Taking People out of Boxes and Categories Voluntary service and social cohesion

Traditionally, the ‘haves’ have helped the ‘have-nots’ through philanthropic volunteering. Of late, however, a surprising new trend has come to the fore: through voluntary service, increasing numbers of excluded people are participating in programmes that break new ground in voluntary service. In the process they may be enhancing social cohesion. Drawing on a discussion note prepared for the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) Programme, Gillette cites three case studies from the survey material gathered by UNV: a centre for disabled people in Cambodia run by a UN volunteer from the Philippines; a US programme that offers detainees in prisons the opportunity to serve as firemen with teams of local volunteers; and a project organised by the European Voluntary Service (EVS) programme at the end of the 1990s, under which intra-European exchanges took place involving young volunteers who were themselves subject to several kinds of exclusion.

Whilst acknowledging the difficulties of involving the excluded in voluntary service, Gillette identifies a number of impacts that could enhance social cohesion: firstly the empowerment of people previously excluded from society; secondly the sense of self-worth gained by these participants; and thirdly, a commitment to change which enabled the participants to initiate other ventures after the service experience. The chapter concludes by citing a range of conditions that are necessary to facilitate voluntary service by excluded people, and outlines a number of issues which require further research and development if this approach is to foster meaningful social cohesion in the long term.

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