How India Can Tap Its Youth For Development

WOMEN SAFETYPhoto: UNV-UNDP India

Let's remove the constraints on volunteerism to harness their energy, endeavour and enthusiasm

Arun Sahadeo

India is projected to be the youngest nation in the world by 2020, and the 250 million people preparing to join India’s workforce by 2030, will be either its biggest asset or its biggest vulnerability. It is a truth universally acknowledged that India’s ambitious growth objectives can be realized only by harnessing the immense potential of its youth. Volunteerism is one way in which India can invest in its youth. It offers young people the promise of solving developmental challenges while also enhancing individual skills, social participation and inclusion.

The idea of engaging youth to meet India’s developmental challenges through youth volunteerism is not a new one. India has a rich history of volunteerism by way of religious commitments, philanthropy, mutual aid and value systems embedded within Indian society. But, as the new report – the State of Youth Volunteering in India 2017 – by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, Government of India, in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and United Nations Volunteers (UNV) finds, a supportive environment and opportunities are necessary to properly leverage the potential of youth volunteers.

India has made significant progress towards meeting the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, but much yet remains to be done. By effectively engaging existing volunteers and mobilizing new ones in concerted action to engage with communities that are often difficult to reach, India can plug some of the gaps between policy and implementation.

The Government of India has demonstrated its commitment to ensuring that youth volunteers are a part of the conversation and action in meeting India’s development goals. It formulated the first National Youth Policy during the seventh five year plan and launched the National Service Scheme (NSS) and Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan (NYKS), both volunteer-based programmes that now have a base of almost 3.6 million volunteers and 125,000  youth clubs across the country, respectively. However, despite the interest in understanding and encouraging volunteerism in India, there are several factors that need to be addressed so that volunteerism benefits the volunteers themselves – and, of course, the larger society -- in ways that are sustainable and equitable.

For instance, the report finds that there is a lack of a common understanding about what constitutes volunteerism, which could lead to a lack of clarity on how volunteering can be a means to meeting the SDGs within the local and national context. Several organizations continue to see volunteers as “free resources” or a cheaper method of delivering aid/ development services; their primary motivation is expected to be altruism. Investment in volunteers, therefore, whether in terms of orientation, community acceptance, priority-matching, financial reimbursement or skill development can be regarded as less important, often resulting in less than positive experiences for both the volunteer and the organization. The report also found that there is limited discussion on volunteer safety and well-being, particularly in conflict or crisis settings. Also, volunteers occasionally feel undervalued because they believe that the general public remains unaware of the important nature of their work, which serves as a barrier in attracting new volunteers. 

The report makes several recommendations to address these concerns. While India’s Youth Policy-2014 draws attention to volunteerism in the context of youth and put in place a framework for promoting youth development, the time is now to focus on creating  an ecosystem that could facilitate and enable volunteerting, as well as lay down guidelines for volunteer protection. Also, volunteers must be seen as genuine partners in development who can act as drivers of change rather than just as deliverers of services. If their aspirations were better understood, they could be more easily drafted to sign up on volunteering platforms. For example, the report found that many youth volunteers feel shortchanged with regard to reimbursement for their expenses, and with provisions made for their health. They also often believed that they were not using their skills to their full potential and were not offered leadership roles. The organizations where they worked, however, felt that they could not use volunteers for core activities as they were unreliable at times.

These challenges clearly indicate a mismatch of expectations between organizations and volunteers. It is imperative, then, that organizations develop a process where expectations are set, priorities are matched and the organization, the volunteer and the communities they work with can all benefit.

To create a culture of volunteerism, there is also a need to raise the profile of volunteers and voluntary work. Influencers such as the government, celebrities and the media must highlight the role and contributions of volunteers and their significance. It must be emphasized that voluntary work and careers in the sustainable development sector are as important as careers in the corporate sector, and communicate that voluntary work is also linked to honour and prestige.

Volunteering can deliver remarkable benefits for both volunteers and communities. India’s youth are ready and willing to become part of the country’s social and economic transformation. We must remove the constraints that restrain volunteerism, and capitalize on their energy, endeavour and enthusiasm to build a better tomorrow for us all.

The writer is Programme Officer, UNV India. The State of Youth Volunteering in India 2017 report can be found here.

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