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You're reading: Neal Walker: Volunteering in Ukraine on par with EU, but needs support from the government

The conflict in the east carries all of the traditionally tragic results of war: people displaced, social budget diverted to defense, psychological impact on citizens, etc. In addition, the Government must rapidly take the actions necessary to meet the demands of citizens for accountable, transparent and effective Governance.

How do we define success, how do we achieve it, against such challenges? To begin with, Ukrainian citizens must aspire and work to live in a peaceful, prosperous and united Ukraine. Towards such an objective, Government alone cannot succeed. Citizens must step forward, must volunteer their services in any way they are able to do so, in order to create the society citizens want. This is what volunteerism is all about: taking personal action where you, as a citizen, perceive a need, and doing what you can do, as an individual.

Reflecting on the challenge, I thought it worthwhile to highlight the substantive importance of volunteerism in the national context of Ukraine.

Volunteers prepare bags of potatoes at a Red Cross center before distributing them to citizens in the key southeastern port city of Mariupol, on Sept. 8, 2014.

First, more volunteers! The survey supported by the United Nations, the Government and Civil Society organizations highlights the fact that Ukraine is historically and culturally rich in volunteerism. That is great, but how does volunteerism in Ukraine compare to other countries? Approximately 23 percent of Ukrainians surveyed have volunteer experience, the same rate for the European Union as a whole.

However, many countries have higher volunteer rates. In Canada and the United Kingdom, 47 percent and 41 percent of the population, respectively, volunteer regularly. In Australia, Denmark, Finland and Germany, between 30 percent and 39 percent of the population do voluntary work. The circumstances in Ukraine suggest we urgently consider ways to increase volunteerism.

Let’s highlight the fact that volunteerism strengthens the well- being of people. Not surprisingly, studies document that people who volunteer are happier and they live longer lives. Why is this so? Volunteerism brings out our compassion and gives a deep sense of connectedness.

I am confident, based on my personal experience, that volunteerism also contributes to peace and tolerance. Interestingly, 80 percent of those surveyed in Ukraine felt the same way! Promoting peace and tolerance constitute crucial objectives, right now, for every Ukrainian.

Ukrainian army soldier Oleg Berezovsky, 24, who lost his both hands during the armed clash of army forces with Kremlin-backed separatists in Donetsk Oblast, says he never expected so much moral and material help from volunteers in the Kyiv Military Hospital.

Let us recognize then, the importance of volunteerism: a powerful engine that can contribute effectively to personal well-being and national objectives of unity, peace and tolerance.

Third, we need the proper legislative and legal framework for volunteerism to be successful. I would like to encourage the newly inaugurated Verkhovna Rada to support the bill on amendments to the existing Law “On Volunteering Activity” which was drafted by civil society organizations. The country desperately needs transparent criteria and procedures regarding tax exemption for volunteering activity. A relatively innovative idea in Ukraine is SMS-based charity fundraising which should also be considered for legislative tax relief. 

Fourth, volunteerism is mostly invisible in GDP measures but is a powerful economic force. In Canada, volunteering and direct giving had a combined economic value of 3.7% of GDP in 2010. In monetary terms, Canadians volunteered for an equivalent of $51 billion in unpaid hours. Wow: can you imagine the equivalent impact in Ukraine, in this time of economic crisis?

Volunteers, members of the so-called “Babushka Battalion” walk to the Military Hospital in Kyiv bringing clothes and homemade food for the wounded soldiers on Aug. 13.

I firmly believe that volunteerism:

Is a powerful means of engaging people in the development of their communities;

It strengthens individual well-being, peace, tolerance and national unity;

Adds up to much more than the contribution of the individual that volunteers.

In conclusion, the underlying values of volunteerism are crucial to moving Ukraine towards a better and more sustainable future. In the national circumstances, political will and support from the international community will not be sufficient for successful transformation of the country: people must not only participate in but also voluntarily lead the change.

Neal Walker is the Resident Coordinator for the United Nations in Ukraine.

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