Youth volunteers

May 02 2020

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The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.
The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.

THE Corona Relief Tiger Force is set to begin assisting the police and district administrations in relief efforts from today. The initiative has been under discussion for some time. Early last month, the prime minister told senior party members that it presents a ‘fantastic opportunity’ to ‘secure constituencies’. On the other hand, the opposition has summarily rejected the CRTF. But one cannot single out Imran Khan. Reports from across the country, including Sindh, suggest that ‘volunteers’ of a certain kind are influencing the distribution of cash and rations. In Punjab, the PPP is reported to have formed a ‘peoples force’ to assist its members and sympathisers in welfare and awareness-raising efforts. Nonetheless, the need for a well-organised and politically neutral volunteer force remains essential.

According to the UN’s State of World’s Volunteerism Report, 2018, Pakistan only has about 440,000 volunteers compared to India’s 5.5 million, Turkey’s 1.6m, Iran’s 1.01m, and the US’ 14.04m. Some Indian programmes, like the National Service Scheme and Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan, have a decades-long record of engaging college and university students as well as rural youth. Many volunteer organisations have overseas programmes to provide motivated youth with challenging assignments, such as UN Volunteers services in Ebola-stricken countries a few years ago. Learning from such examples, our government can frame a volunteer service policy in which civil society organisations step forward to fill critical gaps. With minimum and non-intrusive regulation, the government can help shape a credible platform to provide youth with training and experience in public service.

Pakistan’s youth can benefit from serving others.

Many areas need tending to. Educational life is at a standstill. As things stand, online learning seems to be the current choice. A significant task is to ensure connectivity for all students. While institutions work on creating new systems, content and delivery modes, this effort needs to be supported by developing digital platforms in underprivileged areas, follow-ups with institutions over administrative, technological and other arrangements. By taking the HEC and university managements on board, students in computer science, software engineering and related fields can be inducted to provide support wherever needed. The pandemic has also reinforced the need for volunteers with paramedical training. The effectiveness of tele-health services can be improved with input from volunteers with relevant backgrounds.

The challenges will not end with the pandemic. A massive rehabilitation effort will be required. In many economic activities, properly inducted cadres of volunteers can act as a catalyst. Engineering students can help extend cheap, user-friendly gadgets based on communities’ needs. Many villages can benefit from solar energy with devices produced by local artisans trained by vocational authorities along with electrical engineering students. Business students can help local enterprises with skills enhancement, marketing, micro-credit, etc. Social sciences students can train community cadres in mobilisation and collective bargaining. Architecture students can lead the design and construction of community-run facilities, and identify dangerous structures to building control authorities.

By engaging in volunteer work, the youth will also benefit in many ways. By exploring ways of using their formal education for social development, they can gain real insight into society and its most prevalent issues, and solve problems by identifying pertinent solutions. When strategic and social circumstances permit, their outreach can stretch to an inter-district, inter-provincial or even regional scale.

The state apparatus only needs take a few preparatory measures to catalyse this, such as mobilising youth hostel facilities, shoring up watch-and-ward mechanisms, securing transport to targeted areas and providing basic assistance. A rational approach could be to begin with available institutional options. The Ehsaas programme, Boy Scouts and Girls Guides, Pakistan Red Crescent Society and other organisations can be invited to launch pilot schemes. In July 2019, a Volunteer Management System was launched by PRCS in association with the World Food Programme in order to develop a volunteer database, identify training needs, and mobilise them to help in national and regional emergencies.

It may be noted that public bodies have regular budget allocations that are often inefficiently utilised. The corporate sector can be included to lend financial and logistical assistance as part of their CSR programmes. Suitable modifications can be made to the education system to give credit for volunteer hours. Perhaps no work in life could be as self-satisfying for youth as service to humanity.

The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.

Published in Dawn, May 2nd, 2020