Volunteers and the State

A fourth area of concern running through the chapters of this book involves the ambivalent relationship between the NGO sector and the state. As Xu points out, the state benefits from the social services provided by volunteers, but governments in autocratic countries regard political and advocacy volunteering “as a challenge to their authority.” Autocratic governments therefore are motivated to encourage social services volunteering and limit and control political volunteering, and this is exactly the policy followed by China. The reality on the ground is of course much more complicated than this simple dichotomy, and Xu shows how different layers of the Chinese government bureaucracy regulate nonprofits in different ways. Chinese government agencies have also attempted to employ volunteers directly, often with poor results. While the Chinese government has succeeded in mobilizing volunteers for direct services and maintained control of the political activities of nonprofits, their fear of a strong nonprofit sector has limited the scope and success of volunteers in China.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the state plays a dominant role in regulating nonprofits and volunteers, again with detrimental effects. In Mozambique, local officials can make it impossible for nonprofits to operate in an area if they perceive these nonprofits as politically threatening. In Kenya, volunteer positions have become yet another public good that is contested by tribe-based political factions. The expression “harambee,” a Swahili term meaning “let us all pull together” that has achieved world fame as an expression of a traditional African value, has become politicized and corrupted. Today in Kenya some use “harambee” in its original sense of cooperation or as a symbol to motivate formal volunteering, but others use it as a fundraising slogan or even a euphemism for a type of bribery (Hacker, Picken, and Lewis).

Equally politicized in sub-Saharan Africa is role of national youth service programs. At best, these programs help students learn job skills, build civic pride, and provide the community with useful labor. At times, however, these programs have become overly politicized, with the worst case being Malawi, in which the youth participants became the President’s “private army” and engaged in “the surveillance and armed intimidation of opposition” (Delaney and Perrold). On the other hand, transnational youth exchanges have managed to avoid politicization and foster feelings of African unity among volunteers and community members (Mati).

In countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the political legacy of communist government still has a dampening effect on volunteering. In the case of Armenia (Paturyan and Gevorgyan), communist governments tried to control all social life and placed all social organization and provision of welfare services under the state. Even worse, communist governments discredited volunteering by applying the term to forced labor on government projects. Despite this poor history, volunteering rates in Armenia 25 years after the fall of communism are now almost as high as volunteering rates in Western Europe. Participation is high across generations, with the exception of the elderly, indicating that the increase in volunteering is not simply the result of increased volunteering among the young who were not affected by Soviet rule. Further research is much needed on the important topic of volunteering in formerly Soviet and Eastern Bloc countries.

In Turkey, the state has tried to coopt and control nonprofits that are ideologically in affinity with the government and ban or harass those that oppose it. What makes Turkey different from most countries of sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet Union is that control of the government has changed hands numerous times through the decades, so that nonprofit organizations can find themselves falling from favor after an election or a coup. State dominance of the nonprofit sector has also “caused people in Turkey to lose their trust and belief in the positive functions of organizations, leading them to think that only the state can make changes and provide certain services” (Akboga).

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