Monday ∗ 26 Dec 2011

on volunteerism, and the disaster of a government

the cultural discourse on bayanihan and the Filipino’s propensity for kindness and reaching out has undoubtedly changed since the disaster that was Ondoy in 2009. then, relief efforts were galvanized online, like a grand display of how we could all be heroes, how we could help in our own ways, with narratives on heroism cutting across artistas going on their boats and surfboards to help out those stranded on the rooftops of their homes, with the nameless | faceless pinoys all over the world who opened up their homes to donations and spent time packing these for sending to affected areas.

this story was no surprise then, as it is no surprise now, two years after, with the disaster called Sendong. and it doesn’t surprise me either, the questions now being asked of volunteerism and helping out, of the bayanihan that happens online. in fact it is infinitely interesting that these questions are being asked now, because it means we are becoming more and more critical even of ourselves, and the role we play in light of government’s functions and dysfunctions, all the more highlighted in times of tragedy.

on twitter, @complainerchua raised valid points about the use of such a public space to raise funds to be donated to Sendong relief efforts:



@complainerchua was referring to @franky who was selling his samsung tab to the highest bidder with the promise of giving all the money earned to @gangbadoy’s Rock Ed. @complainerchua then asks: why make this so public? why display the amount of a donation?

the answer of course seems simple: on twitter and in light of the tragedy, people might be willing to shell out a little bit more than the actual amount for the gadget. in as much as it might be seen as a display of how much @franky was donating, it could also be a display of how much people were willing to help.

which might be said of Rock Ed via @gangbadoy as well. on the one hand it might seem like an overload of calls / demands / pleas for every kind of aid that’s needed for Sendong victims. at the same time, it’s entirely possible that companies like So-en and Avon, EQ diapers, LBC, Cebu Pac and PAL would be less, uh, helpful (?) were they not being called upon / mentioned / thanked via social media. it’s not to say that they might not help otherwise, but we can’t know that for sure anymore.

what i’m sure of is the fact that for whatever complaints we might have about the volunteerism that Rock Ed stands for, it has proven itself as a credible NGO through which funds and donations might be generated and can pass through, from donor to beneficiaries. and any organization, non-government and otherwise, would know that credibility is hard to come by in these shores.

but here is the crux of the matter: how can an NGO be more credible than government? how can we trust it more in a time of crisis?

elsewhere in the world private and non-government relief efforts is about helping people in need. when someone like Oprah or Ellen, when Rachael Ray, take on causes, they are doing so to help a particular sector of people; when a huge television special is put together to raise funds, it’s very clear that it’s about helping the victims of one tragedy or other. but here where we come from the line between helping people and helping government is not clearly drawn.

not surprisingly, it’s a line that government itself would rather not draw. because then it allows a president like PNoy to not speak at all in the aftermath of tragedy. it allows him to think that it’s ok to stay silent for four days because yes, his people are doing their jobs, but also because look at the Filipinos! coming together to help CDO and Iligan! because without drawing that line, PNoy can come out and talk about the Filipino as hero, he can talk about falling 10 times and getting up 11 times (paano ‘yon exactly?), he can talk about lending a helping hand, and he can take credit for a nation’s middle and upper classes that rise to the occasion of tragedy, that will do what it can, given its limited resources.

it is because that line isn’t drawn that Rock Ed is being questioned now, on twitter and elsewhere, for the volunteerism that it banks on and celebrates. it is in the blurring of that line that someone like Illac Diaz can shoot from the hip and question rock concerts as fund raising activities. the critical stance is valid of course, but its premises need to be questioned, too. it should be clear to everyone after all, that the demand for a long-term solution is extraneous to the function of an NGO, the insistence on systemic change is different from the demand for volunteerism in a time of crisis — or at any other time for that matter.

and so in the same way that it was counterproductive of Mar Roxas’ DOTC to just set aside the volunteer work that the Cobonpue-Layug-Pineda team put together for the National Competitiveness Council’s NAIA 1 project, it is unfair (and yes, counterproductive) to be hitting Rock Ed and other NGOs for what they do in a time of crisis. this is valid work that volunteers put in, it is work that surely some other NGO would take on if Rock Ed weren’t around, albeit with less organization and probably a less functional network of donors / donations / volunteers.

which is not to say NGOs like Rock Ed should be saved from criticism at all. in fact they should precisely receive a fair amount of criticism because of how they function in light of government, and how they can be and are used by the latter in rhetoric and discourses on how things are ok, when things are farthest from being so.

in that sense we need to make clear, that whether we volunteer as individuals or within organizations, the work we do will not save the world, nor is this work that should even be here were government functioning properly and correctly. volunteerism, in a time of crisis and beyond, is always a stop-gap operation, always a short-term solution, always always a band-aid for the shallow wounds.

the deeper, more painful, more dangerous wounds, those are for organizations that fight and struggle for a change in the systems that are dysfunctional and corrupt and oppressive, the systems that allow for legal and illegal logging to continue, the systems that let more than a thousand people die in a flood. NGOs are in a box of a cause, or a time of need, or sectoral change at most. its refusal to negotiate on the level of systemic change is its own limitation. that the latter is also what makes NGOs a welcome friend to a disaster of a PNoy government, is no surprise.

Posted in: bayan, gobyerno, komentaryo, middle class

Tagged: , , , ,

2 Comments/Pingbacks

    • katrina
      December 30, 2011 at 5:02 pm

      go say it in 2 to 3 sentences. my blog, my space. my words, not yours.

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