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Amol Rajan

Amol Rajan is Assistant Editor on the Comment desk at The Independent. He was previously a news reporter and Sports News Correspondent, and writes columns for The Liberal and The Salisbury Review.

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Compulsory voluntarism, a useful oxymoron

Posted by Amol Rajan
  • Friday, 27 February 2009 at 08:15 am
A bit like libertarian paternalism, a confused phrase that took off with all the talk of Nudging in Westminster last year (and cleverly interrogated by the masterful Jamie Whyte), "compulsory voluntary work" may be a very useful oxymoron.

We should get used to it.   Even promote the idea.

James Hulme makes several unnecessary and false assertions about people who don't buy the Telegraph, but this blog posting contains some useful ideas.

The Tories have made loud noises about unleashing the voluntary sector to do some of the work currently undertaken by the (bloated) public sector.  They want a third sector revolution, they say, so that the size and scope of the state can be reduced.  This is part of what David Cameron meant when he said, immediately upon winning the party leadership, that there is such a thing as society, it's just not the same as the state.

Mostly, Tory talk on volunteering is a utopian delusion, albeit one that would be slightly more convincing if any of the top five Tories in Britain - Cameron, Osborne, Hague, Johnson, Gove - could demonstrate a point in their pre-parliamentary careers when they forfeited their own ambition to contribute to the third sector.

Nevertheless, expanding (by which I mean at least doubling in size) the voluntary sector should be an urgent priority of the next Tory government.  And it should focus on getting young people to do it.  Even forcing them.

I have long felt that any student who doesn't take a year out before going to University is being cheated.  It would be perfectly reasonable for all students going on to higher education to take a gap year, six months of which were spent doing a kind of national service.  This is much as Cameron has recommended.  If we moved away from the idea of national service as army based, and showed that it could just mean spending time with poor or frail people who live near you, it would soon catch on.  Volunteering could be made into a social norm, so that those who didn't do it had something to answer for.

Young people who cannot afford to do six months of unpaid work should be rewarded with help getting on training schemes or apprentices for the rest of their year out.

I have no doubt whatsoever that young people would benefit enormously from the experience, and the good they could do for their communities, especially those that are increasingly atomised, is immense.  There is a vast literature in sociology devoted to showing the win-win nature of such work.

Making an initial spell of work compulsory would certainly be illiberal.  But the cost in liberty of such compulsion is miniscule next to the social benefit of the work undertaken by organisations reliant on voluntary labour.  In any case, if the kids don't like it (which will be extremely rare), they can stop after a while. 

Forcing people to volunteer sounds ill-thought through, and self-contradictory.   Never mind that: make it fashionable.


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