Among the thousands of matters that were overlooked and that are now coming to light because of the current situation, one such matter is or should be the major role that the voluntary sector and all other voluntary activities, whether carried out in the context of civil society organizations or outside any formal framework, are playing more and more in every country.
Even before this crisis, this sector contributed considerably to society, in France and elsewhere: in Europe, the civil society sector represents about ten percent of employment, three-quarters of which is in education, health and social services.
In France, there are about 1.3 million active civil society organizations, half of which are involved in cultural, sports or recreational activities; each year, between 60,000 and 75,000 new organizations are created. A small number of these organizations (less than 15%), especially in the social fields, have salaried employees; more precisely, 163,400 of these organizations employ 1.8 million people, a figure that is roughly equivalent to 10% of private sector employees; and to this must be added the 80,000 young people involved in civic engagement. Their contribution to gross domestic product (GDP), however, which is measured only by their budget, is only EUR 80 billion, or about 3.5% of GDP, which underscores the fact that these employees, however efficient and useful they may be, are underpaid.
If we add the volunteers (there are 12 million in France) who work for free in these organizations, mostly on a part-time basis, and if we were to simply measure the value of their work at the same value as that of underpaid employees in the civil society sector, the GDP in each country would increase by roughly 2% (for example, the coalition of U.S. non-profits, The Independent Sector, estimates that, in 2018, the contribution of volunteers to the U.S. economy was 8 billion hours worked and 300 billion dollars, i.e. around 1.5% of the U.S. GDP).
To this must be added informal volunteering, outside of any organizational framework: helping neighbours, childcare, and so many other activities that still represent, depending on the country, between 2% and 10% of GDP; it is particularly important to the economy of emerging countries. And then there is all the work carried out, mainly by women, within families.
What would happen if all these activities were remunerated at market prices, by the State, local authorities or patrons of the arts? After all, this would be normal: it is not fair that some people are paid much less than others to perform the same socially useful function. If this were the case, the share of social activities in GDP would be much higher than it is, apparently, today; and many people complain that it is excessive…
In the current context of the lockdown, these practices have developed considerably. Both among those who are confined, and in the service of those who are not. Organizations are working harder than ever. Volunteers, both formal and informal, are more numerous than ever. Digital platforms were created to organize this volunteering to assist those on the front lines. And the social value of these activities has increased dramatically.
It is as if, when the crisis lowers market GDP, it increases its symmetry, non-GDP non-market value.
When GDP increases again, which will happen one day, probably further away than we think, we must not forget that it is because of what GDP does not measure that society has been able to survive; and that the market has had time to reorganize itself. If our societies are not ungrateful, which is far from a settled reality, then the civil society world will have to be given a major place.
From now on, they should be given the means to function, grow, and provide more and more services. Ironically, this contribution is what will make it possible for the market economy, which these organizations have been excluded from, to survive. Never before has corporate patronage, subsidies to NGOs and other civil society organizations, and the social and political valorisation of this sector been more necessary and urgent.