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WHAT do small towns like Flint in the United States, an urban centre with about 100,000 people in the Mid-West; and Plymouth, the United Kingdom, a port city on the Atlantic with about 234,982 inhabitants, have in common with an urban colossus like San Francisco?

Is there anything that binds and unites together such diverse cities?

Perhaps their citizens, regardless of their different stories and backgrounds are driven by a common passion and determination to change for the betterment of their communities?

Flint, Plymouth and San Francisco are at the vanguard of putting volunteerism at the centre of their planning endeavours thanks to innovative partnerships between their elected officials and their citizens, all united by a common desire to improve their communities by supporting and promoting the strategic mobilisation of local volunteers.

They were duly acknowledged by winning the 2019 Engaged Cities Award, an international recognition promoted by Cities of Services, a US-based non-profit organisation founded by Michael R. Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies, and three-term mayor of New York City.

Each of the initiatives promoted by these winning cities responded to local crisis and was fuelled by locals’ creativity, ingenuity and determination to respond to urgent issues that were affecting their communities.

This include from setting up a portal in Flint to help solve the urban calamity of having a disproportionate number of abandoned houses, vandalism and abuses, to a crowd-funding portal in Plymouth to improve local neighbourhoods, to the creation of a private-public programme in San Francisco that brings together the administration and local volunteers to develop common solutions for the most pressing issues.

Even more interesting was the fact that among the 10 finalists there was Bogota, the capital of the embattled country of Colombia that these days is facing a wave of public unrest.

If Bogota was able to come up with an innovative app to collect citizens’ complaints and feedback, why is Kuala Lumpur or any other Malaysian city not coming up with any innovative programme that puts the interests and the efforts of their citizens at the forefront? Volunteerism is key in promoting localised wellbeing, help translate words into deeds and implement strategic planning into effective action that improves people’s lives.

As Bloomberg said, “people are the greatest resource that a city has” and a much bigger effort must be put in place to harness the power of citizens and volunteerism and cities are the best ever platform to achieve this.

Volunteerism and active citizenship can be the unifying factors in a society like Malaysia. FILE PIC
Volunteerism and active citizenship can be the unifying factors in a society like Malaysia. FILE PIC

We should always write about volunteerism and active citizenship, but Thursday (Dec 5, 2019) was a special day to do it because it was celebrated worldwide as International Volunteer Day. We should all reflect, once again, about the power of volunteering and its untapped potential for Malaysia.

The theme of this year’s celebrations is “Volunteer for an Inclusive Future” and this is fitting with the holistic efforts being undertaken by Malaysia through the Shared Prosperity Vision 2030, the strategic blueprint underpinning the upcoming 12th Malaysia Plan (2021-2025) and the 13th Plan (2026-2030).

In the recent Malaysia SDG Summit in Kuala Lumpur earlier this month, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad envisioned the Shared Prosperity Vision 2030 with the overarching philosophy of development for all, with a specific thrust that intends to address wealth and income disparities and in turn achieve the objectives of becoming a united, prosperous and peaceful nation.

The fact that Dr Mahathir spoke about the fight against disparities and inequalities during a major national forum focused on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is truly remarkable because achieving the SDGs is going to be the biggest challenge ever faced by the nation.

Fighting inequalities is going to be the battleground to safeguard our planet and increase the wellbeing of those marginalised.

It is not a coincidence that the upcoming Human Development Report, whose 2019 edition will be soon be launched by the United Nations Development Programme, is focused on the many forms of inequalities in the 21st century.

Volunteerism is certainly not a panacea but it can be of great help by providing the tools to the citizens to come up and be part of the solution.

Volunteerism is an important ingredient to face the common challenges faced by all Malaysians.

Citizenship and public partnerships, together with the involvement of the private sector, have a huge potential to change for the better the ways local communities are run.

Developmental change requires a form of leadership based on positive values, integrity and accountability and intrinsic motivation. Investing on volunteerism means investing on people’s capacities and skills because there is no better “gym” to harness people’s character, strengths and values than volunteering.

Perhaps the Malaysia Future Leaders School, a recently launched programme, should also include in its curriculum a strong emphasis on active citizenship and volunteerism, ensuring that the youths of the country are equipped to engage other groups in game-changing transformative activities at local levels. Citizens from all age groups are those who can complement and strengthen the efforts of the federal and state governments.

The Shared Prosperity Vision 2030 would remain a pipe dream without active involvement and engagement of all citizens, united not by their ethnicities or by their affiliation to a political party, but by their desire to achieve the common good. In this regard, volunteerism and active citizenship can really be the unifying factors in a society like Malaysia.

Setting up Volunteering Councils nationwide could bring together local stakeholders — from politicians in power to politicians in the opposition to civil activists, non-governmental organisations and students, all united to find creative solutions to the multiple challenges found at the community level. Investing in financial resources is essential and indispensible, but investing in people’s determination to create positive change is equally important.

Only such combination of strategies can generate a truly shared prosperity in the country and hopefully thousands of cities of service will start shining throughout Malaysia.

Happy volunteering day to all.

The writer is the co-founder of ENGAGE, an NGO partnering with youths to promote social inclusion in Nepal

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