Reviving the spirit of volunteerism


Sunday, March 17, 2013

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ANYONE who thought that recognition of the spirit and relevance of volunteerism in Jamaica's modern quest to build a nation and shape a society are things of the past, came in for a rude awakening from retired five-time PNP member of parliament for North West Manchester Dean Peart, who used the occasion of a recent $5,000-a-plate "appreciation ceremony" in Mandeville to launch an appeal for more involvement by the citizenry at the community level to help the country "attain its national goals".

The ceremony, which was hosted by Peart's immediate successor, parliamentarian Mr Mikael Phillips, saw Peart demonstrating "a clear need" for the revival of volunteerism as a tool of national development.

His call for the renaissance of the spirit of volunteerism in Jamaica should be welcomed for many reasons. First, it addresses the all too rare but pivotal role of private initiative from the base of the society in building and shaping the country.

An outstanding and praiseworthy example of this, for instance, is the unsolicited historic donation of $250,000 to the Kingston and St Andrew Golden Age Home by Jamaican farm workers employed to Gebbers Farms in the state of Washington, USA, "whose names", minister of labour and social security Derrick Kellier tells us, "are not traditionally associated with the gallery of great achievers of modern Jamaica".

In other words, these benefactors are from the traditional labouring class found at the base of the society.

Secondly, the call for the revival of volunteerism acknowledges the centrality of the ordinary people to the development process and the urgent need for our political leaders to mobilise their energies around productive participation in directing the country to a stable, mature, and civilised existence.

In this regard, Dean Peart has my commendation for being courageous enough in the present dispensation, in directing the attention of the society to this most critical area of activity and need in the overall strategy of development of the country.

It does not matter that there is abundant cynicism, elaborate plans for escape "to another country", and perverse engagement with individualism as reflected in the lyrics of far too many of our deejays.

Never mind also the presence of mean-spiritedness, utterly ugly aggression, the lack of compassion that inform how we relate to each other, and the prevalence of the "bhuttoo in a Benz" syndrome, which all amounts to an extraordinary coarsening of the national sensibilities.

In the long run of history, none of this ought to matter because their flip side suggests -- as does Peart's invocation -- that there is still belief in self and one's capability among Jamaicans, faith in the piece of "Rock" we are proud to call home, and the persistence of good, old-fashioned values that still beckon many thousands of us to a life of sharing, caring and love.

In saying all of this, however, the reader should not think me so gullible as not to recognise that we stand threatened with the total loss of these noble values in the face of rapid urbanisation (the population drift from 'country' to town), escalating poverty -- especially among the young -- and a burdensome existence for the majority population.

We are also threatened as a society by intolerable levels of unemployment and the alienation and disconnection of the younger generation from the patrimony they are meant to inherit, as well as by an evolving political system that too frequently goes off the rail of reason, argument and persuasion.

But the bigger picture is that the call for more involvement of the spirit of volunteerism recognises the accumulated achievements of the Jamaican people by their own efforts. In declaring that "The country has given us something and we have to give back", Dean Peart is seeking to point to the use of these achievements as the foundation for expansion and growth. And in this, he is correct.

For we should never forget that although Jamaicans have managed with outside assistance over many years, nothing was more important to our history of struggle and survival than the initiative of the Jamaican people themselves, armed with the will to survive and the determination to work so that they would.

It is in this light that the renewed emphasis on volunteerism is intended to get us to appreciate that we still have the capacity as a people to help ourselves on the road to building a base for the regeneration of more services. If we truly want consensus in this society, then let us start here, recognising that the consensus based on struggle and survival which helped to build Jamaica by making 1838, 1944 and 1962 possible, is still important in 2013 to contemporary efforts and future hopes.

This country, after all, has a vast network of voluntary institutions created by the people themselves as mutually reinforcing mechanisms of support in the efforts to build a nation. Caribbean historians will tell us that the early grasp of the importance of sharing and of co-operative endeavour to individual achievement marked off Jamaica from many other Caribbean territories. And the texture of village life, furthermore, presented our people with options that afforded them escape from extreme drudgery and rehumanised them with elements of choice.

I wish to suggest to readers of this newspaper, in furtherance of this argument, that it is this tradition of voluntary organisations evident in the friendly societies, co-operative saving arrangements through 'partner' schemes, thrift clubs, recreational groups, that prepared the ground for such later national efforts as trade unions, employers' associations, political parties, artistic groups and a host of other cultural and civic bodies.

Even national organisations like the Council of Voluntary Social Services, United Way, and Food For the Poor, can make bold claims of being inheritors of this tradition fed on the patience, dogged determination and commitment of a number of very special people.

And this is why any serious renewal of the spirit of volunteerism in Jamaica in the 21st century will demand no less than this quality of commitment, even while we are burdened with the disparity between doers and talkers, and the industrious workers and know-it-all critics to be found in the print and electronic media, and at the helm of several organisations.

As we begin the next 50 years of our Independence journey, Dean Peart has thrown out a tremendous challenge to the society and its leaders, young and old. But just how many of us will take up this challenge, I wonder?




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