Saturday, 07 May 2011 12:30

Volunteers - repair mechanism for an overstretched welfare state?

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Where should the welfare state end and the third sector begin? It's a question being asked across Europe as governments make cutbacks to beat the recession - and it's a question that casts something of shadow over volunteering. Are volunteers being exploited to fill the gaps in state provision?

Delegates at the Citizens' Convention all agreed that volunteering is not just a "repair mechanism" for the welfare state, but something that satisfies a human desire to help others and belong to a community. The personal benefits of volunteering are undeniable, and many of those I spoke to said they would still be involved in the same activities even if their country had unlimited funds for welfare.

But what about when governments openly ask the third sector to bear the burden of what has previously been the responsibility of the state? The UK government, for example, has introduced the concept of a "big society", but this is coupled with huge reductions in state funding for the arts, charities and other NGOs. This means that volunteers are dealt a double blow: greater responsiblity and less support.

The relationship between the state and volunteers has always been a complex one - and there was much heated debate about how integrated or separate these two things should be. Those wishing to make volunteering a more unified, sustainable movement expressed the need for regulation, including a legal framework to protect the rights of volunteers, and training to provide necessary skills. But concerns were raised that too much state involvement can lead to volunteers having to compromise their original aims in order to get funding. It was even suggested that avoiding a welfare-dependent state through volunteering was "empowering". 

So between the need for state support and the desire to maintain a sense of independence lies an inescapable confict for volunteers. Where would you draw the line?

Last modified on Monday, 09 May 2011 06:58
Lauren Davis

Lauren Davis, 23, studied English at Oxford and has written for free speech organisation Index on Censorship. Now a trainee reporter with the Press Association in Newcastle, she will be looking at stories affecting freedom of expression and freedom of thought across Europe.

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