Have we any volunteers?


The answer is yes, as it turns out. Contrary to popular perception, we got involved in our communities during the boom, and are now helping out in even greater numbers

AT THE HEIGHT of the economic boom, siren voices wailed that rampant materialism and selfishness were unravelling tight-knit community ties. The argument went something like this: bleary-eyed citizens who were working longer hours and battling mind-numbing traffic jams had barely enough time to salute their neighbours, never mind get involved in the community.

Inevitably, politicians scrambled to be seen to be doing something to arrest the perceived decline. Bertie Ahern set up a task force on active citizenship and invited Harvard sociologist Prof Robert Putnam to address the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party on the collapse of civic values in the US. President McAleese warned that the “cul-de-sac of complacent consumerism” could undermine our values.

Ireland, it seemed, was looking through a glass darkly at a country where community spirit and civic engagement was on the wane.

Until this week, that is. In the unadorned language of a new Central Statistics Office (CSO) report on community attachment and social networks this week, the message was clear: community spirit is alive and well after all.

The figures, based on 2006 data, are startling. Just under a quarter of the population said they took part in unpaid charitable work, while the vast majority were in regular contact with their neighbours. Some two-thirds of people believed that most people could be trusted; and four out of five felt that people in their neighbourhood tried to be helpful most of the time. Even in Dublin, at the epicentre of what many feared was a collapse in community values, the figures are encouraging. People living in the capital are the most likely to “take action to solve a problem” (13 per cent), and the majority (70 per cent) talk to a neighbour at least once a week.

Surprisingly, at a time of a general decrease in voter participation, the vast majority feel empowered to change the world around them. Eighty-five per cent agreed that, by working together, people in their neighbourhood can influence decisions that affect them.

And what about social isolation and the erosion of support networks? There’s not much sign of that either. More than half of the population had at least six people whom they could turn to in time of need, while only 2 per cent stated that they had nobody to ask for help.

But there are, of course, areas of concern. Most people who get involved in the community tend to be part of middle Ireland, better-educated home-owners enjoying a comfortable income. The figures only hint at social problems affecting large sections of the population. They show that older people are particularly vulnerable in terms of isolation, as are those who experience poor health and find themselves out of work. For example, those in the oldest age group (over-75s), had the lowest levels of support, with 29 per cent reporting that they had fewer than three people whom they could call on in time of need.

Overall, though, the message was overwhelmingly positive. In the middle of yet another week of dire economic forecasts and doom-mongering, it was that rarest of things: a good news story. It showed that we haven’t lost touch, after all, with the meitheal culture that has so defined our sense of Irishness.

SO WERE WE all hopelessly wrong, blinded by a sense that somehow the boom was just too good to be true? The reality is that volunteerism was never truly in decline; it’s just that the way people were prepared to give was changing, according to those on the frontline of community work, such as Elaine Bradley, chief executive of Volunteering Ireland.

“The impetus to give was still there,” she says. “People had less time on their hands but were willing to give. That’s why initiatives like the Niall Mellon Township Trust took off: it was one-off, time-bound and used people’s skills.”

She says that skilled professionals wanted to give their expertise, but that voluntary organisations lagged behind the times, content to have people “shaking buckets” for donations or filling in as a receptionist for a few hours.

Today, community and voluntary groups have a new problem: coping with numbers. Thousands of people who are finding themselves out of work are creating a volunteer boom in a bust economy. Volunteer Centres Ireland, an agency which co-ordinates volunteering organisations and matches people to available positions, says it is inundated with people seeking to give their time. Last year, numbers doubled from around 3,700 to 7,500.

Yvonne McKenna, the agency’s chief executive, says volunteering is allowing thousands of people to stay busy, build up their self-esteem and develop their skills. “It benefits individual volunteers as well as the wider community,” she says. “Now, more than ever, it is vital that Ireland responds to the desire by its citizens to become active in their community.”

The reasons people give up their time vary. Keith O’Neill (41) is one of an estimated 200,000-plus volunteers involved with the GAA. He’s a father of two, an engineer, and a trainer of under-age teams at St Brigid’s GAA club, which serves the rapidly growing communities of Blanchardstown and Castleknock.

He says the big incentive is seeing young people develop sporting and social skills over time. “There’s a real pride in seeing young people coming up from the grassroots, playing the game the way it should be played,” he says. “Everyone is involved from all walks of life, from dockers to doctors. There’s room for every kind of volunteer.”

Dylan Garbutt, 16, is a youth work volunteer with the Lourdes Youth and Community Service in Dublin’s north inner city. He’s been helping out for the past three years, twice a week, organising trips and activities for youngsters aged between 10 and 13.

“I wanted to give something back. There’s a stereotype that people my age aren’t into volunteering, but my friends say to me ‘fair play’,” says Garbutt, from Summerhill, a mostly disadvantaged area. “Young people can get into trouble around here, with stuff like drugs, vandalism, joyriding. But it’s not just getting young people off the street, it’s teaching them new skills. It could be swimming, kayaking, first aid, cooking.” He says it’s changed him too. “I get a lot of praise in school now. It’s changed my attitude, I’m much more reasonable . . . I think I’d like to go to college and become a full-time youth worker.”

