American ideas on volunteering don’t resonate worldwide

NEW YORK — During his speech at a recent Sunday Supper, a traditional dinner event at the International House, philanthropist Daniel Rose challenged the world’s wealthiest people to help address society’s lack of public responsibility in the free market and the government’s inefficiency in helping to resolve some of the world’s major problems.

Rose also said that third sector—or nonprofit—and philanthropic involvement must play a role in resolving these issues as well.

As an American citizen living at International House, a community of more than 700 residents from over 100 countries living together while attending graduate school or internships, this concept seemed to me like a clear solution to social issues like hunger and homelessness.

After all, I-House itself would not exist had it not been for the philanthropy of the Rockefeller and Dodge families that founded it and continue to support it.

But my foreign counterparts couldn’t have disagreed with Rose more than Bill Nye and Ken Ham debating science and creationism.

Many of the international residents responded with fury because their idea of volunteerism is unlike our concept of organized community service here in the United States. Because of this, Rose’s suggestion did not present such a clear-cut solution to the issues in their own home countries.

Organized community service and philanthropic giving is not common in most countries besides the US and Australia.

Other Americans like myself spend a lot of time participating in organized community service. There are more nonprofit organizations registered in the US than there are citizens in Trinidad and Tobago.

According to Giving USA Foundation and Roper Center for Public Opinion Research reports from 1995—the most recent year for which data are available—Americans gave, per capita, three and a half times as much as the French to causes and charities, seven times as much as the Germans, and 14 times as much as Italians.

Likewise, Americans were 15 percent more likely to volunteer their time than the Dutch, 21 percent more likely than the Swiss, and 32 percent more likely than Germans in 1998.

On the contrary, according to the international residents of the International House, foreigners may be more adept to helping one another through simply taking care of a sick mother, while in the US we may place our older family members in nursing homes.

In short, where the culture of volunteerism in the US emphasizes the collective, the cultures in other countries often focus on the individual.

Volunteering was important in my household because my mother always instilled in me the value of giving to others, even when I didn’t have much.

In my home, for instance, we made it a point to commit some weekends to serving the homeless in our community. It became my duty, my social responsibility, to help others who were less fortunate and needed the support.

When I went to college I became actively engaged in community service activities and organizations. By my senior year, I was responsible for planning community service projects for the student government association.

My accumulated hours of organized service felt like a moral victory – a feeling that I believe my pride taught me rather than my mother. This feeling is one that has remained with me today because my commitment to service gave me a sense of self worth.

I felt like I was fulfilling my civic duty as an American citizen. For this reason, I focused more on my own gratification through humanitarian work, rather than the needs of others.

If I had focused more on those needs, I could have taken initiative by spending time with people on the street, rather than in shelters, who didn’t have families. Instead, I measured helping the community solely by the amount of organized service in which I participated.

Many of my American peers at International House have similar histories, or at least, understand our collective culture of service, and so they generally agreed with Rose. But because other countries have a very different relationship with the third sector, they called question to some of his points.

The subsequent dialogue became a vigorous debate about what the idea of volunteering even is.

Each of us has our own understanding of the act of volunteering, which is informed by the societies in which we live, or those in which we have spent the most time. The third sector may not be available in some countries because they don’t have the same democracy as we do in America.

Non-profit involvement abroad is often uprooted from activist orientated or think-tank organizations that address government corruption or other major issues, and things like volunteering in a soup kitchen are infrequent because, as some of my I-House peers from socialist countries said, they believe that governments are responsible for addressing these issues.

Governments, they said, work well and higher taxes and better governments are the answer – not volunteering.

Those that come from the developing world argued that the concept of volunteering doesn’t exist in their home countries because people barely have enough to eat and have suffered from decades of corrupt governments and dictatorships.

But fueled by resistance against these very problems within their government, Ukrainians created a system of organized service for themselves over the past three months.

Tens of thousands of protestors facing poverty, unemployment and corruption gathered daily in Kiev’s central square. Determined to operate powerfully in makeshift communities in the center of the city, the Ukrainian protestors’ system of organized service emerged as an efficient machine that sustained the people and their purpose through assigned service positions manning food stations, taking turns distributing tea, playing music, singing the national anthem and providing first aid.

Although protestors varied from businessmen and priests to pop singers, everyone had a designated role.

Back at the I-House, Rose, the multimillionaire Sunday Supper speaker, maintained that collective service works because it fills the gap that the public and private sectors can’t fill—and this may be the case, but it can also do more in societies unlike ours.

Through Ukraine, we can also see how the culture of volunteerism stepped into the chasm created by social and political disorder and provided stability—an important note to make in considering the vast state of unrest around the world.

What’s more, as Rose argued, America’s third sector has historically made a tremendous impact in places that may not have had their own.

“The track record of America’s ‘third sector’ over the last century is awe-inspiring,” he said. “Sponsorship of the post WWII Green Revolution’s new varieties of wheat, corn and rice dramatically increased crop yields and prevented starvation for hundreds of millions in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Ending the scourge of yellow fever in the developing world and of hookworm in the American South were ‘life-changing,’ as was the early and crucial sponsorship of Mohammed Yunus’ Grameen Bank, the brilliantly successful and widely-replicated micro-financing project in Bangladesh.”

“George Soros’ role in encouraging democracy in post-Soviet Eastern Europe and Bill and Melinda Gates’ role in third world medical aid are becoming legendary, as are the impact of CARE, the International Rescue Committee and Save the Children,” Rose added.

But while he donates large amounts of his own money, Rose did not present a clear solution to poverty and corruption for those individuals who did not grasp volunteerism in the American context.

And so I asked the residents of I-House to describe the culture of community service in their home countries to me.

An Israeli resident told me that people in Israel don’t volunteer as much as they do in the US because they participate in the mandatory military service for all Israeli citizens over the age of 18.

Residents from South Africa said that people there are more willing to help a neighbor in need, but the culture of organized volunteering is not strong.

A Chinese resident said the people’s lack of organized service is due to strict military rule.

A Kenyan resident said Kenyans don’t see much value in volunteering just yet, and that the idea is still being developed.

I now understand that while American-style organized service projects have the power to unite people of different races, religions and sexes together for one cause, we have to wonder where that leaves us in our other, non-organized humanitarian efforts, which other countries accentuate.

Every day I run into at least three homeless people asking for change. As often as I can, I give to them.

Genuine community service extends beyond non-profit involvement – it can happen anywhere and can be performed by anyone.

I now measure my service by the amount of people that I can impact each day. On some days that means giving a smile to a complete stranger who may be having a terrible day. On other days it might mean picking up trash in my neighborhood.

The truth is we can’t help everyone we encounter every day, but we surely could make it a priority to help those who give us an opportunity.

Jerome Bailey, 22, is a student at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and a resident of the International House of New York.

This piece is part of a new GlobalPost Special Reports/Commentary initiative supported by the Ford Foundation called "VOICES." The mission of VOICES is to present the ideas and opinions of those who are less frequently heard in the media, including women, people of color, sexual minorities, citizens of the developing world and young people. These voices will consistently discuss topics important to GlobalPost Special Reports including human rights, religious issues, global health, economic inequality and democracies in transition.

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