What do you do with more than half a million Filipino college graduates who are jobless? How do you keep the increasing numbers of retired senior citizens productively occupied and help them keep from aging rapidly out of inactivity?
There were 2.8 million Filipinos without jobs as of last April, according to our employment statistics. Four out of five are no more than 34 years old. Our unemployed are mostly young. Sadly, one in every five is actually a college graduate. A waste of precious education, one might well be tempted to say so.
And yet this need not be. For about a third of what the government wants to spend next year for conditional cash transfers (CCT), the more than half a million unemployed college graduates in the country could all be gainfully occupied as volunteer development workers. They can be put to work in schools, health centers, local government units, grassroots NGOs, and other countryside institutions that could use some help from a college graduate. This is in fact already being done, albeit on a very limited scale so far, in a little-known but highly beneficial government program that has been around for many years.
The program is administered by the Philippine National Volunteer Service Coordinating Agency (PNVSCA), an attached agency of the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda). The agency coordinates the various foreign volunteer programs operating within the country, such as the US Peace Corps Volunteers, Japanese Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCVs), World Friends Korea (WFK) and others. PNVSCA coordinates the deployment of these volunteers to achieve maximum benefits for the country. It also takes responsibility for ensuring the safety of the volunteers and making their experience in the country a personally and professionally rewarding one.
But what holds greater significance to me is the agency’s local volunteer program known as Volunteers for Information and Development Assistance (Vida), and the associated Bayanihang Barangay. Invoking the Filipino bayanihan spirit, volunteers are deployed to work in communities and institutions engaged in various aspects of development work. Most Vida volunteers are fresh college graduates who sign up after finding difficulty landing a job. They get a modest P2,000 monthly allowance, with the host organization expected to augment this to ensure adequate support for the volunteer’s minimum needs. A volunteer can be supported for up to three years.
The beauty of the program lies in how it provides a way for society to harness the talents and energies of young educated people who would otherwise be idle, and provide them a way to be of service to fellow Filipinos while gaining valuable field experience that then enhances their employability later on. Apart from experience, the volunteers gain much stronger appreciation of working at the grassroots level and solving problems where they occur. And like the various foreign volunteers who leave the comfort of home to take on such development work overseas, they are likely to come out of the experience as more responsible citizens who are better equipped for their longer term careers. This has in fact been the hallmark of alumni of the foreign volunteer programs. Thus, such programs provide a true win-win between the volunteer and the host institution or community that benefits from his/her services.
There’s another important segment of the population for whom a nationwide development volunteer system can be a Godsend: our senior citizen retirees. Countless members of our population from all walks of life remain healthy and productive even way past retirement, and would prefer to keep themselves meaningfully busy rather than speed up their aging through idleness. In affluent societies abroad, we see them doing volunteer work in public libraries, community centers and other places where they can continue contributing their skills, knowledge and talents for the good of the community. There is no reason why we cannot organize a program for harnessing volunteerism among Filipino senior citizens as well—and actually do them a favor even as society benefits from their help. And I suspect we would indirectly improve the general health of our senior citizens for whom fulfillment and a feeling of self-worth can be far more efficacious than medication.
But for all its virtues, the Vida program remains very limited, with only tens of volunteers supported by a very modest budget. In a country whose foremost challenges include high unemployment and low productivity, a nationwide volunteer program can be an important instrument for addressing these problems and more, all at the same time. It is a program that yields multiple dividends.
As we allot tens of billions of pesos to millions of CCT beneficiaries, I see similar benefit—maybe more—in scaling up and expanding the Vida program into a National Development Volunteer System, to support not just tens but hopefully hundreds of thousands of volunteers nationwide. Local governments could have their own parallel counterpart programs, or the national system could have them become its primary implementors. In any case, we would be raising national productivity, lowering unemployment, reducing poverty, molding better citizens out of our youth, keeping our senior citizens healthier and happier and responding to various development needs of our communities—and we can achieve all this with one cost-effective national program. Harnessing the bayanihan spirit this way is, to my mind, an idea whose time has come, and an extremely effective way to spend our tax pesos.
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