As State Shrinks, Can Volunteers Fill Gaps? | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 04.02.2005
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As State Shrinks, Can Volunteers Fill Gaps?

Volunteerism in Germany is not as strong as it is in the US. Many Germans traditionally felt it was the government's role to take care of problems. But as state coffers run dry, attitudes are changing.


Volunteers came through during the German floods of 2002

When someone with questions about AIDS calls the hotline at Berlin AIDS Hilfe, an organization which provides counselling and other services to people with the disease, the person answering the phone isn't on the payroll. They're working for free.

Volunteers also provide the bulk of the manpower for the group's education programs, one-on-one support services, and a host of other activities. While Berlin AIDS Hilfe has only 15 paid staff members, some 200 people work for the organization on a volunteer basis.

"They do so much for us," said Director Kai-Uwe Merkenich. "We couldn't provide all the services we do without them."

As Germany finds itself facing an aging population and a shrinking tax base and institutes reforms that cut back on state expenditures, volunteers will likely be increasingly called to step up and provide services that were once paid for by the government. According to several professionals in the volunteer field, many Germans are beginning to realize this.

"The state cannot finance certain things anymore," said Thomas Kegel, head of the Volunteerism Academy, a group which provides training in volunteer and non-profit organization management. "We in Germany want to keep our social-welfare state, but that will only happen if people start getting involved and helping each other out."

Volunteerism rates

People do already volunteer in Germany, although not in the numbers that they do in the United States. A study carried out for Germany's family ministry looking at volunteerism rates found that 34 percent of Germans are involved in some kind of volunteer activity.

Freiwillige Feuerwehr

Volunteer fire brigades have a long tradition in Germany.

The percentages are slightly higher in the south and west of the country, slightly lower in the north and east.

A survey in the United States by the Gallup polling organization in the 1990s, however, found that nationwide more than 40 percent of Americans participated in some kind of volunteer activity. Among white Americans, 51 percent reported they did some kind of volunteer work regularly.

"The protestant work ethic is much stronger in America," said Steffen Micheel, a spokesman for Günter Nooke, a parliamentarian who organized a recent volunteering conference in the German capital called "Berlin Helps Itself." He said Europeans have a long history of relying on others to take care of many of their needs.

"First it was the princes and other rulers and later on the state took over the role," he said. "Germans have a kind of mentality of expecting 'comprehensive coverage,' but I think there is a change in public opinion taking place."

Attitude Shift

According to Thomas Kegel of the Volunteer Academy, attitude toward volunteerism have been slowly changing for several decades. He said the shift was sparked by the 1968 protest movement in Germany, when citizens began forming associations with charitable purposes.

"They didn't want to wait for the state," he said. "And now, the state has a real interest in encouraging that kind of thinking."

Logo Internationaler Tag der Freiwilligen Englisch

The United Nations logo for International Volunteer Day (IVD) on December 5.

In 2001, the United Nations sponsored the "Year of the Volunteer" and Berlin used the opportunity to encourage Germans to get more involved in their communities, even forming a commission to research ways to raise volunteerism rates. Almost every federal state has seen up initiatives to get citizens to donate some of the time to a worthy cause.

Kegel said, however, the issue of volunteering really got high visibility not due to government panels or studies, but during the devastating floods in eastern Germany in August 2002 when television pictures of volunteers fighting the rising waters and cleaning up afterwards were beamed across the country.

"The government played a big role but everyday people also came through and cleaned up what the water had left behind," Kegel said, adding that it showed what people pulling together to help out could actually achieve.

He said he has noticed an interest in volunteering, especially among older people. German society is aging, and there is an ever growing pool of retired people who are still in good health, but need and want something to do.

Guild tradition

He disputes the assertion that Germany has no tradition of volunteerism, saying there are roots that go back centuries to medieval trade guilds. Many social programs grew out of those guilds that provided their members services, which were later administered by government-run agencies.

As the German government reins in its social state through its reform programs, charitable associations, perhaps the modern-day guild equivalent, could well take on new prominence.

But according to Susanne Fechner of the Berlin Volunteer Agency, Germany is not yet at the point of turning over large-scale state services to the volunteer sector, although she said some first signs things are heading that way. She said her agency is approached more often these days by institutions, for example kindergartens, which have fired their staff members and try to get volunteers to come replace them. "We won't send people out for these kinds of things," she said. "Volunteers are a great enhancement, but they can't do everything and shouldn't be the reason people lose their jobs."

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