To Volunteer or Advocate?

How can a concerned, caring individual bring about change? Is it better to volunteer and help one-to-one or to advocate for change in a way that benefits whole groups of people?

Is it enough, for example, to volunteer at a food pantry that meets the needs of one person at a time, or to advocate for changing the food stamp program which serves millions, or better yet, funding job training, or education to equip people to become self-supporting?

Immediate relief vs. systemic change.

It’s a question that requires honest self-critique. I’ve observed for a number of years how individuals and organizations work to bring about change and I don’t see an easy resolution to the question. And it’s not a false dichotomy, though I wish it were. Individuals who volunteer to build a school in a remote village in Africa don’t necessarily move from individual engagement to support foreign assistance that addresses regional economic development. It’s a leap too far.

In my early years of working in this arena I thought it was possible to do exactly this, move people along a continuum from individual involvement on the ground to engaging in policy change. At the very least, I thought, it should be possible to get those who have seen with their own eyes how damaging poverty is to write a letter to request more funds for health care for the poor, or for economically strapped schools, or for foreign assistance for development initiatives. Not so.

It’s a jump some can’t make, or don’t want to, for a long list of reasons. It’s a move from the concrete to the complex, from one to many, from the personal to the impersonal. Some want to see immediate change as a result of a direct, hands-on relationship while others see policy change as the most effective means to create long-term change for whole groups of people.

I heard a polite but pointedly uncomfortable debate about this recently. One person who is ardently committed to advocacy claimed that some volunteers enjoy being in a superior position to those they help. They set up a donor-recipient relationship that is threatened when the "receiving" person becomes self-sufficient. Another, from an economically depressed community, said he wanted people from outside his community to stay away. They try to impose behaviors and solutions upon his community without understanding the obstacles they face nor the culture in which they live. Can’t even speak their language, he said. Better to stay away.

And so it went. Strongly felt opinions shot through the air like lightning bolts, landing with force and exploding preconceptions around the room. And they fell unresolved.

In fact, it’s not a new debate. It’s been around for years. The positions are predictable and more than a little tiresome after decades-long repetition. Worse, this is only an elementary starting point. When the debate takes form as competition for solutions pitting one against another, it becomes destructive. HIV/AIDS vs. malaria. Water development vs. education. Agriculture vs. economic empowerment. Thinking in polarities. Thinking small.

But there is value in the discussion, I think, because we’re at a hinge point in history and this dialogue is likely to shape both public policy and the fabric of our social community into the future. It’s more important now that people of goodwill find accommodation to many methods of change and to comprehensive solutions than to assert the correctness of a single way or a single problem.

The political dialogue we’ve had for the past several years hasn’t modeled a constructive approach to problem-solving. Rather, it’s demonstrated that a polarized, divided community isn’t healthy. If we learn anything from this, it’s that polarizing rhetoric and critical characterizations don’t yield constructive results. I don’t think creating divisions between people of good will about how they can best help bring about change is healthy either.

It should be possible for those with a common desire to make life better to agree that there are many pathways to the good.

In a commentary on the need for a strategic consensus on foreign assistance, Carol Peasley, President of the Center for Development and Population Activities, identifies how differences in priorities have fragmented approaches to health. The result is several "stovepipes" which result in a "mish-mash of vertical programs" that have actually had a negative effect on health systems in a variety of ways.

Peasley calls for bringing the stovepipes together and creating a truly global health approach to health. And she says it’s not enough for development organizations to provide direct services, they must also develop local capacity, yet another issue in this long line of change-making concerns.

What will be needed going forward is a give and take conversation among many actors and a spirit of concern that gives support for holistic, comprehensive problem-solving.

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