For most of the past year, our lives have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Lives have been lost, livelihoods disrupted, and education adversely impacted. Poverty levels have increased in some countries, societal bonds have been strained, and the overall trend of development has been reversed. Yet, despite the bleak outlook, we have witnessed stories of hope, courage, triumph and kindness towards one another: the spirit of oneness—Ubuntu, Obuntubulamu, Utu—as is commonly known in East and Southern Africa.
The spirit of volunteerism, innate in all of us, is what drives the selfless people who have during the COVID-19 pandemic, extended kindness to their neighbours, supported access to medical care for those in need, shopped for the elderly and other vulnerable people, among other acts of generosity. This resonates with a quote from former UN Secretary General, the late Kofi Annan: “Behind the progress lie many factors. One is the willingness of many individuals to donate their time, effort, resources and ideas to the well-beings and advancement of all. We call them volunteers.” Volunteers have been at the forefront of medical, community and societal responses across East and Southern Africa. The COVID-19 Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan developed by the WHO identifies community volunteers as key stakeholders for risk communication, community engagement and in provision of health services.
Since joining the UN Volunteers programme for East and Southern Africa in November, I have been humbled by the selflessness shown by volunteers of all ages, races, and genders across the region. In Zambia, more than 800 community youth volunteers have reached about 700,000 households through a door-to-door COVID-19 outreach initiative, debunking myths and spreading life-saving messages. In Kenya, Nicodemus Otieno and Cynthia Wandabwa are two among 50 UN Volunteer health professionals deployed by UNDP Kenya across the country to support the national COVID-19 response. In Mozambique, Ângela Macie, a UN Volunteer serving with the World Food Programme (WFP), is on the frontlines supporting logistics for food distribution in vulnerable communities. In Somalia, there are many UN Volunteer medical doctors supporting UN clinics in remote regions. In moments like this, these and many other volunteers globally are supporting countries across the region and the world in combating COVID-19.
As countries move to build back better their socio-economic foundations that have been greatly fissured by the pandemic, volunteers will play a vital role. According to the UNV 2018 State of the World’s Volunteerism Report, over a billion people volunteer every year globally, with many more willing to do so if given the opportunity. This translates to one in every seven people, an equivalent of 109 million full-time workers globally. If they constituted a country, the global volunteer workforce would be the fifth largest in the world, roughly equivalent to the number of employed people in Indonesia. The contribution of volunteerism to GDP cannot be underestimated. In Kenya volunteerism contributes to about 3.6 percent of the GDP according to research commissioned by Kenya’s State Department for Social Protection in 2017.
The most recent commemoration of the International Volunteer Day (IVD) recognized the contributions of such volunteers. Across this region, governments, UN partners, academia, civil society and volunteer involving organizations enumerated several benefits of volunteerism including; support building skills and services particularly in far-flung areas and ensuring building community resilience. Noting that volunteers at times work in challenging environments, they also advocated for support and care for volunteers. From lessons of 2020, anecdotes from partners showed that online volunteering works just as well as onsite volunteering where extenuating circumstances limit the latter. Further evidence showed that the nimbleness of local volunteerism in particular flexibility, swiftness to act, the ability to self-organize were attributes that came in handy in response to COVID-19.
UNV ESARO will continue partnering with the UN and member states in the region to promote volunteerism as a “powerful and crosscutting means of implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” as recognized, for the first time, in the Quadrennial Comprehensive Policy Review of operational activities of the United Nations system, adopted in December 2020.