Helen Clark: International Year of Volunteers and the commemoration of its tenth anniversary

Dec 5, 2011

Remarks for Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator on the occasion of the UN General Assembly plenary meeting on follow-up to the International Year of Volunteers and the commemoration of its tenth anniversary
Launch of the 2011 State of the World’s Volunteerism Report,
“Universal Values for Global Well-being”
5 December 2011
UN General Assembly, New York, 11:15am

I am pleased to be at this launch of the 2011 State of the World’s Volunteerism Report. Published by UN Volunteers, it is a comprehensive overview of volunteerism’s many forms, finding that it is universal in nature.

The report’s messages are relevant for Member States and for all who seek to overcome global challenges, empower people to build better lives, and achieve sustainable human development.

In the International Year of Volunteers in 2001, the General Assembly called on governments to recognize the potential of volunteerism to contribute to achieving sustainable development. It is timely to be reminded of that call as we now prepare for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development at Rio de Janeiro next year, and as we approach the 2015 target date for achieving the Millennium Development Goals and seek to make the progress towards them sustainable. 

This new Report asserts that the strong links between volunteerism and peace and human development are still not adequately recognized. Volunteerism, it says, is “one of the missing components of a development paradigm which still has economic growth at its core”. Conversely, we can say that the pursuit of human development and indeed of overall wellbeing will be enhanced by the contribution of volunteerism.

The expression of voluntarism may vary from country to country or between one language to the next, but the values which drive it are universal.  Volunteers share the desire and motivation to contribute to the common good, out of free will and in a spirit of solidarity, without expectation of material reward. The power and potential

they have to make a difference is remarkable.
As the Report states, “volunteerism in developed countries is the subject of extensive research, discussion, and writing”, and “is increasingly a part of the discourse on the kind of societies which we seek”.

Yet the report suggests that the same phenomenon in many developing countries has yet to be factored into strategic thinking about development. Doing so has the potential to enhance development.

The Report exposes a number of misperceptions about volunteerism, revealing that:

  • much of it takes place through small local groups and associations, and not through formal, structured, NGOs;
  • it happens across a wide range of sectors, and not just in the civil society sector;
  • it involves rich and poor alike;
  • it harnesses the energy of the skilled and the unskilled;
  • women and men volunteer for around the same number of hours;
  • young people do volunteer; and
  • volunteering is now on-line as well as face-to-face.

The many examples of volunteerism provided are, without exception, inspiring. For example:

  • since 1998 twenty million, mostly local, volunteers were recruited under the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Together they helped to immunize more than 2.5 billion children worldwide against polio;
  • volunteers in the Japanese Red Cross played an indispensable role in the aftermath of the terrible earthquake and tsunami earlier this year;
  • UN Volunteers make up a significant portion of the staff in UN peacekeeping missions - representing as many as one third of the international civilian staff in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, and elsewhere
  • 50,000 women volunteers in Nepal, supporting community health in underserved areas, improved maternal health by forty per cent over the past seventeen years;
  • the initiative of a group of young people in Chile building houses for families living in slums - spread to nineteen countries, and led to a programme which mobilizes more than 50,000 young volunteers every year for that purpose.

Johns Hopkins University estimates that bringing together all the people who volunteered through voluntary organisations between 1995 and 2000, in just 36 countries, would give you a number of people equivalent to the world’s ninth most populated country. That figure only includes those who chose to volunteer through organisations. The full scope of volunteerism is at this point impossible to gauge.

The motivation of volunteers everywhere is to do good. People act on their values and beliefs, and on their sense of community and solidarity. The universality of volunteerism is an expression of our shared values and common humanity. Leaders of countries and societies can and should choose to validate these contributions by recognizing them more visibly and more often, and by facilitating them.

Volunteerism for MDG achievement

As we strive now to accelerate progress to reach the Millennium Development Goals the contributions of volunteers need to be factored into the strategies, plans, and debates which influence and shape development priorities.  

Volunteerism needs to become an integral part of the way we do development. Where citizens are engaged and working to overcome their own challenges, development and peace are more enduring.

The people closest to the problems are most likely to provide the solutions. People living with challenges best understand the specific circumstances surrounding them and can readily help identify ways to overcome them. By engaging and mobilising individual citizens and civic groups, development efforts can be made more responsive and have greater impact.

To do this governments and local leaders should open up more space for volunteerism and establish the channels which enable and encourage people to contribute. UNDP and UNV are supporting countries’ efforts to do that around the world. UNV has, for example, helped more than twenty countries to develop laws which promote volunteerism and uphold the rights of volunteers.

Volunteerism can help turn national strategies and development policies into meaningful and sustained change in communities and in the lives of people.

Employing new and old technologies can help. The Government of Rwanda, for example, significantly reduced maternal deaths in rural districts by equipping volunteers working with pregnant women with mobile phones, enabling them to communicate with health-care professionals and seek emergency assistance. Rwanda is considering extending this successful concept to agriculture and education.   

The internet is also increasingly being used to recruit new volunteers and match people with projects and organisations which need their support. Engineers Without Borders in Cameroon, for example, brought together on-line volunteers to help explain complex techniques in user friendly language accessible to local farmers.

The intangible contribution

Volunteerism should not and cannot replace the responsibility of the state to deliver reliable services, invest in human development, and establish the responsive and accountable governance systems which are basic requirements for sustainable development.

Volunteerism’s impact can, however, be complementary, making development efforts more effective and empowering citizens, building their capabilities, and strengthening social trust and cohesion. 

The report comments on the impact volunteering has on individual well-being. Volunteering enhances fulfilment, self-worth and dignity. It empowers people to use their knowledge and apply their talents.

The role of volunteerism in strengthening social cohesion cannot be overstated. It can help troubled communities find ways back from the brink, as in in the Papua New Guinea highlands, where women came together from across warring villages to learn from each other and make improvement in local health and agricultural practices. By building trust and a common cause, they were then able to convince warring men of their mutual desire for peace, and helped to stop fighting between villages. This is one of countless known examples of the contributions of women to peace processes.

This tenth anniversary of the International Year of Volunteers is an opportunity to reflect on the contributions of volunteerism to our communities, and its potential to do so much more for development.

We need to understand better and acknowledge more the contributions made by volunteers, and to facilitate their efforts.  We in UNDP and our associated programme UNV look forward to working together with member states in these endeavors.


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