Becoming an International UN Volunteer: possibility for anyone and everyone

December 4, 2023

Photo: Jeong Yun's personal archive

No matter how strange it may sound, there are many myths and misconceptions surrounding volunteering. For example, when I tell people that I serve as an International UN Volunteer (UNV) at UNDP Kazakhstan, many presume that my service involves humanitarian activities in the field. This is, of course, not the case. In this sense, my transition to volunteering from a regular job as a translator and researcher raised quite a few questions. Contrary to these assumptions, my daily responsibilities as a UNV closely resemble my prior professional routine. I attend my office at the UN House, dedicating a substantial portion of my time to producing documents and reports sitting in front of the desk. My main tasks as a Programme Specialist are producing reports, writing brief notes, creating project concept notes, supporting the drafting of project proposals, and many other written works.

Another prevailing misconception about volunteering is that it is for young people with limited experience, for instance, for university students. However, this notion is inaccurate. The statistics shows that average age of UNV stands at 34 years, with only 33 percent of the UNVs falling below the age of 30. I myself began serving as International UNV in my thirties. In 2022, there was a noteworthy 38 percent increase in the number of UN Expert Volunteers, requiring over 15 years of experience, underscoring a growing demand for highly experienced professionals in the realm of volunteering.

Contrary to popular belief, volunteerism encompasses a broad spectrum of talents. People from diverse backgrounds contribute their experiences and expertise as UNV to bring a positive impact to the world and move one step closer to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in all corners of the world. Engaging in humanitarian work represents just one facet of the broader volunteer landscape. I did not know it was possible for me to become a full-time volunteer with my academic and professional background until the chance came to me. While serving at UNDP Kazakhstan for the past ten months, I met many UNV colleagues with a wide range of academic and professional backgrounds. It made me realise that volunteering is a viable option for individuals with various experiences and expertise.

Photo: Jeong Yun's personal archive

Opportunity to Develop

The largest number of UNVs serve at UNDP, about 27 percent of total UNVs deployed in 2022. That not only fosters a robust community of UNVs within UNDP, facilitating meaningful engagement but also underscores the agency’s adept understanding of effectively harnessing the skills and expertise of UNVs. Consequently, this expands the potential for UNVs to be involved in development work.

UNDP’s abundant experience in appropriately assigning tasks to UNVs to optimise their capabilities gave me a unique opportunity. Recognising my proficiency in researching and producing reports from prior experiences, my supervisor entrusted me to lead the initial draft of the Secretary-General’s report on “International cooperation and coordination for the human and ecological rehabilitation and economic development of the Semipalatinsk region of Kazakhstan”, a triennial report submitted to the UN General Assembly. It was challenging but an excellent opportunity to test and improve my competency. After the initial drafting, the work became more collaborative in nature as it developed into the final report. I learnt so much from feedback, inputs and collaboration with my colleagues from different departments.

Working as an International UNV in this global organisation has been a brilliant opportunity to develop my capacity to harmoniously adapt to an international work environment. Consistently collaborating with diverse stakeholders expanded my understanding of the international development field.

From what I have heard and experienced, being a UNV not only develops your competencies but is also a significant entry point to further pursue a career in the UN system. It was very inspiring to hear how Ms. Katarzyna Wawiernia, UNDP Resident Representative in Kazakhstan, began her career in the UN system by serving as a volunteer.

I find my journey at UNDP Kazakhstan as an International UNV has been an exciting and fulfilling experience so far. What's even more important is that every day I derive great satisfaction from contributing my share to something significant for the country and its people. I firmly believe that if you get the chance to become an International UN Volunteer, you should seize it. The possibility is open to anyone with aspiration and dedication and is a marvellous opportunity to develop tremendously.

Photo: Jeong Yun's personal archive