Volunteerism in These Trying Times
October 20 was another ZOOM Day for me. That day, I spoke about the “Good Volunteering Practices of Not-for-Profit Organizations” before a group of mid-level government development planners in a virtual conference sponsored by the Philippine National Volunteer Service Coordinating Agency (PNVSCA) and the regional office of the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA).
The organizers invited me because of my volunteer work with the regional humanitarian assistance organization, Tabang Bikol Movement (TBM), a non-stock, non-profit organization accredited with the Bicol Regional Development Council (RDC). A retired senior citizen, I have been devoting a great deal of my “free time” as a volunteer “worker,” especially during the Pandemic. According to the invitation sent to TBM, the online conference aims to promote the spirit of volunteerism in government. So why work in government and still volunteer in the communities?
Passed in 2007, the Volunteer Act, or RA 9418 entitled, “Institutionalizing Strategy for Rural Development, Strengthening Volunteerism and for Other Purposes,” set up the PNVSCA to promote and coordinate volunteer programs and services in the country. The law also provides opportunities for capacity development, encourage and assist local government units (LGUs), national government agencies (NGAs), and government-owned and controlled corporations (GOCCs), as well as educational institutions in setting up their volunteer programs.
Volunteerism is a noble practice of giving time and skills to the community, an organization, a sector, or a group of people in need – all for free or without financial benefit or compensation. I began my talk with a joke. I asked my audience: are you attending the forum because of a Memorandum or an Order from their superiors? As a result, I saw several faces smiling onscreen. I also told my audience and the forum organizers, who may be surprised at my admission, that it was only recently - the first year of the Pandemic when I was given an award as an outstanding volunteer by the PNVSCA - when I came to know about the 2007 Volunteer Act.
At first, I was very amused: why is there a need for awards? More to the point, why was there a need for legislation on something that is inherently a social value and to compel people to volunteer? I belong to a family where participating and leading advocacies for a worthwhile cause has been a way of life, not because of compliance or order. Thanks to our father, the late Jaime C. Jimenez, the founder of Mariners Polytechnic Colleges Foundation, who had introduced to the whole brood the spirit of donating one’s skills and time to community service as a social responsibility since childhood. Growing up, I leveled up to joining charity groups, neighborhood associations, school social action, non-government organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs), the Philippine National Red Cross (PNRC), and the like. Helping was just a normal thing to do. So, was the law necessary at all?
Upon closer scrutiny, the difference lies in recognizing volunteerism as a state policy. By law, the government is obliged to commit to a partnership with the citizens and promote the participation of various sectors of society for social transformation and national development. Before, it was simply a personal call to help. With RA 9418, volunteerism has been elevated to a higher call of duty to participate in public and civic affairs to institute social change. I find particularly interesting its mandate to provide a conducive and enabling environment for volunteers who should be protected against discrimination, harassment, and persecution and instead be ensured safety and security as part of rights recognition. Thus, more kind-hearted individuals are encouraged to volunteer in an atmosphere of compassion and peace.
Free human resources
That said, the law’s passage is a long way to recognize the tremendous value of what millions of volunteers all over the country are doing, offering their talents for free in the service of the poor and marginalized communities.
Yes, it’s millions of Filipinos rendering free community service. But, in addition, we have to include the thousands of NGOs and CSOs, people’s and community organizations that undertake a wide array of activities, including political advocacy on foreign policy, clean elections, protecting the environment, healthcare, women’s rights, mental health, farmers’ productivity, economic development and many other issues. Worldwide, the Philippines has one of the most numbers of volunteer groups. The Philippines ranks 7th in 139 countries with the highest number of people volunteering their time based on the CAF World Giving Index 2017. That report said 25 million Filipinos volunteered in 2016. The number must have doubled or tripled during the Pandemic. That is how caring and generous Filipinos are!
Imagine the equivalent of the many person-hours of work and skills! A 2019 study published by the US-based philanthropynewsdigest.org showed that 77M Americans volunteer about 6.9-billion-hour worth of approximately US$187.7 billion to non-profit organizations of all types. Compared to our country, the value of volunteer work is almost equal to that achieved in the US!
Why the proliferation of NGOs and volunteer organizations? That would, of course, require another discussion. But I would like to volunteer some reasons:
1. Government is unable or fails to help or deliver effective services.
2. The government needs the collaboration of the citizens to participate in solving problems.
3. People with the means are motivated to help because needs require immediate response and cannot wait for government response, primarily because it is slow in coming if available.
4. Volunteers commit to serving out of love, compassion, political belief, social responsibility, and help even if the government is responsive.
