Volunteerism in the Czech Republic

History

The tradition of voluntary work and charitable associations within the territory of today’s Czech Republic dates far back into history. Unfortunately, this long tradition was abruptly interrupted during the period of communist regime, when voluntary associations and activities were seen as a potential danger of resistance against the leading party. That was the reason why the property of socially aware foundations was confiscated by the state and, in fact, the whole principle of volunteering was devaluated by placing each voluntary activity under the direction of one centrally managed organization so-called National Front, which was strictly controlled by the Communist Party. Under the term voluntary work was hidden some kind of work that people were forced to do. Because if they didn't they were considered as collaborators and it had a big influence on their entire life (work, family, schools etc.). The respect for traditional humanitarian values, such as sensitivity to the social needs of other people, solidarity with the needy, the sick and the poor, respect and the knowledge of people’s diversity began slowly to fade. It didn't take long and people lost all the interest about helping others. One of the reasons was also the fact, that normality policy of Communist Party said there were no people who would be too different, and who would need any special help. According to them there were no poor, unemployed ones, no homeless. People mentally or physically handicapped were put in certain medical institutes that were located far away from populated locations. People having problems with drugs used to be locked in prisons. And that is just couple of ways the Communists dealt with problems. Their aim wasn't to solve them but to hide them. That's why there was no need for people like volunteers and no need for non-profit or non-governmental organizations.

After The Velvet Revolution

Therefore, it has been a very difficult task for our society after 1989 to revive positive values, to change human behavior, to create public awareness of the importance and social credit of voluntary work, to find ways how to stimulate spontaneous volunteer action, and how to break through inhibitions that people have inherited from the previous regime. After the Velvet Revolution most of the people got very materialistic orientated. All of the sudden there were so many goods on the market that they had never had before. That was very hard for them to resist. After those several years of highly materialistic approach many people, especially the younger generation, have again begun to appreciate values which can enrich and satisfy their inner life and they are finding them in the assistance to others.

After 1989, volunteering has been restored to life again, and a gradual growth in the non-profit sector can be observed throughout the 1990s. According to the economic theory, non-governmental so called third sector grew up as a public reaction to the failure of the market economy and also the state. A government didn't approve to be able to provide all the different kinds of services that a citizen needs. There are many aspects why it was like this. For example people had not enough information or a faith. That was the reason non-governmental organizations began to appear. Their aim was to offer those kinds of services that the state didn't. Right now it is an individual sector. Volunteer work helps to extend and increase positive social values.
Non-governmental organizations have proved to be very important and useful actors, especially in the field of social protection. They provide such forms of assistance that have either been long lacking in our country or which deal with newly arising problem-phenomena (the refugees, homeless, unemployed, drug addicted people, street children, handicapped etc.).

Volunteerism used in practice

One of the other aims of the volunteer work is to strengthen the social cohesion in our society. It gives us some possibilities to integrate some of the social groups into the society. I mean the unemployed, handicapped people, elderly people who still have enough energy to be and to feel useful and other marginalized groups.

Government understands how important the volunteer sector is. They know they should support it even though its not an easy task. People realize that the volunteers could substitute for or complete the missing capacity of the government and also the private profit sector. We could use this kind of work for young (and of course not only young) people to get their professional experience. It could also be a way how to help people to get a rekvalification (that's getting more and more important considering how faster our world gets every day). Thanks to our up coming EU enter, the government has been considering to make a professional army force in the Czech Republic. If not or until then the volunteerism could be a way to solve the alternative military service questions. Of course in such a case, we would need a better legislative frame. To involve people in the international volunteer development programs could be enriching for our culture in many aspects. Not only this could be an unforgettable and valuable experience for each person individually, but also it could be an important step for our society. Those people could bring back important information and also they could provide many multicultural discussions. I believe those discussions would be based on the knowledge, respect, right and tolerance towards the differences. Those information could be basic pillars for avoiding conflicts based on the ignorance and the fear. I find it as an extremely interesting idea especially for such a little nation as the Czechs are (and also Moravians and Slezians). It is important to stress and enstreghten the responsibility of local self-government and try to decentralize the management. At the same time we have to make sure that all those programs will be organized well not only within the organization but also among the different (sometimes international) organizations. Good organization is one of the most important things. If the organization is not good enough we could waste lots of good will and hard work. Big problem is also the coordination between the volunteers and the organizations. There are relatively many people in the CR who are excited, enthusiastic and good willing to work for free, to spend some of their spare time for someone or something else. So far those people seem to be appearing especially in hospitals, elderly pensions, and other social institutions. Unfortunately there are some areas that don't cooperate with too many volunteers yet. It is e.g. cultural or even economic institutions. Very important is a professional management that is able to set up a good „volunteer net“. There are about 200 organizations in CR that accept help offered by volunteers. Not all of them are always professional though. Let me give you a couple of practical examples:

