Africana Plus

No43 october 2001.1

International Year of the Volunteer


Another year was given to us and now it has gone. What have we done with it? Our parents used to say, Time is Money, don’t waste it. But of course time is more than money. It is eternity in the making. "A Happy New Year!" we hear from all sides. Sincere wishes no doubt, but what are we to do to make 2001 a truly happy year? For good wishes are not enough. They have to be translated into action.

In its 52nd Session of 20 November 1997, the General Assembly of the United Nations, in resolution 52/17, supported by 123 countries, decided to make the year 2001 the Year of the Volunteer. In a publication entitled "Hand on Heart", the Catechetical Office of Quebec defined voluntary work as derived from the Latin word "velle", to wish, a work done because one wishes to do it. It is connected with the word "benevolence", meaning "well-wishing". Voluntary work is therefore an option, distinguished from other work by its character as a disinterested choice.

To return to the UN, this body explains that voluntary service is something which is found in practically all civilizations and societies. It may take the form of mutual service on the occasion of some crisis or emergency, or it may involve participation in programmes aimed at resolving conflicts or eliminating poverty. Volunteers may work on the local or the national level. Some programmes are even international. Voluntary action is more than ever necessary to counter the degradation of the environment, the abuse of illegal drugs, and the pandemic of AIDS, all of which affect the most vulnerable sectors of society throughout the world. These are subjects which preoccupy the international community, and they concern especially the eradication of poverty in developing countries.

The first aim of this Year of the Volunteer is to recognize the voluntary efforts of groups and individuals. Their contribution continues to be vital to the work of the United Nations agencies in such fields as adult literacy campaigns, vaccinations, protection of the environment, population control, nutrition. It is important to make as much use as possible of this new year which is given to us. There are more important things in the world than our own personal problems. In particular there is the terrible gap between the rich and the poor, which is everywhere growing wider every day. There are the millions of refugees, the hosts of helpless AIDS victims.

The experts tell us that in the coming thirty years provision will have to be made for 200 extra million people per year, that is, for six thousand million in all, if the whole population of the world is to be fed. Many of the people short of food will be in the Third World, Africa especially. But the experts also know that the challenge can be met, thanks to advances in the agricultural sciences. We may think of the extraordinary discovery made recently by research workers in America, Europe and Japan concerning the modest plant known as Arabidopsis Thaliana, which will have a great impact on both food production and medicine. The challenge can also be met if better use is made of the world’s arable land and water resources by introducing more productive species of vegetables and animals. Food production should grow more quickly than the population. The imagination and generosity of millions of volunteers throughout the world, prompted by the Spirit of God, also has a vital role to play in this refusal to give in to poverty.

So much for the world and the United Nations. What then of Canada? Canada was one of the first Western countries to give public money directly to development agencies to match the private donations made to them. This is an indication of the interest of ordinary Canadians in international development. No doubt development agencies differ greatly in their size and in their aims, but they nearly all spring from concern for needy people: the hungry, the sick, refugees, all those in distress. They are also interested in basic education, in helping people to come together to solve their common problems, in providing emergency relief in disaster or famine situations. Development agencies wish to make Canadians conscious of the problems of international development and to win their help, particularly in supporting government policies which favour the construction of a more just and peaceful world order.

The voluntary sector is an integral part of the social infrastructure of Canada. According to the statistics of the last three years, more than 7.5 million Canadians are engaged in voluntary work and they perform services valued at thirteen thousand million Canadian dollars. If these volunteers had to be paid, their salaries would exceed those of people in many sectors of the economy, including oil, forests and mines. These millions of volunteers put in countless hours of service every year, equivalent to the work of 750,000 full-time workers, i.e., 5% of the total active population of Canada, equal to the working population of New Brunswick and Saskatchewan.

The report of the Committee for the Support of Voluntary Organizations working for a Multicultural Canada, published in Ottawa-Carleton in 1992, suggested that the best formula for voluntary work is this: Give volunteers the opportunity to express themselves, allow them to discover hidden facets of their own and other people’s personalities, and give them the feeling that they are creating links of solidarity with their community and contributing to its welfare. We may add to this list the necessity of providing volunteers with training, support and recognition of their services. If we do all these things, we shall be producing energetic volunteers who will find in their work not only pleasure but also renewed energy.

If the world is going badly, we have to find people with the courage to set it right. Who will be bold enough to engage in a struggle which seems so unequal? More than ever we need people who will give without counting the cost. A French Dominican, Father Lebret, once said that the world needs fools, fools, that is, who are prepared to forget themselves, to do more than utter fine words, to dedicate themselves to the good and the true whatever the cost. These are the kind of fools the world needs, men and women capable of diving into the unknown and insecure depths of poverty. We need fools who love the simple life, people of peace, of uncompromising loyalty, contemptuous of their own life, willing to accept any task wherever it may call them. We need people who are both free and obedient, spontaneous and tenacious, gentle and strong, not afraid to dirty their hands, willing to share the burdens of the Third and the Fourth World. They are like the yeast in the dough. There is no great difficulty in being part of the dough, one only has to allow oneself to be carried along by events. To be yeast is not really difficult either, provided one preserves oneself from contagion by the mass. If there is no yeast, the dough remains dull and heavy; but if there is no dough in which it can be inserted, the yeast remains useless and sterile. To be a leaven in the mass means daring to enter into the dough of the world and to inject into it a stimulus which will cause it to rise. And this yeast is always the same. It is composed of truth, justice and love.

What then about us? What can we do in this new year to make our world a better world? There are plenty of possibilities.

Whatever we share, the important thing is that it be disinterested, a gift which looks for absolutely no return.


Michel Fortin, M. Afr.

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