Saarc Corps would entail the establishment of a regional volunteering infrastructure that is currently missing.

By laying the foundation for a regional volunteering program, we will have the opportunity to encourage the sharing of best practices and expertise among those organisations genuinely interested to promote volunteerism in the region.

Setting up Volunteering South Asia should not be that difficult as it would start small and slowly gain recognition. With due investment in financial and human resources, Volunteering South Asia would have its own office and be legally recognised.

Volunteerism is too often wrongly perceived as a niche sector. We, those working in this sector, are to blame for it. Volunteerism needs to be mainstreamed and not treated as a standalone sector.

The Saarc Volunteering Corps might help change these perceptions. What we need now is willpower to push this agendaforward.

Position: Co -Founder of ENGAGE,a new social venture for the promotion of volunteerism and service and Ideator of Sharing4Good

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