Walter Walsh (65) is one of almost 250 volunteers at Our Lady’s Hospice in Harold’s Cross and a smaller unit in Blackrock, Dublin. He began to volunteer after his wife, Maureen, died at the hospice around 20 years ago.

“The hospice has a magnetic thing about it, it draws you back,” he says. “You get great fulfilment out of giving something back.”

The volunteers, ranging in age from 18 to 82, do everything from organising fundraisers to supporting medical staff or driving patients to appointments. Some give a few hours a week, others work almost full days.

GIVEN OUR TRADITION of giving, many assume that the Irish are better at volunteering their time than others. But while international comparisons are difficult, studies by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in recent years indicate that we’re fairly average.

For all the sunny news about community spirit, there are stormclouds on the horizon. Cuts in public funding are already putting many volunteer-run projects at risk. In addition, the McCarthy report’s proposed cuts in funding for the community and voluntary sector would, if implemented, bulldoze much of the scaffolding which supports volunteerism. The report also advocates shutting down the Government’s Active Citizenship Office and ceasing the implementation of its recommendations, just a couple of years after they were deemed major political priorities.

Deirdre Garvey, of The Wheel, an umbrella organisation providing support to hundreds of community and voluntary groups across the State, is deeply worried. “We just can’t afford to cripple our community and voluntary infrastructure at a time when an increasing number of people are being forced to depend on the services we provide,” says Garvey. “We’re calling on the Government to ensure that an appropriate social, as well as economic, analysis is made of the proposed options for cuts before decisions are made.”

The reasons for investing in volunteerism may be more than just economic. Research indicates that “social capital” – the ties that bind communities together – is even more crucial than we realise. Studies show that the creation of networks of trust and mutual aid are enormously important in a healthy society.

“Remember, volunteering is an incredibly hopeful thing,” says Elaine Bradley, of Volunteering Ireland. “They are the visionaries, the change-makers. With the disintegration of the pillars of society, I think this is where the next wave of leadership will come from. There are some incredible things happening under the radar: people who are prepared to put their time and energies where their values and convictions lie. But we need to understand we need to invest in volunteering to allow that to happen.”

How our newcomers have fitted in

FRED KIGGUNDU may have been driven by a yearning to break the tedium of life in a hostel for asylum seekers when he made contact with a litter-collecting group in Co Longford six years ago, but he credits the move with bringing him a great deal more than he was expecting. Kiggundu, a refugee who fled his home in Uganda and came to Ireland in 2003, says that by joining the Tidy Towns group and going out once or twice a week to gather litter, do paint jobs and meet new people, he began to retrieve a sense of self-worth and put down roots in his adoptive community.

“Everyone in Tidy Towns has been so good to me,” he says. “That’s what keeps you going in life. If you sit down in one place without opening up to other people, it’s not good.”

According to the the Central Statistics Office (CSO), Kiggundu’s may not exactly be representative of the immigrant experience. This week’s report showed that foreign nationals had a weaker sense of attachment to their neighbourhood than Irish people, were more likely to feel socially isolated and less likely to take part in unpaid charitable work or civic activities. Why is this? A tempting conclusion is that integration policies have failed to incorporate immigrants meaningfully into mainstream social networks, or that immigrants are resistant, but there are more prosaic factors at play too.

First, the length of time an immigrant has been in Ireland may have a bearing on levels of participation. The CSO data was collected in 2006, just two years after the EU enlargement that led to the high immigration from central and eastern Europe – if the survey was carried out today, with Poles, Lithuanians and others more settled and more proficient in English, the figures might be better.

Another explanation is that many immigrants work long hours in low-paid jobs, and don’t have much free time to give.

Volunteering rates are high among immigrants in certain sectors, notably in churches and in their communities’ representative groups. Researchers have identified 432 migrant organisations currently active in the Republic. Then there are forms of involvement that might not show up on a mainstream survey. Groups of immigrants often help newly arrived compatriots by providing food and accommodation until they settle. Others have quite sophisticated arrangements for pooling money to help, for example, in covering the costs of a funeral or a spell of unemployment.

A five-year study of civic engagement by US academic Prof Robert Putnam – who popularised the concept of “social capital” – concluded in 2007 that the higher the diversity in a neighbourhood, the lower the levels of trust, political participation and happiness between and within the ethnic groups. The short-term effect of diversity was to make people “hunker down” and “pull in”. The purpose of public policy must be to try to make everyone feel comfortable with diversity, he suggests, and this means creating a more encompassing sense of “we” that cuts across race and ethnicity. Putnam is an optimist, and argues that in cases of successful integration, the first step towards full civic participation is immigrant groups forming networks on their own, as they have been doing in big numbers in Ireland.

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic