January 6, 2014 Sujeev Shakya

Politics of Volunteerism

The Annual District Conference of Rotary Nepal just concluded in Pokhara. The discussions at many times focussed on who will become the next District Governer in 2015/16; what are the various factions or sub-groups within Nepal Rotary?; who is not in talking terms with whom?; who does not like whom and who follows whom blindly?

Perhaps this is not the story of Rotary alone. This is the story of many organisations in Nepal that aim to undertake voluntary activities for the betterment of humanity or the downtrodden and excluded but land up as a platform to project one’s own image and ego at the cost of the objectives of what the organisations were established for.

Positions more important

It is interesting to note that holding events are given preference by such organisations over undertaking activities to fulfil their stated objectives. There are many organisation that are just known to hold one Annual General Meeting after another one each year, elect a committee and then repeat it for many more years. Speeches at such meetings become even more important than the activities. Who becomes the President or forms the Executive Committee becomes key. People start canvassing months in advance, throwing parties and spending money.

One then wonders why do people spend so much money, time and resources for key positions in organisations that are created to actually volunteer. Is this the culture of patronage that a feudal society has created? Is this the influence of a lot of free money from donors who are only interested in dealing with the office bearers of associations and organisations? Is it that people actually get control of the money and resources after taking up key positions in voluntary organisations?

Is it our system that people in power only recognise individuals who can produce a business card that says that they are an office bearer in an organisation, however obscure the entity? Some Non-Resident Nepalis have actually admitted that they were forced to form an organisation and get business cards with a designation of President as that made it easier to get appointments with government officials when they visited Nepal. So what will change this? Or is this something society would like to live with?

Fame more important than deed

In a famous poem, Bhanubhakta Acharya talks about how a grasscutter told him of how the latter was going to dig a well in the village so that he could be remembered long after he was dead. So, is it fame that people are really interested in as humans, rather than the deed itself? Only this can explain how a newspaper would carry a picture of 29 people touching a wheelchair when it is gifted to a physically challenged person. This can only explain how people spend five times the amount they have gifted to announce that they have made such a gift. Only this can explain how organisations spend more money etching the names of donors in marble than donation itself. Since fame is more important than the deed, we have allowed many organisations that understand this phenomenon to flourish and keep the whole-world of business of philanthropy alive.

Alternative to politics

A participant at the Rotary conference made a very interesting comment when we both left the hall after a speaker started sounding like a student union leader giving a speech. His take was that many people who cannot move up the ladder in politics or could not get the necessary break in politics use voluntary organisations to further their political ambitions. These people continue to borrow from the structure of political parties and try to operate voluntary organisations in that mould. Therefore, they enjoy patronage, the limelight and having sycophants around.

They enjoy manipulation as manipulation is part of the political profession. They like making speeches, long ones like the ones political leaders make. It does not matter whether the speech connects with the audience.

Worse of all, since political leaders always learnt to make speeches in the context of the audience being ill informed, illiterate and gullible, these people also think that the audience in the hall are people who have no other work but to come and listen to them. Perhaps, as long as voluntary organisations serve as an alternative to a political career for many people, the politics of volunteerism will remain.

I am not raising this issue to bring about changes overnight. It is just about being aware that these things need to change. It is not about critiquing one group for doing this and doing exactly the same thing when it comes to one’s own function. It is not about pointing fingers but showing people that it is possible to make changes and people do accept such changes. When the Nepal Economic Forum (NEF) hosts its Neftalk, in 75 minutes, three to four speakers speak and eight-ten interventions from the floor happen. If you can cut out the formality, a lot of productive stuff can happen. This piece is more for individuals and organisations, especially young ones, to engage with and bring about change.

Volunteerism is an ultimate necessity. It is only the politics in volunteerism that has to go. In the end, the deed and the cause have to be more important than who does the delivery.

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