A recent article in the Washington Post examines the trend toward increased volunteerism in Latin America's largest and most populous country, Brazil.
A recent study by Rio de Janeiro's Institute of Religious Studies found that between 1988 and 1998 the number of volunteer organizations in Brazil rose from 1,041 to 4,000. Another study found that in 1998, Brazil had one of the highest percentages of volunteerism in the developing world, with roughly one-quarter of the country's population involved in some sort of charitable work. Experts say the rapid increase in volunteerism reflects the inability of Brazil's public sector to cope with the societal effects of widespread poverty.
"More and more as a society, we understand that our participation is what will strengthen our democracy," said Milu Villela, president of the Sao Paulo-based Volunteer Center. "We understand that we have a role to play as citizens, and that's a new thing for Brazilians."
While volunteer organizations cater to a wide range of causes, many of them focus on providing desperately needed social services such as food, shelter, and childcare to the needy. According to a recent survey funded by Johns Hopkins University, many of the volunteers at the organizations that provide these services are themselves poor, earning as little as $230 a month at their regular jobs.
Typical of this new breed of volunteer is civil servant Joao Melo Tavares. "I wanted to be part of Brazil's solution," says Tavares, who considers himself lower middle class.. "When you're a volunteer, you forget yourself a little bit."