SHARJAH // Volunteers are becoming more scarce in the UAE, according to a survey, with everything from increasing materialism to the recession and traffic problems blamed for the shortage. The Emirates Sociological Association, which carried out the survey, says the number of volunteers has been dropping since the mid-1990s, making life difficult for public institutions that depend on their input.
The association's general secretary, Ibrahim Ubaid, said the poll showed the biggest problem was that people had less free time because of steadily increasing "materialistic" pursuits, tougher economic conditions and heavy traffic. "I've been working in this association on a voluntary basis since 1989," he said. "Until the beginning of the 1990s, the volunteers at the association had done massive work but later we noticed a big decline in numbers and efforts, not only in our association but in all other associations in the country."
As prices increased, people focused more on paid work that helped them meet the higher costs of living, he added. "There are several governmental institutions that are understaffed and could not hire more and more people. This materialistic attitude towards work is a setback to voluntary work and consequently to development." He said the Government had done a lot for its people and it was time they repaid the effort.
While "urgent and immediate" voluntary work remained popular, he said, people hesitated to make longer-term commitments. However, Maytha al Habsi, director of the Takatof Programme for Social Volunteering, disputes the claims that the number of volunteers is decreasing. She argues that, in fact, more people are volunteering their time to good causes but the demand for volunteers is increasing at an even higher rate.
"There are a number of needs in the UAE where volunteers can play an important role," she said. "Things like road safety, health awareness and the environment. "As the population here grows, these needs will only get bigger. At the same time, we think it's also important to keep our cultural traditions alive, so volunteering for arts and heritage has a role as well." She added: "Some of our volunteers work with government and civil society institutions to organise national events like awareness campaigns, conferences, sporting events and cultural activities. Others work directly with people in need. There is a real need for social volunteering, particularly for areas that are not covered by government programmes, like spending time with isolated elderly residents or befriending children with special needs.
"Besides, there are many needs beyond our own borders that the people of the UAE can help address." Meanwhile, Al Anood Buseem al Abdool, the head of volunteers at the Friends of Cancer Patients Society, said people nowadays were less interested and motivated to volunteer than they were decades ago. She attributed the change in attitude, in part, to their not being encouraged to volunteer while at school or university.
She advocated a remedy: "The Government should enforce laws in the educational curriculum that would allow a student to participate in volunteer work of his/her own choice and for hours of credit during the summertime or the springtime holidays." She said that volunteer work was not merely a matter of being active and trying to embellish a CV but was instead "a noble cause to help people in our community who are in need of us and so we act as 'angels of social change' in whatever the cause may be".
Musbah Adnan Abu Jarad, a pre-qualification engineer with Aldar Properties, said the sense of volunteerism did not emerge suddenly but was the cumulative result of a willingness to feel for other people and to help them. "Yet you can and have to do your best to spread the voluntary spirit and ideas to everyone around you, starting from your family members," he said, adding that families had a big role in instilling in their children a positive attitude towards society.
"One of the events that I'll never forget was participating in a campaign for correcting the shop signboards in my town in a wider campaign that was organised for the preservation of Arabic language." Enrolling at the American University of Sharjah gave him the chance to embrace its voluntary spirit and efforts. "Along with some of my mates, we established the university environmental club, and participated in lots of exhibitions and events for promoting the ideas of preserving and keeping our environment."
He said social networking sites such as Facebook were vital tools for getting the message out. Hessa al Romaithi, a 22-year-old Emirati student at Zayed University, said another issue affecting volunteer rates was the opposition by some families. "There are many girls who would love to volunteer, but their families don't allow them," she said. "We can't blame the families because the idea of volunteers is a bit new in the UAE."