[Viewpoint]Volunteer service blues

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[Viewpoint]Volunteer service blues

An insider of a volunteer service group lamented when he heard the news last week that U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has asked for citizen help for the grand journey to a new America and was preparing a plan to support volunteer programs.

“How can the two countries be more different when the new [Obama] administration comes in?” the insider asked. “In the United States, the new administration is eager to promote volunteer national service programs even before the inauguration, but the Korean government is abolishing an existing volunteer committee.”

On May 27, [Korea’s] new administration decided to close all government committees at once, including the volunteer promotion committee under the prime minister’s office that deliberated on the national five-year plan. At the launch of AmeriCorps on Sept. 12, 1994, Senator Edward Kennedy said that American youths made changes at crucial moments in the ’60s and ’70s. “Let’s make a difference,” he said in front of 600 AmeriCorps recruits at the Boston Common in downtown Boston.

At the same time, over 20,000 AmeriCorps recruits were sworn in around the country, including those gathered at the White House Rose Garden, where President Bill Clinton spoke.

The incoming Barack Obama administration is calling on young American volunteers who stood up for reconstruction of the country at every past historical moment. The president-elect wants to promote national service corps programs such as the Classroom Corps for under-served schools, a Health Corps, Clean Energy Corps and Veterans Corps.

Historically, service programs like these have been initiated under Democratic administrations. The origin is the Civilian Conservation Corps, CCC, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt established during the Great Depression in the 1930s.

The program mobilized 3 million young men over nine years to work on forest conservation in national and state parks around the country.

The CCC camps provided various educational opportunities, and each participant received $30 per month. The participant could keep $5 for himself and was required to send $25 to family. The beautiful American national parks such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the George Washington National Forest in Virginia are products of the CCC.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps, and in 1964 Lyndon B. Johnson started VISTA, Volunteers in Service to America, and RSVP, the Retired Senior Volunteer Program. Bill Clinton established AmeriCorps in 1993.

Republican administrations also recognized the effectiveness of national volunteer service programs, and President George W. Bush has championed legislation allowing more public, private and NGO groups to participate in national service projects.

Moreover, he created a federal commission for which the president personally obtains congressional approval for executive appointments to such agencies.

The American national service programs influenced Great Britain. While the British system is different from its American counterpart, the government is providing enormous budgets for volunteers and national service organizations to lead active community movements.

The policy that began in 1998 was one of the campaign promises of former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

When will the Korean chief executive be interested in volunteer service? Will the president ever initiate national reconstruction by offering the volunteers a chance to participate and encourage us to be proud?

The Lee Myung-bak Administration is not just closing the committees which included 10 government agencies and an equal number of civilian groups. Lately, the volunteer services groups are protesting as a bill to reduce their functions into the government’s agency-level programs has been announced.

The government is going the opposite direction that developed nations have taken that embrace and value volunteer service for the nation.

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

by Lee Chang-ho
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