When major earthquakes all but destroyed Sumatra, in Indonesia, in 2004, a well-established tradition of volunteer labor made it possible for the region to recover. Known as gotong royong, volunteer labour was key to the reconstruction of irrigation systems and the restoration of rural livelihoods.
A culture of volunteerism – by this name or any other – is stronger in Southeast Asia than in any other emerging region, according to a United Nations report in 2011. The Gallup World Poll, which tracks attitudes in more than 160 countries, singled out Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines for particularly high levels of volunteerism.
After the earthquake that hit Kobe, Japan, on Jan. 17, 1995 that killed almost 6,500 people and destroyed thousands of buildings some 1.3 million volunteers came out of the woodwork within a year. When another massive earthquake and a tsunami hit eastern Japan on March 11, 2011, almost every local and national government or quasi-government organization used volunteer groups to supplement, complement and facilitate the recovery and reconstruction. In a paper Simon Avenell, an associate professor of history at Australia National University, said volunteers have become the nongovernmental backbone of Japan’s disaster volunteering infrastructure.
But as volunteering becomes entrenched in societies around the region, there is an increasing recognition that it has to have impact. The debate is growing about whether short-term volunteer efforts, like taking two weeks to build houses in an underdeveloped location, actually helps.
In China, volunteers played a key role in recovering from the massive earthquake that devastated Wenchuan County, in Sichuan Province, in May 2008 but there were occasional reports of volunteers actually hindering wider recovery efforts before their work was coordinated.
One driver of volunteerism is the evolution of corporate social responsibility (CSR) but CSR is not always impactful. As Community Business tells China Daily Asia Pacific, there is often too much emphasis on man-hours spent and too little on actual impact.