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Volunteering for the 'right' causes

By Mirko Bagaric - posted Monday, 20 March 2006

You might not know it but Australia is in the midst of an illuminating wide-ranging natural social experiment. The results say a lot about the distorted nature of the values and priorities of many Australians.

More than 20,000 supposedly time-pressed Australians (and in particular, Victorians) applied to spend upwards of 100 hours volunteering to help run a third rate sporting event (the Commonwealth games can’t hold a candle to the Olympics and World Championships), while non-profit social services can’t get enough volunteers to assist people who are homeless, elderly and  infirm.

What does it say about the human condition that many of us gladly give up our time and energy to help conduct an event that will add nothing of value or permanence to the well-being of any person, yet we refuse to assist those in genuine need?


On the one hand volunteerism of any nature should be encouraged. In an increasingly materialist and competitive world people are becoming more self-focused and it is refreshing to see a large number of people banding together towards a common project.

Viewed more broadly, however, the news is not all good. Volunteerism is a finite quality. And hence it’s important to pick your mark regarding how you expend your compassion gland. Every hour spent telling spectators which tram to catch to a ho-hum sporting spectacle is time taken away from assisting those genuinely in need.

Australia would be a far better place if every Commonwealth Games volunteer had terminated their involvement with the games and spent the equivalent time and energy performing an important social service which would demonstrably assist a needy person.

Better still the volunteers should work their extra hours in their day jobs and donate the extra money to feed some of the starving in Africa who are dying at the rate of about 30,000 people a day. Even if the games volunteers don’t have the capacity to work more paid hours, simply donating the money they would have spent on travel and food during the games to Africa would be a far better utilisation of their energy and resources.

Hopefully, some Commonwealth Games volunteers will be so uplifted by the experience that they will turn into volunteer junkies and in the process stumble on some worthy causes. Still the world would have been a better place if they acquired this appetite doing something that made a world a better place at the outset.

So why are Australians overdosing on volunteering for the Commonwealth Games and yet often failing to step up to help those in need?


The volunteerism aberration that is currently occurring in Australia is symptomatic of a broader shortcoming of the human moral and mental psyche. It seems that we are wired in such a way that we only extend sympathy in relation to suffering or unfairness that is either geographically proximate to us or connects with us in other tangible ways, such as where the victim happens to be one of “us”. At any point in time we are aware that there masses of people  hungry in distant parts of the world, yet this barely registers on our consciousness radar. We remain unmoved by the present famines in Malawi and Niger or the war in the Congo, which recently claimed its four millionth victim.

But there is in fact more to be learned from the games volunteering phenomenon. The most common reason that is advanced by people in the Western countries for ignoring the hungry cries from distant strangers is that we are too time and resource poor to help those who are so poor they are dying of hunger.

This excuse starts to look a bit wonky in the light of the games experience.

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A version of this was published in the Geelong Advertiser on February 13, 2006.

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About the Author

Mirko Bagaric, BA LLB(Hons) LLM PhD (Monash), is a Croatian born Australian based author and lawyer who writes on law and moral and political philosophy. He is dean of law at Swinburne University and author of Australian Human Rights Law.

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