Activism is a cry for engagement. It arises when people feel incapable of making a difference in their own lives or those of their neighbours.
In this situation, an external response, often by the State, is sought to ameliorate the challenge, and the activist’s effort is designed to influence, demand or even force that response.
Activism appeals to the outsider for help; engagement offers oneself as the first responder. Responsibility by the self stands as the clarion call and posture of a volunteer.
The International Volunteer Day (IVD) marked on December 5, provides an occasion to take stock of the role of volunteers and how to harness their capabilities to advance all spheres of development.
A radical shift is required to make social development meaningful, especially in the politicised context, where development outcomes are ever the subject of contestation even when the benefits speak for themselves.
We should think more deeply on the potential of volunteerism. Whereas there is no single accepted definition of volunteerism, its attributes are fairly well-known. As articulated by the United Nations, volunteership encompasses three core elements: It should not be undertaken “primarily” for financial reward (although expenses and “some token payment” may be allowed); it should be undertaken of an individual’s own free will (although an element of compulsion may be acceptable in schemes such as students’ community service); and the activity should benefit someone other than the volunteer, while recognising that they, too, might gain significant benefit.
Kenya has a rich culture of giving. According to the World Giving Index 2017, Kenya ranked among the top 10 countries with a 51 per cent participation in volunteering time and 60 per cent participation in giving behaviour — but these efforts are often crisis driven and end once the disaster ebbs.
The mounds of uncollected garbage in towns, clogged and polluted rivers due to poor waste disposal, not forgetting our inability to respond to road accidents or fire tragedies such as at Salgaa on the Nakuru-Eldoret highway and the Sinai slums in Nairobi, respectively, reveal the wanting state of our public philanthropy.
The lack of an institutionalised culture and practice of volunteership means that certain critical values are not fully cultivated to become part of our collective conduct.
The Kenya Red Cross stands out as a leading first responder whenever the country is faced with natural or man-made disasters.
The government often relies on its support in humanitarian situations.
Equally, the St John Ambulance, the only voluntary organisation established by statute, seeks to “encourage and promote all works of humanity and charity for the relief of persons in sickness, distress, suffering and danger without any distinction of race, class, colour or creed; [and] to render aid to the sick and wounded in war or in peace.” Sadly, St John remains rather limited in its ambition and scale of operation.
Over the past five years, we have witnessed concerted efforts to make volunteership count more. A National Volunteership Policy was adopted in 2015 and a Volunteership Board proposed to promote volunteerism. A National Volunteer Secretariat based at the Labour ministry coordinates volunteerism at national and county levels.
The Presidential Digital Talent Programme (PDTP), was set up in the President’s office to draw youth towards innovation and support them to incubate ideas that respond to developmental challenges.
Further, Kenya’s attempt to set up its own peace corps saw the creation of the G-United Programme in 2014.
Housed at the Deputy President’s office, the one-year programme identifies new university graduates and embeds them within primary schools to promote national cohesion and community service.
While these programmes have benefited over 1,000 volunteers, the challenge is that of scale and sustainability.
Volunteerism can capitalise on the youthful energy away from radicalism. In a time of high unemployment, volunteering for crucial causes can help to transform youth angst and turn focus into more beneficial social conduct.
As President Uhuru Kenyatta begins his final term in office, it is critical to consider volunteership as a tool for national mobilisation. In braving dangers to help others, volunteers, especially at Red Cross, St John and in other formal and informal places across our land must be appreciated more.
Dr Korir is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya and a legal adviser, Executive Office of the Deputy President. [email protected]