Margarita Barrientos lives in the shantytown Los Pilletones on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. She has 12 children and her husband lost his arm in an accident. They opened a soup kitchen that daily feeds 1,600 children. Her husband planted gardens that provide vegetables for the soup kitchen. They are Latin American volunteers. An outstanding but isolated case? Not at all.
In various developed countries, volunteers - those who do things for others - generate 5% of gross domestic product (GDP) in social goods and services. In Western Europe, between revenue and unpaid work, these activities generated over $500,000 in 1995; in the US, nearly $675,000; and in Japan $282,000 (according to date from John Hopkins University). In Israel, a global leader of volunteerism, volunteer activities generated nearly 8% of GDP.
In these countries, volunteerism is a highly esteemed activity. It is viewed with great respect, and is paid tribute by presidents and prime ministers. It is part of daily life. In the US, one hundred companies recently signed on to a program that supports community volunteer efforts of its three million employees.
Volunteerism is not generated spontaneously. There are public organisations that actively promote volunteer activity through financial concessions, institutional backing, significant subsidies, and, above all else, its place within the system of education.
The Case of Latin America
In Israel, part of a nine-year-old child education is to help younger children recently emigrated or with disabilities. Big Brother, an Israeli program internationally funded and successfully replicated by the Ministry of Education in the city of Buenos Aires as well as by Chilean institutions, enables first-year university students to tutor children in low-income neighbourhoods, supporting their studies and counselling them. According to evaluations of the program, they have effected a surprising improvement of academic achievement.
Studies conducted in the US show that young volunteers who become active in community service while in high school are stimulated by such organisations. Several volunteer organisations have become world leaders of global causes - among them, Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Oxfam, and Doctors Without Borders - while some have even received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Latin America has enormous voluntary potential that could significantly contribute to the improvement of the region's serious social obstacles. 60% of children here live below the poverty line, 18% of births are not attended by health staff, 20% of youth are unemployed, and the average child spends 5.2 years in school. In a democracy, the burden of responsibility for guaranteeing the basic rights of citizens - including access to nutrition, health, education and employment - lies primarily with public institutions. Volunteerism can complement these institutions, extending their scope and improving their transparency and effectiveness. This is social capital in action.
The support for voluntary institutions, and the incentives to grow this invaluable social capital are tenuous, though civil society organisations generate over 2.5% of the GDP of Argentina and Peru, among others. Many of these organisations have earned renown and some of the highest levels of public confidence: Caritas, AMIA and Red Solidario in Argentina; Comunidade Solidaria in Brazil; Fe y Alegria in the Andean region; El Hogar de Cristo in Chile; and Casa Alianza in Central America. These organisations illustrate the enormous potential of Latin America, as does the loud echo of volunteerism that has sustained the program Zero Hunger (Hambre Cero) in Brazil, and the overwhelming response (over 5,000 participants and 900 organizations in 34 countries) to the regional conference on volunteerism convoked last May in Santiago by the government of Chile and the Inter-American Initiative on Social Capital, Ethics and Development of the IDB.
This interest comes as no surprise. In stark contradiction of the cold image of humanity as homo economicus painted by conventional economics textbooks, volunteering is motivated neither by economic self-interest nor by power. It is a product of ethical values, and of conscience.
Good for your health
In a questionnaire as to why people in Peru volunteer, the most common responses were the desire to help others and to feel better as a person (University of the Pacific). Latin American cultural foundations are rich in these ethical values. In the Judeo-Christian tradition and indigenous cultures that form the cultural tapestry of the region, the mandate to help others is basic. The Bible states that it is simply the right way to live. It further emphasizes that in reality, he who helps others is also helping himself. And contemporary research seems to corroborate. In a recent article, Luis Rojas Marcos, Director of New York Department of Sanitation and Public Health, shows that volunteers have less anxiety, sleep better, suffer less from stress and have better overall health. He concludes: volunteering is good for your health.
Apart from these concrete benefits, volunteerism within regions like Latin America has another distinctive value. In the face of growing individualism and indifference toward the struggle of poverty, it sends the message that we are all responsible for one another. In the face of the suffering of children, women, the elderly and the disadvantaged, it says that we can no longer postpone action, that we must act now as Margarita Barrientos did. It is time to admire, support through every possible avenue, and implement this ethical capital that can be a pillar in the reconstruction of Latin America.
Bernardo Kliksberg is Chief of the Inter-American Initiative on Social Capital, Ethics and Development at the IDB. His most recent publication is Toward an Economic Model with a Human Face.
This article first appeared on the iave website