Taking up the volunteer baton as incoming executive president of Din l-Art Ħelwa, nothing is clearer to me in my first week of office than the continued value volunteer non-governmental-organisations bring to society, whichever social mission they support. When such organisations are established, it is usually because there is a function lacking within the government that is not fulfilling a responsibility. Ten years ago, the United Nations recognised the worth of volunteers to society and 2011 has been established as the European Year of Volunteering to honour and develop their role.
Din l-Art Ħelwa was established as a volunteer non-governmental organisation in 1965. Its mission was to preserve Malta’s historic architectural assets and the cultural landscape, at a time when the notion of cultural landscape had not even been enshrined in national legislation.
On July 9, 1965, I was a teenager at the Manoel Theatre, circulating inky leaflets printed earlier on a noisy Gestetner machine. The Manoel was full to the rafters. Maurice Caruana Curran and other inspired, forward thinkers were founding a national organisation to safeguard Malta’s beauty.
All attending were bound by the same passion to preserve the unique blend that is Malta: Valletta, its extraordinary Grand Harbour described by Gio Ponti as an unmatched example of place “where the hand of God and man have worked best together”, its clear blue seas, golden beaches and rugged ridges and the tawny coloured stone of its buildings. A blend which makes us proud to be Maltese and differentiates us from others.
The next day, a sensational newspaper stated this was yet another of “those associations”, that it would not last a week. Well, it was proved very wrong. Not only has Din l-Art Ħelwa lasted but it has been a major player that has changed public perception about the value of heritage. Its volunteers have had to grow as the tasks facing the preservation of our cultural assets have multiplied. The responsibility of confronting the mammoth challenges for the conservation of our natural and built environment from development, economic pressure, neglect and abuse has increased manifold.
It takes great commitment to meet all this while leading by example with restoration projects of major historic sites, some of monumental significance. Comino’s St Mary’s Tower, the Red Tower, the Msida Bastion Garden and Ħal Millieri’s frescoes are proud testimony of the results volunteers can achieve. Din l-Art Ħelwa saved these treasures and many others armed with just a prayer and a song, the support of its many loyal sponsors, and… with just plain down-to-earth elbow grease for the love of what it does.
The skills volunteers bring with them to an NGO like Din l-Art Ħelwa have a myriad facets. The dedication they give freely to Malta is indeed astonishing, even humbling. Historians, researchers, architects, engineers, gardeners, archivists, writers, accountants, lobbyists, volunteers such as these, and others working for different social causes, must be recognised this year.
Recognition does sometimes bring higher responsibility. Potential breeds potential. For change to be brought about, there is no better place to bear influence than to occupy positions where impact is made on the mindset of our administrators. That is where volunteers can change top level thinking best.
As many will know, some government committees and boards are bureaucratically slow. Sitting on them can be a self-sacrificing grind while on others one can contribute positively. So if volunteers are invited to assist the government in its role, there is no better place for NGOs to direct their time and energy. The involvement of groups such as Din l-Art Ħelwa in matters of national importance is a measure of esteem and, today, it is involved with other NGOs in issues such as planning for our marine resources, climate change, the management of ecological areas. This involvement comes after years of directing thought at those who have the power to bring change. And change does come about, albeit slowly.
The government is now committing funding to the environment and to restoration of our built heritage after decades of disregard for these assets. But we need to ask what happens when major European funding dries out?
Even now NGOs are a potential funnel for funds from the private sector to benefit the country. If the government increased incentives for donations to heritage, sponsors would be further encouraged. Those who voluntarily give to volunteers make our work possible and these too deserve public recognition. Without them we simply could not function. Yet, most media cannot acknowledge sponsors due to legislative restrictions, an issue that needs addressing both locally and in Europe where different measures apply.
This year, at Din l-Art Ħelwa, our voluntary role continues. It has not changed, it just grows and, with it, so does our commitment. Our voice continues to be heard with interest and respect and, even if many still think NGOs are small, we are proof they are never too small to be effective. Thirty four hard-saved monuments in Malta proudly stand in testimony of just that.
The author is executive president of Din l-Art Ħelwa