Volunteering: An indicator for a healthy or a badly organised society?

The final workshop of the conference focused on the traditions, experience and problems of volunteering in our host country Hungary. Our guest speaker was Rita Galambos, director of the Hungarian Association of NGOs for Development and Humanitarian Aid (HAND/DIA), who has been managing NGOs for many years. The legacy of communist rule in Hungary was the overarching context for the discussion and the recent education proposal by the Hungarian government to force again the involvement of all youth in ‘volunteering’. The Government had just proposed that there should be 60 hours volunteering each, in 4 years, making this particular debate very timely. These compulsory laws are being opposed by HAND who had already appealed to the representatives from the other 27 EU states.

Ms. Galambos told us that when a civil society emerged after 1990 it was through volunteer societies, and NGOs were often seen as akin to socialist youth organisations. This brought into sharp focus the distinction between organised and individual volunteering. There was a fear that this large-scale organisation formed part of a disinterested political agenda that in fact failed to recognise bottom-up and informal volunteering. Ms. Galambos was not against giving youths the opportunity to volunteer once but said that in Hungary ‘schools and NGOs are unprepared. If kids can’t take their exams the NGOs will have to say that they’ve done the volunteering when they weren’t able to do it.’ She pointed out that badly managed projects often do worse than no projects.

Secondly, it was suggested that in periods of low employment, opportunities volunteering may be considered as a substitute for more education or as an internship scheme. This was generally disagreed upon and the creation of a civic literacy in volunteering, or ‘understanding what is going on in society’, was thought to be an important part.

In conclusion, there was a reaffirmation that the civil society can exist outside organized projects, and that because of this the boundaries of state interference should be looked upon with great caution.  Finally, volunteering should not be looked on as a primary substitute for employment or ‘skills gaining’ but rather as an act of societal engagement, with these other benefits to the individual. OpenForum 11 – BudapestV11 – Volunteering 2011