MAIN STORY: Kuenga Lhaden volunteered to be a microphone coordinator at an event held by Department of Youth and Sports. It was 2008. That was the beginning. She continues to volunteer for good cause and means to do so throughout her life.
Although voluntarism is not a new concept among the Bhutanese, it is a growing trend among young people. They feel the need to contribute in their small ways to effect positive change in the communities.
The Economic Value of Voluntary Work in Bhutan, a study conducted by National Statistics Bureau defines a voluntary work as the work and services performed willingly and without pay through a volunteer organisation.
Prepared by Karen Hayward and Ronald Colman, the study says that most of the voluntary work are motivated by generosity and care, and has a direct economic value.
“If these voluntary services were suddenly withdrawn, either the standard of living and quality of life would deteriorate, or else the government and private sector would have to provide for the loss services for pay,” says the study.
Volunteers play a critical role, among others, in addressing important issues such as environmental protection, rural-urban migration, youth related issues and elder care.
Kuenga Lhaden believes that voluntarism has helped her grow into a mentally and spiritually strong person.
“I became more confident, outspoken and generous with my services,” she said. “I can easily interact with strangers and make new friends.”
She volunteers for programmes that are conducted to address pressing youth issues.
“Through forums and events, youth issues such as drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and importance of using contraceptives could be brought to the limelight,” she said. “We can now openly discuss and create awareness about these issues, especially for young people.”
Kuenga Lhaden said that today some volunteer expect financial rewards. “That’s wrong. One should have the right approach towards voluntarism. What we give and take is love and care. That is the whole purpose of voluntarism.”
The tradition of voluntarism has long existed in Bhutanese society, albeit not in the way it is seen and understood today. It was the very foundation on which rested security and well-being of the communities.
Seventy-four-year-old Sangay Dorji from Mongar recalls how people in the communities helped each other in times of need. It was a way to build strong and sustainable social network against the backdrop what little people had in term of rural living and uncertainty that elements brought about.
“Whenever a neighbour wanted help with the construction of a house, cultivation of paddy fields, or helping the family of a deceased, people from the community would all be there to help,” Sangay Dorji said. “What is that if not act of voluntarism?”
What initially started out as helping one’s neighbour, many volunteers today have avenues to devote their time and free service through different civil society organisations (CSO) and agencies run by the volunteers.
The Youth Volunteers in Action (Y-VIA) is one such active network comprising of more than 3,000 young people from 10 dzongkhags. Bhutan Youth Development Fund initiated the programme with 30 members in 2003.
The programme coordinator of Y-VIA, Roma Pradhan, said the programme is rapidly gaining popularity among youth.
“Many young people are now aware of the importance of their involvement in nation building through voluntarism,” Roma Pradhan said. “It is one of the strongest networks of young people dedicated towards achieving Gross National Happiness through voluntarism and leadership.”
The Y-VIA groups aim to address issues that concern communities, people, culture and environment, among others.
Voluntarism is also deeply rooted in the traditional beliefs and practices. Buddhism teaches the practice of loving kindness and compassion towards all sentient beings, which is deeply ingrained in traditional Bhutanese culture.
Lama Shenphen Zangpo, a native of Swansea, the UK, who spent more than 28 years practicing and studying Buddhism in Taiwan and Japan, works with Bhutanese youth and substance abusers, teaching meditation and organising drug outreach programmes.
He said that voluntarism should be the natural way for humans to live. “In reality, our community, country or planet is just an extension of our family, and in the same way that we feel content and at peace when our family is at ease and doing well, so our sense of well-being will increase when our community is peaceful and clean and our planet free of pollution and war.”
And thus he added: “Voluntarism should not be forced, but conducted in the same way that the right hand will naturally reach out to the left if it is suffering. Basically, voluntarism should be rooted in an understanding of how everything is connected and relies on other things for its existence and wellbeing.”
People definitely need to reach out to others, but this does not have to be in a formal group event, such as picking up litter (as commendable as the acts are), said Lama Shenphen Zangpo. It should be an integral part of daily activities and rooted in wisdom of how the universe functions. “This way, our acts will be pro-active and vibrant, not passive and forced. As an example, instead of only volunteering to clean the streets once a year, we can also refrain from throwing garbage on the streets and from using disposable plastic bags.”
It would be good, said Lama Shenphen Zangpo, if schools and institutions can encourage people to volunteer. “But it should be done with the aim of generating kindness and compassion. If a society is driven by a will to reach out and help others, society’s problems will diminish and everyone will benefit. On the other hand, a society that is motivated only by personal gain and greed will have major problems.”
What is important is the motivation, the bedrock of voluntarism. As said Shantideva, an 8th century Buddhist monk: “All the suffering there is in this world arises from wishing our self to be happy. All the happiness there is in this world arises from wishing others to be happy.”
Tenzin Dorji, an active volunteer with the Community-based Scouting and Namzah Bank, said voluntarism is all about making a difference.
“At one point of time I was one of the persons who just stood there and complained hoping that someone might bring about a change,” he said. “Later, I realised that we had to change to begin with. That’s when I started volunteering.”
By Thinley Zangmo