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Remarks of Ad de Raad, Executive Coordinator on the International Forum on Volunteer Service and People’s Olympics, Beijing

06 June 2005

Beijing, China: Distinguished Guests,
Fellow Volunteers,

It is a great honour to be invited to address this International Forum on Volunteer Service and People’s Olympics. The Games themselves are an ancient tradition and, in many respects, so is volunteering. Since the Sydney Olympics in particular, the two are now inextricably linked in the minds of the general public. I am sure we all have vivid memories of the celebrations that, for the first time, properly recognized and gave due credit for the tremendous contribution the thousands of volunteers made to the success of the Games. And indeed, four years later, that “volunteer” torch was handed over and successfully carried in Athens.

The connection, however, goes beyond the direct impact volunteering has on the Olympics - and on sports in general. One commentator said that he always turned to the sports page first because it records people’s accomplishments while the front page has nothing but peoples’ failures. Sports can uplift and unify. The President of a new South Africa, Nelson Mandela, talked about the “profound role of sport… in nation building and reconciliation”, and called it a force that “is binding our nation”. Sport and the Olympics is about connections whether we are fans, or coaches or players.

Like the Olympics, volunteerism is essentially and profoundly optimistic. It is about human potential, striving and achievement. It is about participation, inclusion and citizenship. It challenges one’s limits and tests our resolve. Like the Olympics, for many it requires performing on someone else’s turf and, if done well, everyone wins. And like the Olympics, it can be done by a broad range of ages, women and men, racial and ethnic groups, the able-bodied and less able-bodied, and all social strata.

While the strong link between the Olympic Movement and volunteerism would in itself justify holding this conference, I would like to congratulate the organizers of this international forum for having the vision to see the Games as an opportunity to raise the profile of volunteering and engage even more people in volunteer action. I cannot stress enough the enormous potential such an event offers. Consider the International Year of Volunteers - IYV 2001 – which put volunteerism on the world map. Consider too the results already being achieved through the International Year of Sport and Physical Education 2005.

Beyond the Olympic Games themselves and the spread of volunteering in China, there is also an important global perspective we need to address. The organization I have the privilege of leading, the United Nations Volunteers, has Volunteering for Development at the core of its mission. And at the centre of the international development agenda are the Millennium Development Goals - a set of time-bound, quantified targets for combating poverty in its many dimensions. Achieving the Goals by 2015 will mean more than 500 million people will be lifted out of extreme poverty and more than 300 million will no longer suffer from hunger. There will be dramatic progress in health and education and significant improvements in environmental sustainability and gender equality.

But reaching these goals will require the ingenuity, solidarity and creativity of many millions of ordinary people through voluntary action. Efforts on the part of governments, supported by the international community, can only complement what ultimately will depend on the full involvement of people all over the world. Six billion people have something to contribute. Recognizing this fact is the first step towards harnessing this vast resource in a global effort to meet the MDG targets.

UNV is mandated with the mission of getting this fact better known and encouraging all stakeholders - from the public and private sectors as well as civil society - to take all possible steps to foster an environment within which volunteerism can flourish. UNV sees the Olympics as representing a perfect partnership. Where there is an Olympic movement, there is a volunteer movement. Athletes converge every four years from almost every country in the world to one place on the globe - and there are large numbers of volunteers in all those countries. Yes, the athletes are involved in sports but there is so much beyond that. Let me be bold and say that where there are sports events, there should be UNV. Let me also, from that perspective, share with you my dream as to how the Olympics in 2008 here in Beijing could be a platform for pursuing the goals of the IYV2001 - greater recognition, facilitation, networking and promotion of volunteering.

Many and varied expressions of voluntary action exist that form the very basis of all civilized societies and without which civilized societies would not even function well. While long in tradition, volunteering is today a live and powerful force for economic and social development that benefits society at large, communities and individual volunteers. It is an important component of any strategy to reduce poverty, to ensure that development is sustainable, and health and education is improved. It is also an important component in bringing about social integration and, in particular, overcoming social exclusion and discrimination. These words are not to be taken lightly. They are drawn directly from recent resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly on volunteering which have been supported by China.

