Opinion Article
December 22, 2020

Why is volunteering so relevant?

We all know that the story of humanitarian aid and development support is not necessarily a happy story. Just think of the example of Haiti and the earthquake that occurred in 2010. I was at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and I remember listening to a speech by Bill Clinton to raise funds and save the country. During the following year, $11 billion was raised, and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and volunteers from around the world came to Haiti's rescue.

But the harsh reality of all this was that a year later, a million people were still living in tents, a cholera crisis had killed more than 2,500 people, and only 5% of the earthquake's wreckage had been removed. Of those $ 11 billion that were raised, only 10% was invested in Haiti's economy. Today, seven years later, 2.5 million Haitians still need humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations.

Examples like this were tarnishing the humanitarian and volunteer flag. They were tarnishing this humanist ideal that the human being can be genuinely altruistic. And, little by little, we started to lose confidence in volunteering. And that is reflected.

According to the latest Survey on Voluntary Work of the National Statistics Institute (INE), our country's volunteer rate is 11.5%, well below the European average of 24%. And when I talk about volunteering, I mean volunteering through organizations and volunteering that we do informally for people in our neighborhood. Only one in ten Portuguese volunteers.

So it is urgent to ask ourselves: does volunteering really matter? And the answer to this question is not simple.

Perhaps volunteering does not add value. Perhaps volunteering is just a set of childish and naive actions,although well-intentioned, that are not effective in the long run. Perhaps volunteering creates unemployment because it leads people to work in an unpaid way. Perhaps volunteering is only done to make volunteers feel better. And,even if it is important, maybe it is only for some, for those who have time and earn credits.

I have been a volunteer since I was 16,and I believe that volunteering is nothing, nothing like that.

But for an economist like me,believing is not enough. It is necessary to look coldly at the data and find the statistical evidence that justifies the investment of the scarce resources we have. And it is as a dual volunteer-economist that I share seven things I have learned about volunteering over the past ten years, which may help our readers to understand why it matters and under what conditions:


• Volunteering generates economic value, and that value is quantifiable. It is not because a job is unpaid that it does not generate value. In practice, what economists do is assign the hour of volunteer work the same amount for which that hour would normally be paid in the labor market. Using this method, INE estimates that the hours of volunteer work in Portugal have a value equivalent to 1% of GDP (something like 1.8 billion euros).

• Volunteering can change a life. And my own life is a testament to that. At 16, I had the opportunity to learn breakdance on the street with friends who volunteered to teach me. Today I am 26 years old, and not only is breakdance still part of my life, but it gave me the courage and self-esteem that I didn't know I had. This experience led me toco-found, in 2010, the Transformers Movement - a social franchise of schools of superpowers that is already transforming 22 communities in Portugal.

• Volunteering can change millions of lives. And the best example of this is that of immunization against polio. In the middle of the 20th century, polio paralyzed hundreds of thousands of people every year. Today the incidence rate of the virus has dropped by more than 99%.This was possible not only because a vaccine was discovered in the 1950s but also because of more than 10 million volunteers worldwide and from various organizations mobilized in the vaccination efforts of more than two billion children in 122 countries.

• Volunteering does not create unemployment. There is no statistical evidence that volunteering causes unemployment. On the contrary, looking at the data of the European Union countries, it is possible to verify that the countries with the highest rates of volunteering tend to be those with the lowest rates of unemployment.Although correlation does not imply causality, this fact is indicative that volunteering and employment are complementary and not mutually exclusive. This fact is supported by much of the scientific literature produced in this area.For example, a study by the United States National Corporation for Community and National Service found that volunteering is associated with a 27% higher probability of employability after controlling for a set of demographic variables.

• Volunteering can be for everyone. Anyone can volunteer because we all have a superpower, a talent, and something to contribute. And I don't say this lightly to touch the reader's heart. I believe this with all the strength of my being, having met volunteers from allover the world, of all colors, origins, hairstyles, looks, extravagances,religions, stature, ages, and professions.

• But good intentions are not enough. Not all volunteer work is good; not everyone can do any kind of volunteer work.As highlighted in a recent Guardian article, Save the Children and Unicef ​​have been warning, since 2011, of international volunteering risks in orphanages in locations like Cambodia. While this type of volunteer work is fueled by the best of intentions, there is considerable evidence that the demand for volunteer experiences with children in Cambodia has led to a disproportionate increase in the number of orphanages, creating incentives for child trafficking. Unicef ​​estimates that 75% of children in orphanages in Cambodia are not orphans. In addition, the high turnover of volunteers tends to be more detrimental to children's development. This brings us to the last point.

• Volunteering is not easy, nor simple, nor does it have to be distant. Volunteering is difficult, complex, and starts in our neighborhood. It is only a true instrument of transformation when passion meets reason. It is not a summer trip. It is a way of being in life. It is not heroic people saving the poor. It is heroism shared and celebrated among all. It is not an imposition; it is a free choice.

And that is what brings me here today.It does not give the reader a moralistic lesson or a paternalistic discourse about where each should spend their time. But it is rather a sharing of why, at least for me, volunteer work is important. And if it is not for the pragmatism of numbers that I have shown before, it is because volunteering may be that supreme declaration of human dignity. Dignity as a choice of where and how we want to use our time. If we make each action our hostage to a transaction, then we lose the freedom that it cost us so much to conquer.

And what are we without freedom?

We live in a time when concepts like solidarity or volunteering have lost so much meaning. They lost so much meaning due to their banal, current, and decontextualized use that they even have negative connotations. I believe that we have to give strength to these concepts.

Volunteering is not a lot of bullshit.

If that doubt comes to mind again,remember that change happens in a non-linear and mysterious way. Your gesture -small, brave, dignified, and intentional - makes a difference. It may take time, but it's always worth it. Ask yourself in the silence of the night that causes you to move. And move through it.

João Brites

João Brites

Sustainability professional, economist, investor, and entrepreneur with 10+ years’ experience in enabling sustainable development through the power of data, technology, and collaboration. Recognized by the World Economic Forum, Virgin Group, Red Cross, Ashoka, and the British Council as a leading young global changemaker.

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