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They like their guess bags, nike shoes and daddys' shiny cars. They also like their hang out spots, their get togethers and late night parties. But outside this diaphanous bubble, some realize that danger is a daily reality and their country needs them more than their materialistic pangs.

Sitting around a table, designer sunglasses perched on their head, they discuss issues in fluent English. A group of affluent youngsters are brainstorming ideas for helping the internally displaced people — they are all volunteers.

Volunteering is often misconstrued as free labour undertaken by individuals as an act of generosity to benefit others. But the important notion behind volunteerism — that the doer of good becomes good himself — is seldom realised. Volunteerism is as old as civilization itself. It started when humans began living in groups as they needed to help each other to survive individually and as a community. That is how societies formed and civilizations grew.

Volunteerism isn't new to Pakistanis. Disasters, whether natural or man-made, have emboldened citizens to do more each time Pakistan is struck with mayhem. But the key to connecting the well healed to the reality most live in the country (other than their donations) is volunteering. Helping the poor from the confines of cushy sofas and paper cheques are certainly a commendable service, but imperialist and feudal mindsets that have kept the poor in a suppressive psychological cage can only alter over time if they decide to pull their sleeves and pants up to take a dip in the real world.

The process is two-way and rewarding. Helping those in needs instills a combination of humbleness, kindness as well as value for labour and time, attained only through interaction — packing left-over food at a restaurant or foregoing another pair of sneakers and instead buying essentials for someone who probably needs it. Collective support in turn encourages them to believe in humanity and a life worth living for.

Working shoulder to shoulder with other volunteers allows friendships, a network pool of new ideas and a sense of national identity. The barter trade as you may have noticed, is priceless. According to the Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy's statistics for 1998 even though 41 per cent of aggregate 'giving of people' is in the form of volunteering, more than 50 per cent of them volunteer individually instead of joining an organization. The impact of coordinated effort is thus widely absent.

The spirit to contribute and offer help does not lack among individuals, yet the guidance, training and aspect of collectivism is seen more rarely. The National Volunteer Movement, initiated in 2005, was essentially a good platform but not surprisingly a managerial disaster. At the beginning 15,000 volunteers were registered across the country and work was being done for the earthquake affected people. But other than a few minor initiatives, such as stalls with young attendants to guide and help older patients at hospitals, the NVM has largely been ineffective. This resulted in a slash of their budget from Rs50 million to Rs20 million. But, Federal Youth Minister Shahid Bhutto states that for the last two months his ministry has been attempting to rejuvenate the largely dormant organization. Since the start of military action against militants in Swat, Malakand and tribal areas that left thousands homeless, many individuals, private and some public rose to the occasion. NVM set up their camps and provided cooked food and electric water coolers to the homeless.

'I've been registered with NVM for 3 years now but this is the first time I've done field work,' says Rashid a 22-year-old volunteer. He worked with NVM in Swabi for one month and 18 days. He took IDPs to hospitals, worked in medical camps, helped old people to avoid waiting in long queues and in the evenings distributed food among them. Altruistic motivations were his predictable response but then he stated the personal benefits of volunteering with an organization. 'If we have to work we should do it through a proper system. It's a platform and then we get credit for it too,' he adds.

Eighteen-year-old Tipu agrees volunteering takes you a long way. 'It's about being hands on things and affecting change. You get real concrete tangible changes.' That's what which lead him to join hands with his cousin Murtaza to establish the Islamabad chapter of the volunteer organization Zimmedar Shehri (responsible citizens).

Murtaza Kumail Khwaja, a 22-year-old medical student and also one of the chairs of the Zimmedar Shehri, says that the youth needs to be more aware of issues and work collectively to make a change.' We wanted to show the youth that something needs to be done together instead of just sitting around. So we decided to start with something small.' They launched a campaign of garbage collection, as their Facebook group states their goal boldly, of creating a sense of social responsibility.

'Whether this is by convincing the neighbourhood imam (cleric) to stock books in his mosque for the young to read; whether by bringing young doctors to slums to treat the dwellers for free; whether by collecting food from an affluent house to fill the palms of the hungry down the street.' Considering the perennial needs for volunteers, institutionalising it would be the most effective way for the government to achieve the undying passion of patriotism.

If universities and schools make it mandatory for graduation with credits, the youth would be pushed out of boredom and negative activities towards a more enriching experience and constructive activities, Tipu concurs, saying, 'I'd rather be doing something for my country than smoking up.'

nosheenabbas@gmail.com

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