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Youth Citizenship in Divided Societies

Voluntarism: familiar yet estranged

'...Look how much effort everybody is putting in developing voluntary work among young people! [today] We are adopting a Law on Voluntarism, while some time ago people used to build railways totally voluntarily...'.

A young female director of one of the Sarajevo based NGOs

One among many insights that come to my mind while doing research in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is how concepts, activities, values and ideas which once – not that long ago – were quite familiar, have now become estranged. For the purpose of this blog entry I am thinking in particular about voluntarism.

On several occasions during conversations I had with various representatives of governmental and non-governmental, local and international organizations I got a sense that voluntarism – desired as it might be – was understood to be somehow estranged from the ways in which things are done in contemporary BiH (or perhaps from how they could be done). This became apparent in numerous complaints I have heard from various organization representatives which suggested that young people were not interested in volunteering -as it meant working for free - or in their organizations' efforts to encourage young people to volunteer. However, as the opening statement above suggests, in these same conversations I have often been told not only that voluntary work was once quite common, but also that it was an essential part of 'our tradition'. Clearly, in these individuals' words, voluntarism is understood to be a rather familiar practice with a long tradition in both BiH and the wider region of what used to be known as Yugoslavia.

This made me wonder how various processes of estrangement and familiarization operate as tools of particular knowledge production, and means to pursue or eschew particular practices and experiences. How has this familiar practice become estranged: what changed? Has the idea and practice of voluntarism itself changed, or has it been made estranged through complex local and global processes and relations? Or is it more to do with the status BiH has come to inhabit in this world as a 'post' place (post-1992-5 wars, post-cold war, post-socialist)?

A man in his mid thirties who runs a local NGO that focuses exclusively on young people in the northern part of BiH told me that the main problem with voluntarism is how it is being positioned, or understood: as a gap. More precisely as a gap existing between a young unemployed person and a potential future job. But this is not how things used to be, he suggested: 'we got it all wrong...this is not the meaning of voluntarism. But in the past ten years this is how voluntarism has been understood'. Basically the idea that one should volunteer in order to get some experience and then, with time and skill, find a job seemed totally out of place in my interlocutor's eyes. In this attitude young people could not be motivated: if they volunteer they do it because it has become a way to access the job market, and they feel they have to do it, and not that they want to do it. In his view voluntarism ought to be something one loves to do in a field one does well and, crucially, because one can afford to do absolutely free of charge. So, according to him, it is the combination of free time and financial security that serve as fruitful ground for voluntarism. In other words, a volunteer should be a person who already has a job, and not a person who hopes to get one through voluntary activity.

This idea that voluntarism cannot, or rather should not, be forced was communicated to me also during a conversation with a woman who runs one of the international organizations in Sarajevo: 'voluntary action is not something that you direct someone towards. It has to emerge from the community'. Interestingly though, somewhat later she added that her organization's 'main goal was to promote voluntarism'. However, if there is a need to promote voluntarism (and quite a few organizations operating in BiH think there is), it does not only mean that it is lacking or that in its current form something is wrong with it; it also means that the question of what voluntarism actually is, and what exactly various local and international organizations hope to achieve through it, is less straight forward than it may seem. Clearly, if many organizations aim to encourage young people to volunteer, and at the same time they believe that voluntarism cannot be encouraged (precisely because it has to derive from within an individual or a community) then what is at stake here?

I suggest that in order to explore the meaning voluntarism has in the contemporary BiH it is important to understand processes of estrangement and familiarization involved in it, as well as various procedures, practices and knowledge production, some which are more local and some which are more global, some which are embedded in the past and some which are invested in the future.

Vanja Čelebičić – Sarajevo, BiH
12 March 2015

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