The truth is, where there is government failure or slow response to social problems, NGOs and CSOs thrive. For instance, the frequent occurrence of natural disasters and now the Pandemic, in Bicol and elsewhere, has more often than not prompted the victims and survivors to seek the swift assistance of non-profit organizations.
To the rescue
It was in this circumstance that volunteers convened and organized in 2017 into Tabang Bikol Movement. One would think that the “first responder” to a disaster in one’s locality typically refers to the DSWD, the LGU, and the barangay assistance workers. But in most instances, ordinary citizens and non-profits or NGOs can also be first responders. For example, Super Typhoon (ST) Nina swept across Bicol in December 2016, dampening the holiday glee of many families. By impulse, mainly through electronic messaging, many citizens who were at home came to the rescue. I did not realize that a simple text for help sent to one, then to a hundred others, would quickly result in a fund-raising campaign. With slow government response, many volunteers hit the ground, raising money for YERO PAKO from Bikolanos and non-Bicolanos from far and wide – including OFWs, Mariners alumni, friends, and relatives from the private sectors. A national daily published a half-page appeal for help, and volunteers sought donations by email and letters from various individuals and groups. The fund drive raised a significant amount of money to buy roofing at discount prices courtesy of friendly hardware in Naga City in just a few weeks. There was coordination with the Department of Social Work and Development (DSWD) Region V, which gave out food packs. Tabang Bikol, true to its name, came to the rescue to help.
I remember this same spirit of volunteerism reminiscent in 2013 when Super cyclone Yolanda struck and caused extensive damage to our neighboring Visayan provinces of Samar-Leyte. Being a maritime school, Mariners mobilized ocean-going vessels – ferry boats and ships-- for urgent disaster response across the sea. I had to communicate with the Norwegian Maritime Foundation of the Philippines and the Norwegian Embassy to avail of a ship for truckloads of relief coming from different parts of Luzon still waiting to be transported to Tacloban, Leyte. After several coordinative meetings, T/S Kapitan Oca led by its Norwegian ship captain sailed off on November 23 from South Harbor, Manila, as “one of the first ship to bring tons of relief packs to Leyte” after Yolanda struck on November 8.
It was also this same voluntarism that newly organized TBM responded to the alarming incidence of dengue in Camarines Sur in 2017, in the aftermath of Typhoon Nina. The dengue relief operation involved hundreds of volunteers with a valuable partnership with the Department of Agriculture (DA), giving 300,000 citronella tubers to 100 communities all over Camarines Sur and Albay. The Department of Science and Technology (DOST) has found the Citronella plant effective as a natural mosquito repellent. Thus, it became TBM’s weapon to address the dengue outbreak. In addition, by organizing the People’s Organization of Disaster Survivors (PODIS) and Ilaw ng Kababaihan from typhoon-displaced families in Canaman, TBM developed the members themselves as community movers and warriors for resiliency projects like this high-impact intervention.
True, volunteerism aims for solutions and change. In time, this volunteer act of the many helped stem the rise of dengue cases. It also popularized community food and medicinal plants, which became a regular TBM event made most significant every year on October 16, World Food Day. Today, citronella and vegetable growing are thriving on a once idle one-hectare land that the Archdiocese of Caceres lent to the disaster survivors organized by TBM for health and alternative livelihood. Who would ever think that the rewards of volunteerism would be in the form of a Citronella Distillation Mini Plant-Livelihood Center for the displaced farming families of the 2016 disaster soon to rise on another borrowed land? With its many challenges of increasing poverty, isolation, need for social connectivity, care, and alleviation, the Pandemic is providing another platform for meaningful volunteerism, whether in providing food, shelter, water, counseling, clothes, medical supplies, or other essential services.
So, going back to the earlier question as to why the Volunteer Act would “compel” government people who are paid monthly by working in their offices to join programs within and among government offices to render free service to the communities? Then, I saw a link to Bayanihang Bayan Volunteer Program for Government Service, also known as BBP, which aims to build a strong partnership between the government and the private sector in implementing development programs and projects. I call it a partnership forged for the wise and beneficial use of government resources for meaningful people-centered projects with the employees of NGAs, LGUs, and other government offices bound by shared goals.
If the goal is to promote the participation of the various sectors of the Filipino society, then strengthening the practice of volunteerism as a strategy to attain national development and international understanding, must therefore start with an enabled and conducive atmosphere of volunteers working freely effectively, and happily with the government.
*Evita Jimenez-Tuazon, is Founding Chair of Tabang Bikol Movement, Chair of the Board of Trustees of Mariners Polytechnic Colleges Foundation, Canaman, Mariners in Naga; President of JaimEliza Inc, a former Consultant of the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC), a social entrepreneur and officer in non-profit groups for women, and farmers in poor communities for disaster resiliency and good governance.