Volunteering: A sociopolitical vision

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In a world where globalization is desired and perfection is sought, one of the keys to doing so is to feel more compassionate and responsible and through the dedication of time and effort to show support or to help those in need. This defines one of the most culturally specific phenomena today - volunteering. Studies have shown that the number of volunteers all around the world is on a constant rise, making it a more culturally “popular” activity.

This is apparent in Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, where one of its “An Ambitious Nation” goals is to increase the number of volunteers from 11,000 currently, to an outstanding 1 million yearly. According to the World Bank, the number of volunteers currently represents a staggeringly low 0.034 percent of the Saudi population.

While the practice of volunteering has a positive effect on the mental health and unity of the community, it also affects the political and civil engagement of youth in matters ranging from projects, decisions and government-citizen communication. It has the power to transform and rejuvenate the reputation of the Middle East from a politically “troubled” region, to a set of nations possessing innovation and strength. This is why volunteering should be considered as a sociopolitical vision.

In simpler form, democracy is “a way to organize civic associations in which each member has a say (civic engagement)”. It is inclusive to both volunteering and activism. For instance, recycling was introduced following the 1970s environmental movement, even though the concept is thousands of years old. During the 1950s and 60s, there was a need in the community to reduce the environmental damage caused by human activity. Recycling bins today are available worldwide, but 40 years ago, they needed to be demanded politically. People first became active volunteers supporting the reuse of waste materials, then advocates of recycling, which followed the introduction of recycling bins. This relationship between democracy - politics generally - and volunteering is not inclusive to democracy-based ruling countries, but to all nations of the world.

What people do not realize is that by volunteering, they are directly supporting at least one cause, or in many cases, numerous causes. 966 Box Park was a three-day event held in Al-Khobar, which began on 24 March 2016. As its name implies, the park was built out of many large container boxes, and it contained restaurants, shops, art-exhibitions and much more. It revolved around the importance of recycling and supporting the local community. There were at least 200 volunteers who facilitated and helped run the event. These young leaders supported women entrepreneurs, emphasizing that in the Gulf they are powerful, capable and influential individuals in society, breaking gender stereotypes. Furthermore, both genders were able to work together toward the common goal of yielding synergy for society and themselves while maintaining a highly successful environment within the acceptable norms and values.

Volunteering can teach us a lot about how to seek change without involving any breach of the law or defiance of authority, and it is crucial to abide by laws even while trying to change them. It results in a democratic expression, accompanied by social approval, which is important in a culture like ours.

An event to be remembered was the “Youth Volunteering and Dialogue” conference in 2013, which was organized by the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Education, UNESCO, and the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue (KACND). It was of high importance, because it reflected past successful efforts and was realistic in the ideology needed to create the desired vision. The commitment to create safe spaces for expression, youth engagement and mutual learning was emphasized. In addition, solutions were proposed to bridge the gap between ideas and their implementations based on sustainable communal efforts.

Saudi Arabia is in fact a leading example of providing humanitarian aid and volunteering its financial resources to help other countries. As of 2014, the Kingdom was the country with the largest donations as a proportion of national income, with SR54 billion representing 1.9 percent of the Kingdom’s Gross National Income (GNI). The UN praised its generosity, as the King Salman Center for Relief and Humanitarian Aid has become an international charity, achieving regional stability and spreading political peace and safety.

In short, volunteering is an act of compassion, but also a powerful social and political catalyst for positive change. I see it as a sociopolitical vision because it allows for the integration of critical thinking, political awareness and youth engagement in every community it touches.

If you are a firm believer in a cause, then volunteering is an excellent way to show your support, while simultaneously being on the right side of the law. The Kingdom can inspire us, for its ever-growing efforts in volunteering deliver a message of peace and of constant positive change.

To utilize this power, there needs to be awareness of volunteerism across the region not only as a good deed, but also as a promoter of dialogue and critical thinking, especially in the educational field.

The curricula taught in schools have to match the challenges of the world we live in today. As the former secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, said during his concluding statement, at the Youth Volunteering and Dialogue Conference, “Volunteerism is a two-way street. Even as volunteers help generate positive change for others, their own lives are often transformed by the act of volunteering itself.”

Changing the world has to first start from within, and that is what volunteering is all about; it is about bringing out the best values for a noble cause.

Maha Sohail AlHomoud,

Dhahran

(The author is a mechanical engineering and economics student at the University of Washington, Seattle)


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