I have already referred to the International Year of Volunteers 2001 but let me say a few more words. The Year generated a great deal of interest in ways that governments and the UN system could strengthen the environment within which voluntary action by ordinary citizens takes place. We are now seeing the fruits of IYV. There is notable increase, for example, of national and local volunteer schemes; of initiatives to measure the economic contributions of volunteer action; and of supportive national legislation. We see an exponential growth of electronic networking among volunteer involving organizations and individual volunteers. Academic research on different volunteer topics is on the rise and the private sector is opting more and more for employee volunteer schemes as part of corporate social responsibility.

In all these positive developments, however, a missing link has been the deliberate and systematic connection between volunteerism and mainstream development. We see this first in the North. While volunteerism is widely recognized and celebrated on the domestic front, this rarely extends to inclusion of support for voluntary action in ODA policies and programmes. In the South, volunteerism is often dismissed by the international development community as contributions in-kind, which local people provide to match externally supported development initiatives. The fact that such contributions are inspired by similar motivations and aspirations that drive volunteerism in the North…that they too need similar recognition and support… is rarely factored into development thinking and planning.

Does it matter? I believe the answer to this is a categorical Yes. It matters that AIDS sufferers can rely on the very best support from volunteers in their communities. It matters that a culture of voluntary parental participation is in place to complement government efforts to improve the quality and coverage of local schools. It matters that youth groups get involved in sustainable environmental awareness campaigns. It matters that women’s local volunteer-based associations strive to gain the legal status that facilitates their efforts to advocate for basic human rights. It matters that community members invest volunteer time and skills in helping to upgrade slum dwellings of neighbours and friends. Above all, it matters that we put policies and programmes in place to ensure that we fully tap the potential and extraordinary contribution of volunteerism to tackle the major challenges of our times.

Through volunteerism, people become active development actors, rather than passive aid recipients. That matters a lot!

Returning to the MDGs, there is now a general consensus that, under certain conditions, the MDGs are attainable. Indeed, in some sectors, and in some parts of the world, the signs are quite positive. But a significant number of countries are falling behind and some are widely off track especially Africa South of the Sahara, Central Asia, parts of South Asia and the Andean countries. There is no question that there is an enormous financial resource gap or deficit in poor countries. Unless rich countries do much more to live up to their commitments in aid, trade and debt relief, the MDGs will be but a distant dream. This issue is, rightly, a major concern - barely a day goes by without a meeting being held somewhere in the world on the issue.

But this is focusing on development deficits. Earlier I talked about how sports can be uplifting. We need to focus on volunteerism as a development asset that every country, no matter how poor, can count on. There is a wealth of good will and solidarity, knowledge and social networks, to be tapped in local communities all over the globe, with support from outside. This is all about the capacity to cooperate – to get things done. So often it can be the magic ingredient that makes the difference. The UN Secretary General, whose message you heard earlier this afternoon, said on the occasion of the International Volunteer Day on 5 December last year, “Volunteering on the ground in communities, or online at home, is a vital channel for ordinary people to perform extraordinary tasks and, in doing so, to underline the wealth of human solidarity that needs to be harnessed if we are to reach our common objectives”.

Here in China there is already experience of volunteering to assist the more disadvantaged provinces. China is already contributing, through volunteers, to development in other countries. The 2008 Olympic Games offers China and the world the opportunity to take a huge step forward in raising global awareness of the power and the critical importance of volunteer contributions not only to sport but to the well-being of societies worldwide.

If I may end on one sporting metaphor, the Olympic Games provide the spectre of getting volunteerism off the sidelines and into the centre of the field of public and official opinion. Giving voice and visibility to this global force for combating poverty would go a considerable way towards achieving a safer, more prosperous and equitable world.

Thank you.

UNV is administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)