UNV's first Deputy Executive Coordinator Peter Molt, during a visit to UNV in Bonn.
UNV's first Deputy Executive Coordinator Peter Molt, during a visit to UNV in Bonn. He is flanked on the left by former Executive Coordinator Olivier Adam, and on the right by current Executive Coordinator Toily Kurbanov.

50 years of the United Nations Volunteers programme: a contemporary witness recalls

The United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme turns 50 this year! A unique common service to the UN system and beyond, UNV provides dedicated volunteers and volunteerism expertise to our partners across the world. The organization has been described as the 'jewel' of the United Nations. To mark our anniversary, we share the reflections of former leading executives and deputies of UNV. First up: Mr Peter Molt (Germany), the first Deputy Executive Coordinator of UNV, 1970-1975.

At the end of October 1970, I received a request from the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to advise on the establishment of a United Nations Volunteer Service (UNV). The background to this request was that I had been instrumental in the establishment of the German Voluntary Service in 1962 and later served as one of the directors of the Service from 1966-1969. In this capacity, I had also worked closely with the International Secretariat for Voluntary Services (ISVS), where the voluntary services of the industrialized countries coordinated their activities at that time.

The foundation of UNV – a challenge

I agreed to UNDP and a few days later I took off to the 25th UN General Assembly in New York, where, in the Second Committee, the establishment of UNV was discussed and resolution 2659/XXV, which established it, was prepared. I helped the responsible UNDP staff to formulate the resolution's tasks and rules in such a way that it could be accepted by governments, but would not stand in the way of building a well-functioning organization for the future and the adjustments and expansions that would result from its work. It was an exciting challenge that was crowned with success. On December 7, 1970, the resolution was unanimously adopted by the General Assembly.

Difficult set-up

With this, UNV was founded, but the organization required regulations for its work agreements with the recipient and sending countries, as well as implementation of projects with the participating UN agencies and organizations. Above all, the financing of the volunteer assignment now had to be worked out in detail. Some of the details were also controversial.

Since Iranian diplomat Assad K. Sadry, who had been designated as Executive Coordinator, was not an expert in these matters, UNDP offered me the position of Deputy Executive Coordinator to take care of the organizational set-up of the new service. In return, I was given a staff member from Kenya and a secretary. Assad was responsible for the important contacts with the diplomatic missions, Niranjin and Joy for communication and organization. I spent most of this first year traveling to present the programme and to negotiate with governments, UN agencies and missions, governmental and non-governmental volunteer organizations the tasks of the volunteers and rules for their work in the field.

In September 1971, the first UN Volunteers began their assignments in Yemen. However, they all came from the European governmental volunteer services, which, of course, did not correspond to UNV's actual goal of bringing together young volunteers worldwide, i.e. equally from developing and industrialized countries, to work in solidarity in reconstruction and aid projects. The daily work of the next years served mainly this goal.

Volunteers were mainly deployed in the framework of the work of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and International Labour Organization (ILO). Therefore, in order to be closer to the countries and regions of origin of the volunteers and also to have more direct contact with these agencies, the secretariat moved to Geneva in 1972.

One figure shows how arduous the beginning was: at the end of 1974, we only had 268 volunteers in the field, but now mostly from Asia and Africa, a few from Europe, and unfortunately none from the countries then allied with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, the latter becoming a member of the UN in 1971, tolerated the UNV programme but did not participate.

On the road to success

In 1975, John Gordon, who had previously headed the Canadian Volunteers Program, took over as Executive Coordinator of UNV. Since he had rich practical experience as the director of a large volunteer service, I was able to leave UNV to work in the field as UNDP Resident Representative in Togo.

Looking back on this time and the following years, they were a highlight of my otherwise also very eventful years in international and national development work. In the beginning, it was difficult work, which sometimes met with incomprehension and resistance both inside and outside the United Nations. UNV added an important dimension to the work of the United Nations, which was then an organization of officials and experts. For the first time, young people from fellow countries were directly connected to the organization, working together in solidarity in support and assistance programmes, often creatively enriching the UN's communication and stimulus for thought and action.

I look back with satisfaction on the fact that I was working for the United Nations 50 years ago, at a time when the Federal Republic of Germany was not yet a member as a result of the Second World War, and that I had also the chance to contribute to giving the organization an important and lasting impetus with the establishment of the United Nations Volunteers.