SIDE EVENT OSCE – HDIM 2014 - 30 Sept, Warsaw

Voluntary work in spiritual environments and its criminalization in modern society



Voluntary work in spiritual environments and its criminalization in modern society

Diverging perspective on Voluntary Work in contemporary society and the incrimination of VW performed within spiritual groups and organizations

Along the whole human history, Voluntary Work has been perceived as an altruistic activity, who's intent and effect is to promote good will and goodness, improve the quality of human life and, moreover, to develop in those practicing it such fundamental human qualities as compassion, love, helpfulness, empathy, detachment, self-worth and self-respect. As such, there have been inspiring figures who serve as benchmarks for the ideal human development and realisation, figures that become remarkable also due to their unabated VW performed for the benefit of others. Such figures include Gandhi, Mother Theresa, St. Francis of Assisi and many others.

The concept of Voluntary Work designates the process of performing a constructive, useful activity (work) for the benefit of another, without expecting or receiving any material or financial reward (and also social advantages, preferred treatment etc). To qualify for Voluntary Work, those actions must firstly, be performed in a complete free will (no pressures, coercion, persuasion involved), and it must not involve any sort of payment or compensation.

The society itself recognizes the human value of VW and welcomes it, generally respects it and sometime even promotes it.

A fundamental aspect regarding VW is the development of certain qualities of the human being that it promotes and facilitates, and is important to realize such qualities are regarded as essential, especially be the world's various religious and spiritual schools. Love, kindness, compassion, giving without expecting anything in return are all hallmarks of religions such as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. This is sometimes contrasted with the selfishness and egotistic nature that is sometimes promoted or subtly implied by the modern society, for example, where such behaviour is justified by stressing the need for self-dependency, independence, material needs and success.

Because of this, VW has been perceived by spiritual societies not only as a helpful social tool, but as a genuine and effective means of moral and spiritual development and realisation.

In our contemporary society, we can encounter VW in many places, such as:

 Volunteering, starting from disaster relief activities to social integration promoting activities, to internship for young graduates (who also benefit from personal contacts useful for their future career). Also in the field of medicine and education, VW is highly praised. It has become a custom to present one's voluntary work in one's CV. All these reveal the high value placed on regular VW by modern society.

In the spiritual dimension, VW is a well-grounded tradition in all major religions; the selfless work the monks and nuns of various congregations perform in monasteries is well known. Also, in the spiritual traditions of the orient, the VW performed in ashrams is even developed into a spiritual path and method per se - karma yoga, the concept of which has become popular even in the west. Beside this many monasteries and ashrams perform VW for the benefit of the society they are part of, outside the confines of their temples.

There is of course a darker side to the idea of VW, and that is enticed by the 'rule' of no material reward. For selfish and dark-minded individual, the idea of VW sounds like a wonderful occasion to profit from the work of others without even considering the needs of those who thus help. Sadly, this tendency has evolved into the phenomenon of human trafficking, in form of modern slavery, or other such forms of exploitation. While this has nothing to do in fact with VW (remember, it must be totally freely committed and unrestrained or coerced), it nevertheless serves as a facade for many such abuses. Many organisations around the work are devoted to studying these phenomenon and helping counter it.

There is a notable difference in the use of VW in the general society and in a spiritual environment. While in the first case the VW is occasional, random or even seasonal, in a spiritual group it generally becomes more or less a constant. It is normal to be so, as any practice has to be constant to really be fruitful and efficient. This aspect has drawn some suspicion from the society, which seems to validate VW only as a part-time aspect; when it becomes a 'path', questions are raised. We can understand this because, firstly, the society does not value VW mainly for its spiritual and moral benefit, but for its social benefits. On the other hand, there is always the aspect of 'the profit' the society derives from such acts, for example when people gather and clean up and tidy up the squares from a city, doing it all 'for-free'.

This may be one of the reasons spiritual group are frequently targeted by accusations of human trafficking and exploitation on the basis of them using VW as 'karma-yoga', as a means of spiritual development. Often, this is done ignoring the law, and also ignoring the testimonies of those involved, that confess that what they are doing is their choice, not something forced upon them from outside.

To prevent such abuses, it is necessary in the first case to educate the society and the government with regards to VW, to understand its value, significance, to learn to accept both its social benefitting side but also its spiritual side, and to learn to discern actual cases of abuses and slavery (that are sometimes ignored, paradoxically) from the free choice of people to better themselves through VW performed within the spiritual communities they chose to belong to.

Voluntary work