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FIRING LINE: The ethos of giving back

Shantal Munro Knight

FIRING LINE: The ethos of giving back

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I was lamenting with a friend of mine quite recently the fact that young people no longer appear to be interested in volunteering. His response to my philosophical spiel about how volunteering aids in personal and social development was to laugh loudly and point at me incredulously, saying that I had finally lost touch with how much the society has changed.
Apparently, volunteering is a thing of the past or at the very least something retired people do because they have nothing else happening. Even if they are not being paid directly, there must be a negotiated return for people to get involved in any kind of activity that will benefit anyone other than themselves.
Coincidentally, this conversation came just days before I attended a meeting where I was reunited with many of the people I had worked with when I was involved in volunteer work in the youth sector. During that time, there was never a thought of monetary compensation; you just did what was needed because you understood there was a cause to support. It was a sacrifice of time and financial resources which you never counted in the immediate moment.  
Lest I would suggest that I am somehow special, many other people worked tirelessly before me and others working with me made the same personal sacrifice. This kind of involvement meant that you could not be callous or selfish.
People who understand the ethos of giving back and helping out their fellow man do not leave their parents and grandparents in the hospital and they certainly do not end up terrorizing and breaking into people’s houses.   
Rather, working in your community and helping people who are disadvantaged or differently able builds self-confidence, teaches you how to relate to others, encourages empathy and problem-solving. These qualities which we are now trying to teach in schools were previously taught in community clubs and district groups across the island.  
Why has it died and where it has gone? I have two answers. This same friend of mine who remains in the youth sector related that in some instances even when young people might be remotely interested in volunteering, their parents’ attitude is a deterrent.
He related one case of a young girl who was volunteering in between jobs but her parents refused to give her any money to attend meetings or activities of the youth group because in their opinion, she was wasting her time.
This is the ethos that we have now. Every man for him – or herself, and the almighty dollar to pay the bills at the end of day is now the most important factor determining how we live our lives and treat our next-door neighbour. We want the Government to provide health care, maintain social welfare, cut the grass right in front of our doorstep, but we are not willing to look beyond our front doorstep and sacrifice our time and skills for a worthy cause just for the sake of it.
Secondly, part of the problem lies with government on two levels. Successive administrations have taken an approach that has prioritized the economic value of things once considered social goods and which emerged out of the creative and voluntary ethos of the society.
Culture, the arts and sports are all now economic goods spoken about in the context of how they can aid the economy as opposed to their intrinsic value.
The monetizing of such creates a shift in focus and expectations. This is why we have good sportsmen who cannot demonstrate the basics in good manners and sportsmanship – this was developed at the community level where you not only played the game but had to be involved in the life of the community and the club.  Government has also moved into areas once dominated by volunteer organizations. There were summer camps run all over this island mostly for free for years, supported through churches and community groups.
Instead of Government supporting these efforts and putting the money behind these organizations, we create a bureaucratic superstructure based on a transactional exchange of services.  
Volunteer ethic gone through the eddoes!
• Shantal Munro Knight is a development specialist and deputy coordinator at the Caribbean Policy Development Centre.