Last Monday, December 5, I attended the events hosted by the United Nations Volunteers at the UN headquarters in New York City in celebration of International Volunteer Day and the 10th Anniversary of the International Year of Volunteers. The day’s agenda included attendance at the General Assembly session with official statements by the session’s president and remarks sent by the Secretary General of the UN, Mr. Ban Ki-moon. Delegates spoke about their countries’ commitment to volunteering and UN Volunteers (UNV) shared their personal experience contributing to their host country’s socio-economic and development needs. The day also served as an opportunity to release the State of the World’s Volunteerism Report, a comprehensive overview of volunteerism today.
You can read details about the sessions on the UNV site.
I also attended two panel presentations, one on “The 10th Anniversary of the International Year of Volunteers and Beyond – Partnership Opportunities in Support of Volunteering”; the second was a Briefing for NGOs: Volunteering Matters – Building a Sustainable Future for All.” Each was designed to identify opportunities, challenges, and directions for the next decade for volunteering as a key sector in every society. While the role of young people in the volunteering sector was not especially highlighted as a key strategy in any of the sessions, a number of country delegates and panelists did mention the important and growing participation of youth in the volunteer sector.
I drew three conclusions from the sessions:
1) Volunteering is a crucial strategy for development and for peace. In the next decade, volunteering will need to achieve recognition as an intentional policy for national development. Broad-based partnerships with traditional and non-traditional organizations, including the beneficiaries themselves, will be required. Volunteering strategies will not replace the responsibility of the states, but at the same time the challenges are too complex to be addressed by one sector alone. Volunteer efforts towards sustainable development will likely be a significant part of the discussions at the Rio +20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012.
2) Volunteers and their actions must be recognized as a strong and valuable force in every society. With 7 billion people on the planet, we need to tap into everyone’s abilities. Emphasizing the role of youth, Aaron Williams, Director of the Peace Corps, encouraged the audience to foster and grow young leaders as every young person must see themselves as a leader. Other speakers stressed that now is the right time for “a people-centered approach to problem-solving”, given the urgency of the challenges and people’s desire to affect their destinies. Several speakers emphasized that volunteering is inspired by free will and that only those who are free can serve.
3) We need to find ways to measure the impact of volunteering. While complex, there is a growing body of research on the economic impact of volunteers. Johns Hopkins University for the International Labor Organization developed the 2011 Manual on the Measurement of Volunteer Work. Researchers conducted a study in 37 countries to find out how many people volunteered and their impact. Adding up the number of volunteers in all these countries, they found that 140 million people engage in some volunteer activity every year. If these 140 million people lived in a country, it would be the eighth largest country in the world and contribute $400 billion to the global economy.
The lessons above learned were from the official program, following UN protocol, rules, codes, forms of address, and formal communications – a culture unto itself. But there also was a more personal program: how I experienced the day through my own conversations with other participants and general observations.
As I waited by the elevator to go up to the General Assembly’s public gallery, I met Flavio, a young UN Volunteer from Brazil stationed in El Salvador, who would be addressing the General Assembly. He looked nervous, but later delivered a heart-felt statement about what serving the people of his host country meant for him. Flavio brought volunteering to life and as I congratulated him later, he told me more about his life as a UN Volunteer.
Then there was the young woman from Egypt who described the role of volunteers in the Arab Spring. She talked passionately about the many volunteers who helped during the recent protests in her country, by providing food and medical assistance in different areas of Cairo.
I left the UN feeling privileged. I never lose a sense of wonder after days like this spent with people who have chosen to live as citizens of the world and to dedicate themselves to achieving a good life for all. As the delegate from Tanzania expressed quoting Nelson Mandela: “a different world cannot be made by indifferent people”.