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Back to Stephen Brookes Column Index



Public service - Private enthusiasm

By: Stephen Brookes MBE

1952 to 2002

The headlines read ‘Report shows Social Services assistant fail…’ or ‘Part time helpers negligent…’

There is a persistent culture of blame attached to much everyday work in the voluntary sector.

Sadly, we are not all equally blessed with a straightforward life and for those where life is not ordinary and uncomplicated, there is a real need for assistance in day to day living. Which means that in come what are termed as the so called ‘do-gooders’ complete with attendant critical baggage.

Whether we consider the homeless, the elderly, children, the sick or injured, the disabled, ethnic groups and the mass of those seriously affected by stress related problems, in fact anyone for whom life is not ordinary and uncomplicated - there can be found assisting volunteers.

The reality is that we are continually recreating a society of rich and poor; of respect and disregard; of understanding or hatred and fear, and of have and have not. At times the need for tolerance is very hard to digest but it is essential if we are to survive.

For the Labour administration, and Tony Blair’s ideals, the derogatory use of the term ‘do-gooders’ is a sad reflection on our society, for in each case, the ‘do-gooder’ generally has the best of motives for involvement. Who better than a voluntary formally abused child to help others in the same position, or a soldier who is recovering from conflict induced P.T.S.D (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) to fight for, and help colleagues so afflicted?

Well, the real truth is that anyone who is properly trained can do a far better job, for the untrained volunteer not only can get in the way, but also, more importantly does remove the requirement for government, national or local to take its responsibility to society seriously.

Take the Gulf war, when both British civilians and armed forces were faced with sudden and intense pressures of war. It was left to largely untrained but deeply concerned friends, relatives and associates to untangle the real fears and after-effects faced by many thousands of people. But, there were too many groups and organisations operating with no co-ordinated approach, which meant that the strength of argument and pressure was reduced and now over ten years after the events, the results of this work is still to be seen in terms of lack of financial support, or medical treatment for those effects now too long term to be resolved.

The same can be said of individuals or groups supporting homeless or even asylum seekers, who by their individually single minded, but regionally uncoordinated approach create confusion which contributes to a lack of understanding, and marginalisation by the public at large.

What is needed is a clear message that the voluntary sector should have regulated aims which assist, rather than hinder the recipients of their work, and therefore spread the available resources over too thin a base. Of course, here is the main issue - the ultimate problem - the lack of available money.

A massive increase in public awareness and high vision of certain community based projects, and socially desired programmes has contributed to a high state of compassion fatigue and even jealousy towards information we see in our media, and yet discourse continues about how the individual can help.

BBC’s ‘Children in need’ is a much needed operation. Why? Because central government allow it to do the work of social responsibility.

Tony Blair stated in 1999 that the state cannot undertake all its social responsibilities without volunteers and ‘do-gooders’ but neither he, his administration, the public or the media have grasped the nettle in so far as setting targets for support for capacity building training, or funding for such work, which is long overdue.

The same tired faces and often repeated comments about voluntary work make for bad press, and so if the system is to have meaning, it must be operated in a controlled and constructive relationship with state organisations, otherwise the whole essence of help in times of need will collapse and slowly destroy the fragile diversity of our culture.

More importantly, those in need are put at risk!

Stephen Brookes MBE
Copyright © - Stephen Brookes MBE 2002 - All rights reserved


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