[Viewpoint]Wrong about volunteerism

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[Viewpoint]Wrong about volunteerism

Exactly one year ago, a massive oil spill in the pristine sea off the coast of Taean, South Chungcheong, covered the area in despair. The whole country worried that the black disaster that suffocated the area’s ecosystem would last for more than ten years. But the Taean beaches have miraculously recovered, thanks to the hard work and efforts of over 1 million volunteers. All beaches in the area were open last summer, and even the seagulls that disappeared last year are coming back in flocks. The “Taean Miracle” - the revival of the beautiful Taean sea - deserves to go down in the history of volunteer work as a monumental accomplishment, not just in Korea but in the whole world. South Chungcheong Province decided to invite 10,000 volunteers from around the nation back to Taean and hold an event to repay their kindness on Friday, International Volunteers Day. The intention is to look back on the accomplishments of the joint volunteer work of the private and the government sectors one year after the oil spill and renew the resolve for national participation in volunteer service.

Nowadays, it’s no exaggeration to emphasize the significance of volunteer service. The volunteer sector plays an important role at the national level as an axis of the “new governance,” together with the government and business corporations, because it functions not only as a social safety net but also as a catalyst for national integration.

The international economy is rapidly shrinking because of the ongoing financial crisis that started in the United States. The cold financial winds that have arrived simultaneously with cold winter is freezing the hearts of all people. At a time when cold winds blow like this, we need the wisdom of living together, more than ever and desperately. This is a time when the warm hearts sharing in the spirit of volunteer service are desperately needed.

The holding of the first anniversary events at Taean at a time like this is very important and significant. It will be meaningful because the people can renew the spirit of sharing that they experienced when they worked hard to remove the oil slick. However, they say President Lee Myung-bak will not be able to attend the event. The prime minister will attend instead. The president probably has a busy schedule, but as a worker involved with volunteers, I must say it is a pity.

It is not just the president who will be missing. It seems it will not be easy to see leading politicians from both the governing and the opposition parties at the Taean event. Considering how they frequented Taean during the presidential campaign last year and the general elections and rolled up their sleeves to work, one might think they would come even if they were not invited; but unfortunately, this is not the case.

Spreading the spirit of volunteering is most effective when social leaders take the initiative and set an example. This is what the expression “noblesse oblige” means. It is also the road to national integration, one of the main national goals of the current administration. This is the reason why U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has placed importance on volunteering, even before his inauguration.

From his experience of helping poor people in the slums of Chicago he realized that promoting and strengthening volunteer work was necessary to overcome the current financial crisis.

However, the Korean government has a different attitude. The government has not only failed to promote volunteer work but it has even decided to discard the joint government and civilian volunteer promotion committee under the prime minister’s office. Instead, the Ministry of Public Administration and Security is expected to assume the responsibility.

Volunteering is not something people do because they are ordered to, or because they want compensation in return. Volunteering is serving and working out of one’s own free will. It is the virtue of mature citizens and an example of the voluntary happiness?promotion civic movement.

Therefore, it is a big mistake to think the volunteer service movement can be led by the government. If volunteer work is led by the government, the pure civilian volunteer spirit will be damaged.

I urge the government to establish a proper volunteer promotion policy in time for the first anniversary of the Taean Miracle.

*The writer is president of the Korea Forum of Volunteerism. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Je-hoon

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