Blog: Return of Voluntarism?
A feature of the last general elections which was set aside in the background, not fully acknowledged, was the contribution of volunteers in ensuring the victory of l’Alliance de l’Avenir and the honorable performance of the opposition.
It was a kind of folklore where candidates had to ensure food and alcoholic drinks for weeks to all those who spent their time in those ‘bazes’. If the expenditure of those ‘bazes’ were fully accounted for, they could have disqualified many MPs of all parties on account of excess expenditure. Fortunately, during the last general elections, there has been a shift in culture and all parties refrained from setting up those ‘bazes’. There was also an absence of plastic buntings on the streets, in other words, less work for those professional activists.
I noticed that there were a host of genuine volunteers who joined the campaign on their own freewill to support the respective parties. Of course, there was a core of paid volunteers. I do find anything wrong in some of them benefiting from some allowances to meet their out of pocket expenditure. The money contributed by the usual bailleurs de fonds should serve at least some purpose!
During the last ten days of the campaign, when each bloc seemed to be heading towards victory, they called upon the support of many voluntary socio cultural and religious organizations to actively support them. The MMM benefited from the excellent organization put up by Father Gregoire and the Labour Party received the support of most of the socio cultural organizations.
All these organizations are not affiliated to the party but during election time, the politicians and the parties seek and rely on their support to ensure victory. The difference this time has been that this support was given on a purely voluntary basis. I had the privilege of attending quite a few of the meetings they had organized, themselves bearing all costs of organization and openly taking a stand.
If we go by the results, we will find that their stand had made a difference in getting the party list candidate elected in most constituencies, particularly rural ones. There was a danger of split votes. The candidates, particularly those of the ruling party were ‘au bout du souffle’ and were not able to communicate properly to get bloc votes. It was those volunteers who convinced the members of those societies to vote en bloc.
A split vote would have gone in favour of the MMM. The Prime Minister saw the danger and readily accepted the helping hand of those volunteers. He went out of his way to meet them all, talk to them and convinced them of the importance of bloc voting to give him a comfortable majority. I have learnt that a prominent leader of the MMM congratulated the Prime Minister for the success of his strategy.
I come from a generation who had volunteered to work for the political emancipation of this country. In those days, late 50s and early 60s, the maximum a volunteer could get was ‘un pain maison, deux gateaux piments’ and a soft drink and that also funded by local organizers. I remember prominent local leaders collecting funds to meet the expenditure of the campaign. I am referring to pre independence days when all the rich people were spending bags of money to oppose independence.
If credit should be given to the heroes of independence, the army of volunteers led by SSR supported by Sookdeo Bissoondoyal, Sir Abdul Razack Mohamed, Sir Guy Forget, Regis Chaperon among others would be the chosen ones. Even the opposition had a very powerful dedicated machinery of volunteers which led them to poll 44 percent of the votes.
Voluntarism is a significant feature of our social fabric. It all started with the Church which set up a lot of charitable institutions and introduced education in Mauritius. However, the most important force of volunteers which was unleashed followed the visit of Mahatma Gandhi to Mauritius in the beginning of the 20th century.
Seeing the plight of the Indo-Mauritians, he advised them to join politics and educate their children. Hundreds of baitkhas and madrassas were set up on a voluntary basis to provide elementary education to the childrens of indentured labourers. Gandhi also sent a barrister called Manilal Doctor who in fact organized and led the social emancipation of the Indo-Mauritians. Then came the Arya Samaj with its revolutionary ideas and other socio-cultural organizations all manned by volunteers.
The trade union and cooperative movement were also formed by volunteers and produced great leaders like Guy Rozemont, Pundit Ramnarain, Pundit Jagdumbee, Emmanuel Anquetil, Moignac, Elizier Francois and of course, Paul Berenger. They all had an army of volunteers who worked for them and their goals with success. On the social front, the Jan Andolan, people’s movement of the forties of Professor Bissoondoyal was a unique mission. He went village to village arousing people to organize them and fight for their rights on the pattern of Mahatma Gandhi in India.
Today, more than a thousand socio cultural organizations are working on a voluntary basis to nurture the social fabric of the society. Quite a few are grouped under the umbrella of the Mauritius Council of Social Service. They are taking care of the poor, the needy, youth, drug addicts, alcoholics, old people, battered children and women, those suffering from AIDS. Most of these organizations are self funded. A few receive subsidy from government and international aid agencies as well.
Yet, it is the massive efforts of these volunteers which make the organizations exist and run. I have personally seen them to work, whether during national events, religious festivals or on other cultural occasions. I have seen young men and women serving with devotion often giving their own money, time and energy.
Another interesting side of voluntarism is that it opens up a breeding ground for politicians. Barrack Obama is a genuine example of someone who has served his country through voluntarism, starting his life serving the poor, and who ultimately ended up in the highest Office of the President of the United States. In Mauritius, many have become ministers, leaders in business, top civil servants and even occupied the highest constitutional office.
At the same time, I have a feeling that all these organizations need a fresh breath. Many of their leaders are diluting their mission by seeking political favour or patronage. I am aware of the importance and the role these volunteers and organizations can play. It is difficult to dissociate them from politicians. They contribute significantly in promoting sustainable development by participating fully in the democratic process.
Unfortunately, many depend on government subsidy and political patronage for their survival.
Now that government has accumulated a fund of Rs 1.4 Billion from CSR, it is time for volunteers to reinvent themselves, chalk a new path and give themselves the glory that they deserve.
Should I remind the volunteers that when they can contribute to the success and victory of their patrons once every 5 years, they can very well devote their time, energy and efforts to their personal development and that of their associations?
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