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Volunteerism in the Decade of Action

Simone Galimberti is Co-Founder of ENGAGE, a not-for-profit NGO in Nepal. He writes on volunteerism, social inclusion, youth development and regional integration as an engine to improve people’s lives.

A former United Nations staff member, a UN volunteer in New York city, shows medical supplies that were donated to fight COVID-19. Credit: United Nations/Robert Macpherson

KATHMANDU, Nepal, Jan 25 2021 (IPS) - After the pioneer Global Technical Meeting on Volunteerism last July, a recently-held on-line follow up helped gathering new insights from experts and practitioners from the world on how to move forward with positioning volunteering at the center of development agenda.

The main outcome of the July’s forum, jointly organized by UNV and International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, was a new blueprint, the global Call for Action, aimed at boosting and reinvigorating the role volunteerism in promoting a better, more equal and more sustainable world.

We have now a new strategic approach that can truly leverage the power of volunteering by focusing on innovation, inclusion and informal actions, the latter a big breakthrough that recognizes how deeply ingrained the foundations of volunteerism are in so many societies and cultures, especially in less economically developed nations.

There is now also a new momentum to break away with a silos approach that saw volunteering as an “add on” in an already packed development agenda.

Instead, its complementarity role together with balancing local and informal traditions while embracing social innovation, including data driven new technologies, is now going to shape a new volunteering paradigm.

It also recognizes it as a tool for personal and professional development that could benefit those excluded from the benefits of the globalization, for example youth out of the job market and out of education as well as other disenfranchised citizens.

Thanks to the online follow conversation enabled by UNV, we know that on the grounds there are many best practices and such forums help establishing a global community of volunteerism promoters that can learn from each other and move forward the agenda.

Among the insights, many developing countries normally considered as “laggers” are instead pioneers in policies, legislation and institutions focused on volunteerism.

For example, Nigeria, also thanks to the active role of the civil society, has developed a very interesting blueprint to promote volunteerism across the country.

In Togo there is a specific law enacted in 2011 regulating volunteerism and since 2014 the National Agency for Volunteering in Togo, ANVT, is the national enabler of volunteering action within the country.

Always in Western Africa, Sierra Leone has a network of volunteering promoting agencies while Kenya has a national volunteering policy and a national volunteering service program directly promoted by the President of the country.

Young volunteers clean garbage from the Yamuna River banks in India. Credit: UNDP India/Sudhanshu Malhotra

In the Asia Pacific region, the Philippines has one of the strongest volunteering “infrastructures” while Nepal, another country rich in local forms of self-help, is also working on a volunteering policy.

Yet despite these positive stories, volunteering keeps being sidelined and struggles to gain the deserved “notoriety” within the development agenda.

The fact that the Global Technical Meeting was entitled “Re-imagining Volunteerism” is itself heartening because, after all, with the new Decade of Action started, we really need to double our efforts to re-vitalize volunteerism not just as a tool for a better and more effective policy making that is able to involve and engage the citizens, but also as a way of living to be embraced by more and more people.

In a way volunteering or the BIG V as I like to call it, should become a new norm, a new way of living that should be literally become a natural component of our lives.

It is not going to be easy but we have to give a big try not only at policy level but also at grassroots levels, better recognizing what already exists while also conquering new grounds, making volunteerism more attractive and appealing for those who never embraced it in life.

Locally, Alice Chadwick and Bianca Fadel in a paper for the International Association for Volunteer Effort, IAVE, that in the past 6 months held a series of important online discussions, highlight how “community volunteering should not be a means of delivering externally defined agendas, but rather should start from the premise that community-based volunteers are already designing and delivering responses to challenges based upon their community’s priorities and in turn building their own resilience”

They call this approach “supportive solidarity” in which external forms of help, including formal volunteering, strengthen rather than erase localized forms of community centered development.
Galina Bodrenekova, a pioneer of volunteerism in Russia, highlights the importance of volunteering centers that could be run by local NGOs but also by local youth clubs.

Affordability and cost-effectiveness indeed are going to play a big part if we want to expand such local infrastructures to be able to attract, together with new online platforms, new volunteers.

Involving and engaging learning institutions at all the levels is going to be paramount: while universities could do much more to promote a culture of altruism and solidarity, primary and secondary schools have a big role to play as well.

Now we need more awareness, visibility and willingness to do more.

We also need more resources.

Certainly, UNV and the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement have a huge task ahead and hopefully they will receive the much-needed support from the international community to scale up their operations and help making volunteering becoming a natural choice for the majority of world citizens.

Partnerships are going to be key as recognized by the global Call for Action: locally, nationally and internationally, we need more collaborations, we need more synergies and a stronger and better marketing “plan” to attract more people to service.

While harnessing the traditions already on the ground, we need big corporates to step up their game.

Many of them already promote corporate volunteerism but we need to do more to create a global enabling system to strengthen volunteerism everywhere.

The national volunteering awards, often supported by UNV globally, should become the “grand finale” of months of joint activities implemented by networks, formal and informal as well, engaging local actors eager to promote volunteerism.

Perhaps we need some global icons to help leveraging volunteerism as one of the best mechanisms to achieve the SDGs and ensure a more resilient and sustainable planet.

There is no challenge faced by the planet Earth that cannot be addressed by also tapping into volunteers’ skills and creativity.

The ongoing climate action activism is one of the best expressions of this force in action.
Perhaps we need partnerships with national and global social media companies that are now in need to mend many of their practices.

Maybe we could partner with global broadcasters to showcase every 5th of December, the International Volunteer Day, the global best practices and engage the masses.

At policy level, we need to make stronger the case of volunteerism.

If we want to achieve the SDGs, we need more volunteers not to play the role of substitutes of the governments but rather be there on the ground as their allies.

This would be one of the best ways to do what in jargon is called “localizing” the SDGs.

Negotiations are going on to decide the format of the 2021 High Level Political Forum where members of the United Nations will voluntarily disclose their national efforts to achieve the SDGs.

There will be a whopping 44 nations, some of them presenting their results and future plans for the first time while others doing it for a second or even third time.

Would it make sense to make it mandatory in these Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) as these presentations are called, to embed the contributions of volunteerism in their overall efforts?
Some nations are already doing it but without being given the due credit and recognition.

To make the Decade of Action a truly success, we need to have stronger volunteerism enabling and promoting systems everywhere, locally and globally.

It is truly the time to be bold and innovative.



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