Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Do Ethnic Minorities Volunteer Less?

This Monday's Sydney Morning Herald carried a disturbing news item titled "Fewer volunteers in migrant suburbs". This is a study carried out by a researcher at Monash University and concludes that suburbs with high levels of ethnic diversity have lower levels of volunteering, and this challenges the conventional wisdom that diversity leads to a stronger, more cohesive society. It's disturbing to me because I believe there is more than a little truth in it. Most volunteers I have come across in my 10 years in this country have been white Anglo-Celtic Australians. So from a purely unscientific, personal observation, I would have to painfully accept the findings of the study, although its conclusions around social cohesion may still be arguable.

I looked into my own mind to understand why I have myself never volunteered. [I participated in a walk in aid of juvenile diabetes research once, I do donate blood once or twice a year, plus I donate to charities once in a while, but I don't think any of that counts as "volunteering". To my mind, volunteering is the regular sacrifice of one's time and effort towards some community activity.]

I can think of some reasons for the study's findings:

1. First, the nitpick. The study says that 18% of Australian-born middle-income earners aged 25-64 were volunteers, but only 13% of those from non-English speaking countries were. Is this really much of a difference? Are we merely comparing 'low' and 'lower'?

2. Speaking for myself and my wife, both of us work full-time to pay off a mortgage. We're painfully aware that we came to this country in our mid-thirties with hardly any assets, and we have a lot of catching up to do, monetarily speaking. We could not afford to buy a property in Epping, and we used to envy the Australian-born residents of that suburb who were sitting pretty on expensive properties on which the mortgages were long since paid off. Perhaps we unconsciously view volunteering as a luxury that only people with a more comfortable financial situation can afford. When a family can get by comfortably on one partner's income, the other can afford to volunteer and thereby keep themselves occupied as well. New migrants simply don't have the time to spare. They're too busy catching up. The weekends go towards kids' activities, grocery shopping, houseful chores that couldn't be done during the week, social engagements and just plain, much-needed relaxation. If a volunteer activity is going to take a 2-4 hour bite out of a weekend, it's a pretty big chunk of one's spare time. Moreover, if it's an ongoing commitment every weekend, it constrains many of one's own activities.

The flaw with this theory is that migrants from English-speaking countries tend to volunteer, according to the study. It's only migrants from non-English-speaking countries who don't. Perhaps the former come into Australia at a much higher level of financial comfort? I'm not sure.

3. Perhaps non-English-speaking countries (read: poorer countries) have less of a culture of volunteering, which translates into migrants from these countries not exhibiting this behaviour. Speaking unscientifically again and from memory, the India I remember had, per capita, fewer volunteers than I see in Australia. I certainly don't remember my parents, relatives or friends volunteer for anything. I interpret that to indicate that we were too busy struggling to get ahead in a country with limited resources and severe competition for everything. Poor people don't volunteer, and neither do middle-class people. The only volunteers I saw in India were well-to-do housewives - "social workers", as they were called. Of course, my experience is limited and not an indication of the true state of affairs.

4. The study mentions that English proficiency seems to have a small impact on people's inclination to volunteer. I can second that. I consider myself fluent in English (as are many other people from the Indian subcontinent), but the job of volunteering in any people-facing role seems to require the ability to keep up a steady, cheerful banter and an unending series of humorous comments. I'm not sure I could measure up. Most subcontinentals, however proficient their English, come across as too serious at work for this reason. We tend to ask a couple of businesslike questions and then process things silently. If a person with decent English language skills can feel intimidated in volunteer settings dominated by humorously articulate Aussies, what about migrants with poorer English skills? This is not a mere excuse. These social situations can create real feelings of inadequacy. Can you blame migrants for not seeking them out more enthusiastically? Perhaps we need to prime the pump with a few ethnic volunteers first to tease out more participation from other ethnic migrants. That way, they won't feel outnumbered and "outarticulated". That will take a concerted effort on the part of many people.

5. The study acknowledges that migrants' altruism may likely be directed to friends, families and neighbours, not through organised civic, sporting and welfare organisations. Again, I can second that. I see a lot of mutual assistance being rendered within the Indian community here. Newer migrants get a lot of help in settling in, with free furniture and other second-hand goods, plenty of tips and helpful suggestions, and a general feeling of warmth that makes them feel welcome. We ourselves have very good relations with our next-door neighbours on either side, (neither of them Indian, by the way), and have often exchanged favours. But that wouldn't count as "volunteering".

However, all said and done, it's important for migrants to be seen as fitting into their adopted country and making a positive contribution. Merely being law-abiding is not enough. We need to do something positive.

I'm stung by the report, and I'm determined to do something about it. One of my co-workers at work is a volunteer with the State Emergency Services (SES) and another volunteers as a surf lifeguard. They're both Australian-born caucasians, of course. No rigorous physical activity for me, please, I'm South Indian. But once my son's Selective School exam gets over next month, I'm seriously going to look at doing some volunteering in some mild, sedentary occupation.

I guess the truth hurts.

Post a Comment