  1. Two unemployed decided they couldn't stand it at home anymore doing nothing. They tried to find themselves jobs. Unfortunately, they were not successful. They found out about a non-governmental organization in their locality and decided they would work as volunteers for a few hours a week until they get a real job. When the job office (government) found out about it they took away their social benefits.
  2. Two young people decided to work in a local hospital also for a few hours a week to get some experience. They ended up doing things that nurses were supposed to do (giving patients their medications etc.). The nurses used to sit around and smoke their cigarettes. They felt like it was OK since they had some „extra help“ there.

Legal framework

In the mid 1990s the Government was focused primarily on solving other problems of political and economic transition and its state policy towards the non-profit sector fell slightly behind the spontaneous development of non-profit organizations. A new stage of governmental co-operation with the non-profit sector can be traced back to 1997. A governmental advisory body was re-organized into the CR Government’s Council for Non-governmental Non-profit organizations in 1998. Among other tasks, it now administers financial means earmarked for the Endowment Investment Fund and also initiates provisions concerning the availability of information on the non-profit sector and on the policy of the state towards non-governmental organizations, including better and more transparent subsidy policy.
The newly arisen non-governmental, non-profit organizations aimed at various goals in many fields (such as social, health and environment protection) can now act freely in the democratic environment of the Czech Republic. It has, however, become necessary to create specific conditions and legal norms for them to function. And that was a very difficult task for our government. Up to the autumn of 1995, civil associations, foundations and charitable and other non-profit organizations were governed by the provision of the Civil Code and by the law on citizens associations. The legal framework for the existence of non-governmental, non-profit entities was then redefined by the law on public beneficial organizations (1995) and by the law on foundations and endowment funds (1997).
The necessity of improving the legal framework for the many aspects of voluntary action has been recognized primarily by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The theme ”voluntary work” has also been dealt with in some prepared bills, e.g. the Bill on Children and Youth, and the Bill on Social Services. The czech government finds also very important to be in a good relationship with Europe and tries to catch up with different international acts and policy material e.g. the Council of Europe’s European Convention on the Promotion of a Transnational Long-term Voluntary Service for Young People No. 175. Which is understood as a good impulse to strengthen the participation of young Czech volunteers in international missions. Also the international year of volunteers was very important for the development in our country. A Czech National Co-ordination Committee for the International Year of Volunteers which was in 2001 was set in the CR, it was established under the honorary chairmanship of the Prime Minister and sponsored by the Government. It contributed to the promotion of voluntary action in general as well as to the improvement of the legal and institutional framework of protection and support to volunteers in our country.

There is also another very important phenomenon that has influenced the recent progress in this field: due to the increasing GDP, the Czech Republic has recently been classified by the UNDP among the group of donor states. Consequently, it has become necessary for us to build the structures for more systematic assistance to less developed countries. In this field, the experience of individual volunteers and non-governmental organizations specialized in sending volunteers abroad appears to be very useful. Besides their involvement in the UNV and UNDP development projects, more and more Czech citizens participate in peacekeeping, civilian observing and humanitarian missions, often within the organizational framework of the UN. Volunteers are a substantial and important source of assistance through which the Czech Republic can fulfill its commitments towards the international community. On the other hand, professional education, social and security conditions of these volunteers must be better reflected in the improved institutional and legal regulations by the state authorities. And it may be happening right now since this summer the czech government has accepted a Bill on volunteer work which will start to apply on the first of january, 2003. The aim of this law is mainly to determine the volunteer service, that the government is going to support under the certain conditions. This will apply and bring big advantages mainly for certain kinds of volunteers whose social and health insurance is going to be paid by the state. It will also help different organizations working with volunteers because until now the word volunteer hadn't been known in our legal framework and it had been very difficult to legally operate with this kind of workers considering e. g. accounting. The social climate in the Czech Republic is at present more favorable towards volunteering then in recent years.

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