India is a democracy of the young – talented and restless in equal measure. Demographic dividend is the expected game changer for the country. By 2030, about 250 million of its youth will enter the job market and make significant contributions to domestic and global growth. But till they do, all that the society will have them focus on is becoming economically productive individuals.
Culturally, we look at demographic dividend in a narrow economic sense. This is missing the woods for the trees because it ignores the potential of our youth to shape a very different country. The young have empathy, intellect and idealism. They are the first ones on the street for a reason; history has shown repeatedly, the young love a cause.
We need to give them the opportunity to engage constructively with issues they hold dear. Our ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) targets can benefit if we enlist our youth in the development process. Building the culture of volunteering is a good way to do this. Volunteering, especially by the youth, is not a new idea. It’s ingrained in our religious beliefs and value system. However, volunteering as an act of charity and volunteering as a way to participate in development are not the same thing. There is merit in taking volunteering beyond the realms of charity into the space of social responsibility.
We need to work on making volunteering a way of life in India. This is reflected in the report The State of Youth Volunteering in India 2017 – brought out by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, Government of India. It finds that youth volunteers need the right environment to grow. Creating this environment will need collaborative action, the following strategies can be useful.
Sharpening the Definition of Volunteering
As a society, we lack a common understanding of volunteerism. Consequently, we often fail to see it as a strategic approach to accelerate the development process in the country. Volunteering should be seen at par with voting- one is a tool to participate in the political process and the other in the process of collaborative development.
We need mechanisms that make volunteering an integral part of growing up in India. This helps the cause of youth development as well. Engaging with multiple challenges faced by communities will be a learning for the young and help them better understand the socio-economic system. Volunteering is an opportunity to help solve developmental challenges, while building one’s own skills and worldview. Making volunteering mandatory in school and colleges, incentivising it through credit systems, or making it a criterion for recruitment can all help the cause of volunteering.
Creating an Enabling Ecosystem
Volunteers are often seen as free resources to be used largely for last mile service delivery. They are expected to be altruistic and want nothing in return of their time and commitment. This is counter-productive and defeats the very purpose of volunteering. We should invest in building an ecosystem that views volunteers as drivers of change instead of service delivery agents. We need to understand and address their aspirations and motivations better. This will help in setting up systems and processes that will build their capacity, match them to the right opportunity and also necessitate accountability on the part of both the volunteers and the organizations employing them.
Building the Capacity of Organisations to Absorb Volunteering
Organizations, especially those at the grassroots, need help to understand how to leverage volunteering to achieve their programme objectives. Most NGOs are the critical last link in the public service delivery chain. However, many of these grassroots organizations have crucial gaps that impact their ability to deliver optimally on ground. If young professionals were to volunteer their time and skills to fill these gaps, there could be a significant change at the ground level. NGOs need to be encouraged to include volunteers in their core activities, and volunteers need to take their assignment as seriously as they would a professional task.
Raise the Profile of Volunteering
Raising the profile of volunteering and voluntary work, can go a long way in attracting more youth towards it. Influencers from all walks of life should be the first movers, this will encourage others to follow suit. Voluntary work should be viewed at par with paid work and as an attractive parallel career. In fact, it is important that we look at introducing metrics to measure social impact and calculate the aggregated monetized value as a percentage of GDP. Awards and recognition from governments and employers would also motivate and encourage youth to come forward.
Volunteering can be a win-win situation for both the youth and the communities. India’s youth is ready and willing to become part of the country’s social and economic transformation. All that society has to do is point them to the cause.