Saturday, September 25, 2010

Volunteering in Brazil

After spending a few days volunteering at the Homeless World Cup in Rio I was reminded about one of the cultural distinctions between the USA and Brazil (other countries as well, I’m sure, but this is from my experience).

In the United States volunteering is very commonplace. Maybe it’s because the government doesn’t do jack to take care of its citizens so community members have to jump in to fill the gap. (Can we talk?!) When it comes to making cash donations or volunteering time, the States has it going on. And as anyone who has ever been active in the US nonprofit world (read: fundraising) knows, the poorer you are the more generous you are, relative to personal income – significantly so.

Here in Brazil, while there is definitely some volunteering going on, it is not a cultural phenom. When I was chatting up the Homeless World Cup with my friends and colleagues, and pushing their need for people to help out, everyone I spoke with lit up and asked how much they were paying? When I clarified that it was a volunteer gig they burst out laughing. No way.

Brazilians volunteer, for sure, but it seems to be more intra-familial. You take care of your parents in your home without fail. “Old folks’ homes” are nearly unheard of. Your crazy uncle (genuinely mentally ill) lives with somebody in your family –almost never in an institution. Disadvantaged, down on their luck or just plain determinedly lazy sons and daughters live with their parents indefinitely (i.e. not homeless).

This should be seen as a kind of morally equivalent volunteerism, I think. In spite of the widespread poverty here, it has been my experience that beyond the most urban areas there are very few homeless people in the way I knew them in the States. And scant few mentally ill people walking the streets. Congratulations to Brazilians’ commitment to family.

There were definitely Brazilian volunteers at the Homeless World Cup. Don’t get me wrong. It’s tough to comment on these things without seeming to generalize. But I’ve gotta tell you – volunteering beyond your church or for really high profile events here in Brazil is a pretty rare thing.

Frankly – when you have so little it is difficult to prioritize giving your time and effort away, except when the issue is REALLY close to your concerns. That time and energy is needed to keep your head above water. In this regard, volunteering for projects that benefit your local community directly can attract participants.

Making financial donations – that’s another story for another post.

1 comment:

Danielle said...

Great post! Never thought of it that way, this idea of Brazilians showing the morals of volunteering by not turning away family members, no matter what.

A few of my students volunteer in town, taking food to shelters and things like that. Most of them do it through their churches, but one woman seems to just have a group of friends that she started an unofficial volunteer group with.

Also, my gym always has little fundraising things, like "this month we're gonna donate toiletries to a women's senior center! Bring stuff!" and it seems to work well.