Who cares? Social isolation and the role of volunteers

Published: 8 November 2004

Volunteer friends, friends of volunteers, Who cares?

Everyone likes to make a difference. In fact, nothing is more rewarding than making a difference in the lives of others.

Today I would like to begin with a story. I have got to know many volunteers in the Red Cross and there are lots of moving stories I could tell. Using my own experiences as a basis, I want to share my thoughts about voluntarism with you. About its role and importance.

Dedicated helpers: from social exclusion to social inclusion

But first my story. A story about Mary who is 50 years old and suffers from a serious chronic muscle disease. As her illness progressed, her world shrank and she became dependent on other people. First, she had to quit her job. Then her world narrowed even more because she could no longer go out. She couldn't visit her family or friends. And, finally, she couldn't leave her bed. Mary was in danger of being completely locked in her social isolation.

But thanks to a Red Cross volunteer who spent a few hours a week with her, that didn't happen. She taught Mary how to use the internet and how to email. Which opened up her world. Email has now become a way for her to stay involved with friends and family. She can listen to their problems and give advice when advice is called for. She is connected in more ways than one. And despite her own illness, she has even become a volunteer.

Social isolation and loneliness

Loneliness has been called a creeping sickness that festers unnoticed under the surface of the life of society. Of course, we have to be careful here because being alone takes so many forms. Being alone should not be confused with loneliness. Everything depends on a person's own situation. Still, we cannot deny the social reality of our environment, which is why many people are lonely. All we need to do is think about the continuing process of individualisation. More and more people have been thrown back on themselves.

And about the ageing population. In the Netherlands, 18% of the population is over the age of 60 and in some European countries the figure is even higher - over 20%. And to that figure we can add that the informal networks in which people live are crumbling.

Or think about the spectre of the "lonely crowd" an American study once described. The person lost in the masses with nothing to hold on to. Do you recognise that in your own country?

Groups at risk

The story of Mary and the volunteer is not unique. There are at least 18,000 Red Cross volunteers in the Netherlands trying to draw people out of their isolation. Let me assure you - their work is crucial. Especially for people who are disabled or suffering from chronic illness. For the elderly or people on their own. For immigrants or persons with psychological problems.

Recently, the Netherlands Red Cross commissioned a study to find out how many people in this country suffer from feelings of loneliness. The figures are quite shocking!

8% of the Dutch population feels lonely or very lonely. Disabled or chronically ill people run a much greater risk of social isolation. The same study in fact shows that the percentage of lonely people in that group is twice as high. That is, 16%!

The Netherlands Red Cross is calling attention to this problem. Which is why it chose "Make Contact, Keep in Touch" as the slogan for its annual autumn campaign. We advocate social inclusion in order to dispel social exclusion. We want to make people aware - aware of how they can help or look for help by "getting in touch". As an example, let me point you to the Netherlands Red Cross website where people can contact one another on-line.

Volunteers in the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, about 20,000 Red Cross volunteers are giving their help with a variety of activities. They run telephone circles to help disabled people and the elderly living at home to get in touch. In that way they also act as a safety net if problems arise. They also organise and supervise meetings to bring people together and engage in pleasant, useful pursuits. They help disabled people with sports activities or make sure that they have transport. I have already mentioned the internet. And they make regular home visits, go out with people - for a walk or to do some shopping. Just for fun, but also as a way to put them in touch with others. And they go with them on holiday trips organised by the Netherlands Red Cross.

Role of volunteers world-wide

The Red Cross and Red Crescent have around 20 million active volunteers world-wide. The volunteers work in youth programmes, first aid, health campaigns, ambulance services, disaster preparedness and response, support for refugees and a myriad of other specialised programmes for vulnerable people.

I would like to draw your attention to an ongoing international campaign the Red Cross launched in 2002 which is trying to reduce HIV/AIDS-related stigma and discrimination. Volunteers say to communities: "Open your eyes, stigma kills". Because there is a sad truth about AIDS and it is this. Although stigma and discrimination take many forms, the result is the same. Infected, sick people are shunned and sometimes denied access to social and medical services. The campaign is attempting to break through a wall of ignorance and prejudice.

We all know that fighting stigma, discrimination and social isolation would be impossible without the energy and dedication of volunteers. But why rely on volunteers for such indispensable social tasks?

Really making a difference

Volunteers are local people. Voluntarism is all about local people helping other local people. Volunteers are insiders. They know the community, the language and the customs. They are familiar with local needs and resources and can match the two. They can operate in places where outsiders are not welcome. Because of their links to the community, people know them, and this makes them more credible than outsiders.

Volunteers also bring diversity and special abilities. When you recruit staff you can find people looking for a new job. But when you recruit volunteers you have a much broader choice. Almost anyone can be recruited as a volunteer. Like people with better qualifications or special skills. Or people who can work odd hours. And volunteers can even be recruited from among the beneficiaries themselves. Like Mary.

Does voluntarism have a future?

Our society is constantly changing and this is also reflected in volunteer work. As you know, our society has become more individualistic and harder. Individualism not only makes it more difficult to find volunteers but makes volunteers even more necessary. Do we see a future for voluntarism? Let's take a hard, realistic look at it.

At a time when governments are disengaging and forcing citizens to assume responsibility for themselves, we must be careful not to look for simple solutions and rely on volunteers for everything. The greatest danger for volunteers is being used as cheap easy-to-deploy labour. That takes no account whatsoever of what motivates people to become volunteers.

Anyone who relies on volunteers - and this includes the government and volunteer organisations - must first really understand what they are. Understand what drives them, understand their motivation. Respecting volunteers and appreciating what they do is crucial if we want a future for volunteer work.

We have to make more people aware of just how useful and necessary volunteer work is. The Red Cross must be sure that it has the right work for motivated people. That is our challenge for the future. We cannot put a price tag on the importance of volunteer work for our society. It is priceless.

By creating a sense of cohesion and solidarity within society, volunteering builds social capital because it converts individual action into collective action with a social objective. It permits social mobilisation within the community. And it offers people a way to show their own value and reaffirm that they have an important part to play in society. Volunteer work can build a sense of pride about helping to create a better world. All this highlights something else about volunteering - the fact that it plays a key function in strengthening civil society.

Who cares?

So what do we, the volunteer organisations, governments and institutions which support volunteer work, plan to do in order to facilitate and promote voluntarism?

Clearly, we also need professionals in volunteer organisations. But they should be facilitators of voluntary humanitarian action. Which is why it is so important to improve volunteer management, to adapt organisational structures and to upgrade staff skills.

We need to offer special courses and specialised training - an extra bonus for volunteers. Another incentive might be to count student volunteer work as part of the school curriculum, which we could do by giving students credit for such work.

Employers should encourage voluntarism among their employees by making it an aspect of corporate social responsibility. As part of a business' concern. And when I speak of business, I would say that it is also the business of national and local governments to consider joining hands in this endeavour.

We have a serious responsibility to act and to encourage greater action by offering support to voluntary action.

Because : Who cares?

All of us do. And we all share a responsibility to show we care. May I end by thanking you for your interest in the importance of volunteer work.