Ready to lend a hand
The humanitarian response to the 2004 Asian tsunami was swift and global. But of all the tasks outside relief agencies and foreign soldiers undertook, none was as grim as that assigned to the Indonesian volunteers in Banda Aceh dubbed “the body-snatchers.” Their mission: to clear the provincial capital of putrefying corpses, both to preserve the dignity of the tens of thousands of victims and to prevent epidemics among survivors. For weeks, they inched quadrant by quadrant through the wrecked cityscape, freeing decomposing remains from the rubble for burial in mass graves. “It was very, very surprising,” says Hasballah M. Saad, an Indonesian human-rights commissioner. “We never imagined that people would come spontaneously.”
The volunteers’ sacrifices were emblematic of an underappreciated force in modern Asia: the power of community. Time and again, the region’s globalized youth are cast as money-grubbing me-firsters—which is to say, the 21st century’s version of America’s post-World War II baby boomers. In Japan, leaders castigate the “parasite singles” who live at home in suspended adolescence; in Singapore, they fret about the younger generation’s propensity to avoid the costs and cares of child-rearing. Everywhere the premise that an Asian “me generation” has emerged is seldom if ever challenged. After all, study after study has plotted the rise of millions of new consumers across the region, noting that global economic growth increasingly hinges on the buying power of well-to-do households in places like Shanghai, Jakarta and Mumbai. One would think that all they want to do—and all the world wants them to do—is spend, spend, spend.
Such observations aren’t so much wrong as one-dimensional. History shows that industrializing countries evolve—often radically—with each successive generation. So in light of Asia’s breakneck modernization, it’s little wonder that values are changing fast. But alongside the spread of unbridled capitalism and conspicuous consumption, the region is also experiencing a profusion of new nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), a religious resurgence and rising nationalism. There are estimated 2 million NGOs in India, and China now has 2,000 registered “green” groups—up from zero in the early 1990s. In Indonesia, students from the top three universities in the country were surveyed on their career plans in 2004. An astonishing 73 percent said they would prefer to work for an NGO than for the government, and about the same number said civic organizations could do more than government to improve the country. In these Asian countries and others, the operative pronoun is “we”—the power of groups to enhance the common good.
In fact, the interplay between individualism and collective action underpins much of Asia’s dynamism. One example is modern-day Bangladesh. Infamous for bad governance and incessant civil unrest, the country of 145 million has nonetheless become the least-developed world’s overachiever. Its gravity-defying economy is expected to grow by 6.7 percent this year, and the country is on track to meet its United Nations-mandated millennium development goals on poverty reduction, gender equality, literacy and rural development.
But how? One growth driver is the millions of grass-roots enterprises funded by small-scale loans extended without collateral to poor households. The other: a vibrant, youth-oriented NGO community that bolsters educational and health services. “The government is wobbly and ineffective,” says micro-credit pioneer Muhamad Yunus, founder of Dhaka-based Grameen Bank and winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. “But our NGOs are strong and getting stronger, and they focus on the issues we need them to.”
Disorienting change can inspire what looks like selfish behavior, to be sure, as rapid economic growth destroys traditional social structures faster than new ones can be built. One example is the magnetic pull boomtowns like Guangzhou, Ho Chi Minh City or Bangalore exert on the best and brightest young talent in their respective countries. Often, the rural migrants who make good in the city find themselves disconnected and alone. “Initially, a lot of their riches go to satisfying selfish demands,” says Shalabh Sahai, a 30-year-old resident of Mumbai who received his M.B.A. from the prestigious Indian Institute of Rural Development in Anand.
But, Sahai goes on to note, “as the number of these people increases and they get more experience, many begin to say ‘I should do something more’.” That was his thinking when he joined two classmates to form the nonprofit group iVolunteers back in 2002. The group, which has 9,000 active members in four cities, seeks to link young elites with suitable needy causes. Since its inception the matchmaking service has arranged for thousands of volunteers—mostly IT professionals or bankers aged 25 to 35—to mentor orphans, teach slum kids to trek, visit old folks homes or advise grassroots environmental groups.
“We have a lot of young people who are extremely intelligent and earn big salaries,” says 27-year-old Misha Bhatt, who heads the group’s Mumbai operation. “They meet others, brainstorm solutions to problems. The feel-good factor is extremely high.” iVolunteers, which is expanding its services through links with companies also looking to do good, reflects a signal change in India: The tradition of village-level charitable giving is being replaced by corporate and individual giving, coming from cities and the new rich.
Different countries in the region are naturally at different stages. In China, grassroots activism dealing with anything other than environmental issues is largely suspect; Beijing severely curtails the formation of independent NGOs. In many ways the bigger challenge is to foster a sense of community within the workplace, as so many of the so-called little emperors born under China’s one-child policy start their careers. Employers report that screaming matches, crying jags and other sandbox antics have become commonplace, as has job-hopping fueled by low job satisfaction. New hires often “come with a sense that the rules don’t apply to me,” says William Dodson, CEO of Silk Road Advisors, a Suzhou-based management consultancy. “The next five to 10 years are going to be rough.”
And in fact, less individualism is not always a good thing. In Malaysia last week, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi warned that religious and ethnic tensions could cause the country “to fail as a multiracial and multireligious nation.” His comments followed recent clashes between Malay Muslims and ethnic Chinese, many of whom are Christian. On Internet bulletin boards in Japan, South Korea and China, young nationalists trade slurs over everything from Japan’s 20th-century imperialism to North Korea’s recent nuclear test—suggesting that economic integration doesn’t always portend warm diplomatic relations. In South Korea, President Roh Moo Hyun has edged his government steadily away from Washington, its mainstay cold-war ally, into a more neutral position vis-à-vis Pyongyang. That shift appeals to Roh’s young political base, which is left-leaning, pro-unification, and favors egalitarian economic policies. In many Asian countries—and certainly in China, Japan and Korea—the younger generation is more willing than their parents to wear their nationalism on their shirtsleeves.
But at least the passion shows that Asians have more on their minds than just making money. Take the Muslim Student Association at the University of the Philippines in Manila, an elite training ground for future business and political leaders. Its members, many of them from impoverished Mindanao, are eager to serve their home communities. Association President Abdel Jamal Disangcopan, 22, is the son of two doctors. He attends law school but doesn’t dream of becoming a highly paid corporate lawyer. “Money is just a plus. Fulfillment is first,” he says. “I don’t want to be stuck in a life where … I’m not helping anybody.” He aims to return to Mindanao and become a much-needed public defender. Another student in the Muslim Student Association says she wants to return to Mindanao to practice medicine, after she earns her degrees, and a third plans to return to become a teacher. All are likely to make good on their pledges—making small but invaluable contributions to the societies in which they live. Autor: George Wehrfritz