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Volunteerism: Central to the Creation of a New Social Contract

KATHMANDU, Nepal, Dec 2 2021 (IPS) - The International Volunteer Day, on December 5, is not just one of the many internationally observed days that the United Nations commemorates annually.

Its significance is much broader especially because volunteerism can truly become one of the most important tools at our disposal to promote a different development paradigm and overcome all the challenges that the ongoing pandemic has exacerbated.

It is also central to one of the top priorities set by the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, the creation of a new Social Contract that can re-draw the relationships between governments and citizens, finding new venues for the people to participate in the public life, especially from the perspective of novel ways to think about policy making.

In this sense, volunteerism is an agent for change because it one of the best expressions of civic engagement and therefore it will deserve much more attention and with it, much more resources in order to help solving the most substantial issues the humanity is facing.

That’s why the role of United Nations Volunteers, UNV is going to be central. As a semi-independent agency, formally part of the UNDP, UNV can really become an engine to promote volunteerism, a concept that includes several activities from mutual help to advocacy to direct service provision.

Over the last two years UNV has undertaken a major exercise in rethinking the role of volunteerism. In July 2020, UNV, in partnership with the International Federation of Red Cross/Red Crescent, IFRC, galvanized the global volunteering community with a major exercise to discuss and frame the role volunteerism has in achieving the Agenda 2030.

Entitled “Re-imagining Volunteerism”, this event, formally known as a global technical meeting, led to the definition of the Plan of Action to Integrate Volunteering into the 2030 Agenda, a “framework under the auspices of the United Nations (UN) through which governments, volunteer-involving organizations, UN agencies, private sector, civil society and academia come together to strengthen people’s ownership of the 2030 Agenda and integrate volunteering in national strategies and policies”.

One of its most visible outcomes is the Call for Action, an inspiring document that is guiding the international community on harnessing the power of volunteerism for the common good.

As part of this ambitious process, UNV also opened up several community groups to discuss about key issues, including, the most recent one, just concluded, over the ways that volunteerism can become more inclusive and accessible.

The fact that UNV is opening up and asks for suggestions and ideas is a very important development, an effort that must acknowledged and praised. It is also something that holds much potential in order to create a global community of practitioners engaged over the ways volunteerism can be promoted and scaled.

With the end of this year, UNV is also set to launch a new multi annual strategic plan and, while the details of the new plans still remain undisclosed, it is key that the leadership at UNV makes such process as open and as transparent as possible.

Open, accessible consultations are one of the best ways to let practitioners and social scientists alike to contribute in shaping the next milestones for UNV.

The future strategic goals of this semi-autonomous agency must be aligned with the comprehensive blueprint that Secretary General Guterres launched in September, Our Common Agenda that is an ambitious set of plans to re-energize multilateralism.

One of key aspects of this plan is the strengthening of the UN system of its work and engagement with youth and as result, the Office of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth will be strengthened in the coming years and a new office for youth will be established.

This is an important development because in the past UNV also played an important role as a sort of youth focal point within the United Nations, an interesting proposition but also complicated one because we know that volunteerism transcends age groups.

So, one of the key questions in the new strategic plan of UNV will be how to contribute to reinforcing the youth agenda within the UN system without alienating other key stakeholders that still can play a huge role in promoting and implementing volunteerism around the world.

For sure, youth can be a vehicle, a bridge to reach out other age groups, an insight that surely is being taken into account by UNV in its strategic planning process.

At the same UNV needs to be strengthened and provided with more resources in order to help achieve the SDGs and play a crucial role in defining the boundaries and features of the New Social Contract.

More resources would allow UNV to open more country offices. For example, a country like Indonesia, with a strong volunteering culture and major international player, still does not count with a UNV office.

Additional resources will allow UNV to experiment with new programs that can promote inclusive forms of volunteering, especially because it is now widely recognized that volunteerism can be an equalizer and tool through which a youth can develop personal leadership.

It is also indispensable that UNV is enabled to play a much stronger role as advocate and champion of volunteerism wherever the UN is active, with the technical expertise and resources to support governments to implement volunteering actions on the ground, even though policies or specific legislations.

An empowered, more vocal, stronger UNV won’t only be in need of much stronger support by the international community. The stakes at play will also require UNV to modernize and become more and more agile, flexible, faster and open to local communities.

This will require a change in the working culture as UNV reflects many of the positive aspects of the UN system in terms of professionalism and high standards but it is also inevitable that it also incorporates the less positive sides that typically characterize huge international organizations.

The changes made in terms of setting up community groups to talk and discuss about policies can be scaled up and made it easier and more user friendly. But this is just one aspect that need to be improved.

In order for UNV to scale up its role, we need an organization that is able to get out of the “balloon” typically and to some extents, inevitably associated with the UN. To some extents, it needs to embrace a sort of startup culture symbolized by more informality and openness to fail and risk.

In short, a t-shirt culture rather than the traditional “McKinsey & Company” dress that almost ended up characterizes the entire UN system.

The UN plays a tremendous and vital role everywhere it operates but it is also known for its complex, often opaque working structures, and an inclination to be not exactly what the concept of “value for money” implies.

In short, bureaucracy and red tape can distort and diminish the important work being done globally and UNV could become a trend setter within the wider UN community for a much more dynamic working culture.

The upcoming launch of the State of the World’s Volunteerism Report will be another important milestone for UNV. With it, we will have even a more comprehensive understanding on what volunteering could help achieve if strengthened and embraced worldwide. UNV is a force for good within the international development community.

Still its potential is untapped and in order to do so, we need a bolder, more creative and fast agency, one that can be set the standards for a more effective development system.

Simone Galimberti is a 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.


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