As Indonesia celebrates Ramadan, Ms Julliand and Toily Kurbanov, Executive Coordinator, explain* to United Nations volunteers why volunteering encompasses the generosity and compassion of the Islamic holy month.
“When an earthquake measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale struck Palu, Central Sulawesi, in September 2018, two memories surfaced for Moh. Tophan Saputra. He recalled seeing images on television of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed nearly 230,000 people. He also recalled how when a high school student flooded his family’s house, ransacked his parents’ business, and stopped his education.
Those memories prompted Tofan, then 24, to travel about a 12-hour drive from Luwuk to help the residents of Palu after the earthquake. “We were very panicked for our loved ones. We were unable to contact them because there was no telephone connection or electricity,” Tofan said of the immediate aftermath of the disaster that killed more than 4,300 people.
Through a local organization, he joined the emergency food distribution service, helped reunite lost children separated from their families, and arranged psychological support for those in shock. In an environment where looting had contributed to an atmosphere of mistrust, Tofan’s understanding of the dynamics of the local community proved crucial: “The community approach is very important and it is the role of the volunteer to promote social inclusion among the victims.” promote,” he says.
The Spirit of Gotong Royong
In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, millions of volunteers like Tofan embody the values of generosity and compassion held in high esteem in the holy month of Ramadan. In a prominent 2018 poll, about 53% of Indonesians said they had voluntarily devoted time to an organization in the past month. The Indonesian tradition of community self-help is so venerable that it has its own nomenclature: gotong royong, which means mutual assistance.
Indonesia’s spirit of volunteering has resonated in many other countries. The UN Volunteers (UNV) flagship 2022 State of the World’s Volunteerism report draws on case studies across continents to explore how volunteer-government cooperation can help build more equal, inclusive societies. The report estimates that 862 million people worldwide volunteer each month, or about one in seven people. Their contribution is an integral part of the new social contract UN Secretary-General António Guterres says the world must build as she navigates the twin crises of COVID-19 and the climate emergency.
Indonesia, located along the Pacific Rim of Fire, is one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries. According to Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency, some 3,034 disasters affected 8.3 million people in 2021. Disasters, including COVID-19, have hampered the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and exacerbated pre-existing inequalities.
The UN supports all aspects of the Indonesian government’s efforts to respond to disasters. In 2021, that support included the formation of an oxygen task force to coordinate response to oxygen scarcity-related issues during the 2021 wave of COVID-19 infections and deaths in Indonesia. It is often volunteers who take the lead in disaster relief.
After the eruption of Mount Semeru on December 4, 2021 that killed more than 50 people and displaced another 10,000 in East Java’s Lumajang Regency, 25 midwife Restu Nur Intan Pratiwi was one of hundreds of local residents who served as regency. came to the rescue. She drove 90 minutes from her home in the town of Jember after searching online for volunteer opportunities in the area.
In Lumajang, Restu quickly realized that existing support services were not focused on the specific needs of women, “such as providing sanitary pads or special milk and vitamins for pregnant women.” Through a volunteer organization called Relawan Negeri, she began providing medical checkups to pregnant women in emergency shelters. She also coordinated with a local hospital to arrange free access to ultrasound services.
Gender-sensitive interventions such as Restu’s are vital for sustainable reconstruction after a disaster, but can be inhibited by unequal gender dynamics within volunteering. For example, men are more likely to participate in formal volunteering, while women are more likely to engage in informal volunteering, which tends to be of lower status, attract less recognition and receive less practical support than formal volunteering. The State of the World’s Volunteering report advises policy makers to take gender-sensitive measures that can optimize women’s participation, for example by ensuring that women have access to decision-making processes.
The spirit of Gotong Royong goes back generations, but since 2004 the Indonesian Ministry of Social Affairs has formalized volunteering through the Taruna Siaga Bencana (TAGANA). By the end of 2020, there were more than 39,000 TAGANA in Indonesia, with an additional 63,000 “friends of TAGANA” in professions such as journalism, art and civil society.
In 2021, the UN partnered with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to develop online training modules for TAGANA, including a competence-based capacity-building framework that emphasizes gender inclusiveness in humanitarian aid.
Twi Adi, a 38-year-old volunteer from Malang, East Java, has been a TAGANA since 2006. He has participated in several emergency relief activities, including in the wake of the December 2021 eruption of Mount Semeru. The Ministry of Social Affairs gives TAGANA a small compensation, but Twi says the benefits of volunteering go far beyond monetary compensation. “I love helping others and making a difference at the community level,” he says, “I’m not rich, but I can devote my time and energy to my community.”
* A version of this article was originally published in the Jakarta Post on April 18, 2022