[Outlook]Volunteering for change

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[Outlook]Volunteering for change

The JoongAng Ilbo and the volunteer works sector has held a volunteering festival every autumn for 15 years. This year, the festival was held in April. Organizers were worried that a smaller number of people would attend the event as the schedule changed for the first time, but those concerns proved to be groundless. Like events of the past, 11 cities and provinces participated as co-organizers and more than 1 million volunteer workers carried out aid work in social welfare centers, mountains and rivers across the country for one week.

In organizing the event, the volunteering organizations came up with the theme “A new type of communication channel with our neighbors ? volunteer work for multiple cultures.”

As families from different cultures are increasingly a part of our society, the volunteer workforce thought it should embrace such families. During the festival, many organizations and volunteer workers did their work in accordance with the theme.

This spring, many volunteering events have had the same theme ? embracing multiple cultures. In mid-May, the Korea BBB Association held an international walking event at the Cheonggye Stream in central Seoul and at Olympic Park.

Another organization also held a walking event to raise money for multicultural families. Two Saturdays ago, 200 expatriates, including staff from some 20 embassies in Seoul, walked along Cheonggye Stream with 3,000 Korean university students and citizens, wearing their national colors. The event was organized by five organizations that help children in Korea and overseas such as We Start and the Korean Pioneers in Overseas NGOs, or Kopion, and attended by as many as 13,000 citizens, including the first lady of Korea.

This series of volunteer workers’ events reflects the fact that volunteer work in Korea has become one of the major fields in a new era. As embracing multiple cultures and engaging other countries have become important issues of today, volunteer workers have set out to change the people’s perception of these issues. When oil spilled into the sea off Taean, some 1 million volunteer workers went to the area to provide aid. Organizations across the country gathered volunteer workers. In doing so, they felt fulfillment on an individual level and also testified to the importance of preserving our country and environment.

Korea’s volunteer workers’ organizations are capable of carrying out such tasks because volunteer work has spread across society and developed significantly over the past decade.

When the JoongAng Ilbo started its volunteer work campaign for the first time in early July 1994, only 10 percent of participants were adults. Now they make up nearly 25 percent. Countless people, including both youths and adults, take part in volunteer work across the country today.

Some 190 universities, companies and the media are showing interest in volunteer work as well. Across the country, 248 municipalities have volunteer work centers and executives in 30 conglomerates form groups of volunteer workers.

The government has also enacted a law on volunteer work and drawn up a five-year plan.

Thanks to such development, Korea’s volunteer works sector has produced the chairman of the International Association for Volunteer Effort. That means Korea has become one of the leading countries in the field.

However, there are problems, probably because volunteer work has developed rapidly over a short period.

Middle and high school students sometimes take part in such work involuntarily. Some people ask for payment or rewards for their work. Many people start taking part in volunteer work but quit soon after. Not many leaders of society participate in volunteer work.

Volunteer work is in principle led by the private sector. But the government’s support and efforts are also needed.

This is the first year of the government’s five-year basic plan, but a budget for the project hasn’t been prepared yet.

Another problem is that some volunteer work organizations seem to become pro-government organizations. The government interfered with personnel affairs in the social welfare organization Community Chest of Korea.

Some municipality heads explicitly attempt to steer their local volunteer work centers onto their sides. These are truly embarrassing incidents.

Now is the time to develop volunteer work not only in quantity but also in terms of quality. The private and public sector must cooperate to make Korea a leading country in the volunteering world.

*The writer is a senior member of the JoongAng Ilbo Institute for Civil Society.

by Lee Chang-ho
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