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Volunteerism, the Heart of Social Capital

23 May 2003

Santiago de Chile, 22-23 May, 2003
Distinguished panellists,
Volunteer partners for development,
Ladies and gentlemen,

What I would like to do this morning, is to address the strong link that exists between the mobilization of social capital and volunteerism. I will do that by drawing on the work of the organization that I represent, the United Nations Volunteers, or UNV. UNV is a special United Nations programme that focuses on the promotion of volunteerism as a development concept, and the mobilization of volunteers. With more than 5,000 volunteers from 160 different nations who serve each year in over 140 different countries around the world, UNV, like the United Nations itself, forms an important part of what is in fact global social capital.

When I speak of social capital in that context, I am referring to traditions of engagement, trust, solidarity and reciprocity that exist in every society, although in some more manifest than in others. I also start with the premise, backed by a growing body of evidence, that programmes which draw on social capital through participatory approaches are more likely to produce results which are sustainable over time.

When we talk about mobilizing social capital, some of the important elements that come to mind are the need for RECOGNITION, FACILITATION, NETWORKING and PROMOTION. Those were also the objectives of the International Year of Volunteers in 2001 for which UNV was the focal point. That was a very successful International Year, not in the least because it was owned and driven by hundreds of millions of volunteers all over the world. One of the many unique outcomes of the Year was the fact that the United Nations General Assembly adopted legislation that underscored the role of volunteering as a valuable asset that reinforces societal traditions that bind communities together.

Volunteering is deeply embedded in most cultures and is manifested in various ways. Volunteering can be defined broadly as the non-profit, non-wage and non-career contributions of individuals for the well-being of their neighbours, community or society at large. Volunteering is the ultimate expression of the willingness and ability of citizens to get engaged and to freely help others and improve society in a spirit of reciprocity. It brings significant benefits to individuals and communities and helps to nurture and sustain a richer social texture and a stronger sense of mutual trust and cohesion. It is often referred to as the "glue" that holds society together. Today I would add, that volunteerism and volunteers are at the heart of Social Capital.

Volunteerism constitutes an enormous reservoir of skills, ingenuity, creativity, solidarity and local knowledge. It is however not always recognized or counted that way.

Let me give just one example of what one would get if you do count it:

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative was spearheaded by UNICEF and WHO in partnership with some non-governmental organizations. But the initiative was really powered by the dedication of volunteers around the world. In 2000, ten million people volunteered to support the immunization of 550 million children. The vast majority of these volunteers were local citizens, volunteering and engaging themselves in their own communities. They gave their time to ensure that children reported to immunization stations, that they were properly documented and that they received the oral vaccine. As of 2001, the total value of the support provided by volunteers to the Initiative was ten billion US dollars. This puts it well beyond the reach of either the United Nations or its partner organizations alone if it were not for the voluntary effort. In return for their time, the local volunteers received health training and the opportunity to play a pivotal role in future efforts in their communities.

But fortunately, the International Year of Volunteers has been given enormous impetus to the notion that volunteerism should be counted and that it can be fostered and positively channelled to help address many of the world's most urgent development needs.

Countless civil society organizations are engaged in promoting volunteerism both directly, in terms of the support they provide through the services of volunteers, as well as by involving citizens as volunteer-participants in their activities. Increasingly we also witness the involvement of both the public and private sectors in the promotion of volunteerism. The question is what can be done to facilitate greater volunteer action by an ever-broader cross-section of the population and to influence this volunteer action towards tackling issues such as poverty, environment, health and education.

Resolutions passed by the UN General Assembly in 2001 and 2002, last one co-sponsored by 142 member states, have provided guidance on how to actively promote volunteerism.

UNV, as the focal point for follow-up to IYV, is deeply involved in this endeavour. Our first step has been to take a hard look at our principle resource -- first: the more than 5,000 qualified and experienced professionals who, as global citizens, serve as UN Volunteers in over 140 countries around the world, and the more than 3,000 who have volunteered on-line through the Internet; second the more than 50,000 people who approach us every year and would like to get engaged as a UN Volunteer, either on-site or on-line. Our recruitment, orientation, referral, monitoring and evaluation procedures have all been extensively reviewed to ensure that strengthening the promotion of volunteerism is a clear and explicit feature of every assignment and/or contact with UNV. Furthermore, and in collaboration with our many partners, we are "embedding" UN Volunteers into general projects and programmes to help direct voluntary action toward meeting development goals at the local level. Mobilizing such local volunteer engagement forms an important part of our strategy to help ensure community ownership and sustainability once external assistance has ended.

UNV-sponsored projects and programmes require an upfront description of how volunteerism manifests itself in the local context and a clear statement of how the proposed initiative will promote voluntary action.

There is a school of thought suggesting that volunteerism is on the decline. Some people argue that this is due in part to economic and social stress created by unemployment and underemployment, rural to urban migration, HIV/AIDS and civil conflict. Hardship is said to lead to more self-centred and individualistic behaviour as people concentrate on dealing with their own, immediate problems of survival. There is, however, another pattern showing how hardship catalyses social ties and draws people and their communities closer together. We are beginning to have a better understanding of some of the factors which drive people in one direction or the other. For example, it seems that levels of local volunteerism are higher where the majority of the adult population is not working away from the community; where women are involved in local decision-making processes; where there are healthy community-based organizations; where there is stability around land ownership; and where there is effective leadership at the local level.

In addition to these contextual factors which have a positive impact on volunteerism at the local level, there are also a number of policy-related factors such as the degree of decentralization of resources and authority; the legal environment needed for community-based organizations to thrive; and public access to information. I would add to this, the importance of providing opportunities to undertake voluntary action for all members of society, including the traditionally excluded.

By way of illustration as to what UNV is doing, I would like to mention two aspects of our work here in the Latin American region -- namely, the promotion of human rights and the mobilization of youth. More than 600 UN Volunteers -- many of them lawyers, judges and forensic experts -- have assisted the UN Mission in Guatemala in monitoring the implementation of the country's peace accords since 1995. UNV has also teamed up with UNICEF to set up a network of UN Volunteers supporting government agencies and non-governmental organizations in the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by raising awareness of child rights and advocating for supportive legislation in Belize, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. In addition, UN Volunteers help promote the rights and strengthen the voice of people living with HIV/AIDS -- citizens who are often socially excluded -- in Cuba, Dominican Republic, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.

UNV has also launched partnerships with universities in Guatemala and Nicaragua to set up schemes for young graduates to serve as volunteers in remote communities. These volunteers inform local people about how to prepare for disasters and improve home construction to withstand harsh storms. This initiative has fostered a sense of solidarity and service among these graduates, many of whom had never before had exposure to the rural poor in their own countries.

Research by the World Bank and others indicates that increasing the opportunities for people to work together is the single intervention that has the greatest positive impact on the situation facing the poorest members of societies. If the Millennium Development Goal of reducing poverty by half by 2015 is to be achieved, the significant contribution of volunteerism, as one manifestation of social capital, needs to be much more widely understood and recognized. Frankly speaking, we still have considerable work to do before we reach a time when voluntarism -- and the potential benefits derived from it -- is factored into national development planning in most countries. But great strides have been made in the past five years. Many of the tools for supporting and strengthening volunteerism are now better known and more widely applied. Also, the collective commitment of the international community -- expressed through recommendations of the United Nations General Assembly -- has been established.

Important events such as this one here in Santiago should assist us in bringing about a better understanding and acceptance of the vital contribution volunteering can make in mobilizing social capital for development. Those of us here can help ensure that the message -- Volunteerism, the Heart of Social Capital -- gets to all of the right people.

Thank you.

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