Activism is a cry for engagement, it arises when people feel incapable of making a difference in the circumstances of their own lives or that of their neighbors. In this situation, an external response, often by the state, is sought to ameliorate the given challenge, and the activist’s effort is designed to influence, demand or even force that response.

Activism appeals to the outsider for help; engagement offers oneself as the first responder.

Responsibility by the self, stands as the clarion call and posture of a volunteer and the International Volunteer Day (IVD) marked yearly on 5th December, provides a reflexive occasion to take stock on the role of volunteers and how to harness their capabilities to advance all spheres of development. A radical shift is required to make social development meaningful especially in Kenya’s politicised context, where development outcomes are ever the subject of contestation even when the benefits thereof, speak for themselves, should urge us to think more deeply on the potential place of volunteerism.

Whereas there is no single accepted definition of volunteerism, its’ attributes are fairly well known. As articulated by the United Nations, volunteership encompasses three core elements: the activity should not be undertaken “primarily” for financial reward (although expenses and “some token payment” may be allowed); it should be undertaken of an individual’s own free will (although an element of compulsion may be acceptable in schemes such as school students’ community service); and the activity should benefit someone other than the volunteer, while recognizing that they, too, may gain significant benefit.

Kenya has a rich culture of giving and volunteerism. According the World Giving Index 2017, Kenya ranked among top 10 countries with a 51 percent participation in volunteering time and 60 percent participation in giving behavior – but these efforts are often crisis driven and patter off once the disaster ebbs. The mounds of uncollected garbage in our urban neighbourhoods, clogged and polluted rivers due to poor waste disposal, not forgetting our inability to respond to accidents or outbreak of fire such as more recently in Salgaa and Sinai slums respectively, reveal the wanting state of our public philanthropy. The lack of institutionalised culture and practice of volunteership means that certain critical values deriving from the practice are not fully cultivated to become an ingrained aspect of our collective conduct.

The Kenya Red Cross stands out as a leading first responder whenever the country is faced with natural or man- made disasters. Based on its enormous institutional capacity and proven capability, the government often relies on its’ support and partnership in humanitarian situations. Equally, the St. Johns Ambulance, the only voluntary organization established by statute, seeks to “encourage and promote all works of humanity and charity for the relief of persons in sickness, distress, suffering and danger without any distinction of race, class, colour or creed; [and] to render aid to the sick and wounded in war or in peace.” Sadly, although well institutionalised, St. Johns remains rather limited in its ambition and scale of operation.

Over the last five years, we have witnessed concerted effort towards making volunteership count more in public life. At policy and institutional levels, a National Volunteership Policy was adopted in 2015 and a Volunteership Board proposed to spearhead the promotion of volunteerism in Kenya is in place. A National Volunteer Secretariat based at the Labour Ministry has the mandate to coordinate volunteerism at national and county levels.

Programmatically, the Presidential Digital Talent Program (PDTP), was set up at the President’s office to draw youth towards innovation and support them incubate ideas that respond to Kenya’s developmental challenges. Further, Kenya’s attempt to set up its own Peace Corps, has seen the creation of the G-United Program in 2014. Housed at the Deputy President’s office, the one year program identifies new university graduates and embeds them within primary schools in different counties to participate in activities that promote national cohesion, strengthen primary education outcomes and community service. While these programmes have benefitted slightly over 1000 volunteers, the challenge faced by government-led volunteership efforts remain that of scale and sustainability as well as contextualization of volunteerism concept.

Volunteering can play a role in capitalising on the youthful energy away from radicalism and vigilantism. In a time of high unemployment which dislocates youth passion from personal empowerment towards unrest, volunteering for crucial causes can begin to help in transforming youth angst and re-centering their focus towards more beneficial social conduct.

As President Kenyatta commences on his final term in office, it is critical to consider the utility of volunteership as a tool for national mobilisation towards positive and shared outcomes. It is equally important to appreciate that volunteers risk their lives every day to care for people affected by humanitarian crises. In braving many dangers to help others, driven by the desire to make a difference in the face of human suffering, volunteers, especially at Red Cross, St. Johns and in myriad other formal and informal places across the scope of our land, must be appreciated more.


(Dr. Korir Sing’Oei is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya and a Legal Advisor, Executive office of the Deputy President.)