UN Volunteer Camila Pérez Zambrano serves in Ecuador as a national specialist with the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO).
UN Volunteer Camila Pérez Zambrano serves in Ecuador as a national specialist with the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO).

Coordinating humanitarian response in the COVID-19 context

In 2020, UNV supported system-wide action on COVID-19 by investing US $2 million from its Special Voluntary Fund* in the mobilization of national UN Volunteers in 79 countries and with 18 UN entities. Some of these coordinate humanitarian response and take aid where it is needed most. UN Volunteers like Nyasha Mazango (Zimbabwe), Melanie Raire (Papua New Guinea) and Camila Pérez Zambrano (Ecuador) have put their knowledge and expertise at the service of their fellow citizens.

In crises and emergency situations, volunteering provides governments and civil society organizations with greater flexibility and response capacity. This is particularly true in humanitarian crises, further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic

"Volunteering is a very powerful tool, and it is important to understand that every one of us can contribute in different ways," Camila says. Since May 2020, she has been serving in Ecuador as a national specialist with the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO), and has a background in international relations and project management.

Camila is in charge of coordinating health issues involving various public and private health organizations. "Our office has facilitated the mobilization of resources by preparing project proposals for potential donors, as well as subsequent monitoring, follow-up and evaluation of projects once they are approved. This has been essential for the response to the pandemic in Ecuador, along with keeping relevant information up to date and coordinating actions among different population groups."

Beyond UN entities, the development of local volunteer networks can be useful to coordinate the activities of humanitarian actors and ensure that efforts are headed in the right direction.

Camila explains how in Ecuador, local volunteers have been vital to promote the response to the pandemic among the country's indigenous communities.

Many people may serve their community in different ways as volunteers – for example, spreading information about COVID-19. It is important to acknowledge their work and offer them training, so that their actions are more effective and they feel supported. There is still a long way to go, but it seems to me that society is increasingly understanding the value of volunteering. --Camila Pérez Zambrano, UN Volunteer with PAHO/WHO, Ecuador

Nyasha has been coordinating social initiatives in Zimbabwe and implementing programmes with a focus on women's rights for 15 years. "I've always wanted to help change my country for the better, and I saw a way to do this by working to preserve women’s rights in humanitarian action," she shares.

As a Humanitarian Specialist serving with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Nyasha supports advocacy for gender inclusion. She collects information on unmet needs and gaps in the humanitarian response, so that these situations can be addressed and no one is left behind. "I joined OCHA in June 2020, because I wanted to support organizations to move forward, taking always into consideration the needs of the local population."

"In Zimbabwe, we are helping people in urgent need of humanitarian aid and that makes me proud," Nyasha shares. "I ensure that the work of humanitarian partners – including UN entities and non-governmental organizations – is well coordinated. Having strong relationships with all actors is critical in humanitarian response to ensure that people in need are accountably assisted in a timely manner.”

She also highlights the importance of having volunteers who are aware of the specific needs of the most vulnerable groups of the population and who can introduce this approach into work teams.

I’ve had the opportunity to train some of our humanitarian partners on gender equality and have seen them incorporating gender perspectives in their humanitarian response in Zimbabwe. I also advocate for humanitarian processes – including contingency planning, needs assessment, and response planning – to be consultative and inclusive and cater to the specific needs of different groups of people. --Nyasha Mazango, UN Volunteer with OCHA, Zimbabwe

Coordination between government institutions, civil society organizations and UN entities is also a priority for Melanie, who serves as a Cluster Coordination Officer at the UN Resident Coordinator’s Office in Papua New Guinea. In this role, she has been supporting the COVID-19 response and recovery efforts in her country, while assisting the OCHA Humanitarian Advisory Team and UN Development Programme.

Serving as a UN Volunteer, especially during the pandemic, makes me humble and willing to work hard to serve my community and my country. For me, seeing the successful implementation of water, sanitation and hygiene facilities in health care centres, schools and communities around the country is just fantastic. --Melanie Raire, UN Volunteer with UNRCO, Papua New Guinea

The desire to help and to give the best of themselves is common to these three volunteers, whether they serve in Latin America, Africa or Oceania.

"I returned to Ecuador in December 2019 from completing a Master's degree in Korea, and the pandemic started shortly after. I wanted to do something for my community, and this UN Volunteer assignment at PAHO was a perfect opportunity for me," Camila says.

"Now I know I was right. I think that the contribution of volunteers is quite significant. For example, many of us have had experiences abroad, while people who have worked in a government agency for years already have their methodology and a certain way of working. We complement this, providing a fresher vision, a new point of view to their approach."

*UNV's Special Voluntary Fund (SVF) was established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1970. Over time, the SVF mandate has been modified and expanded, with the SVF providing seed funding to scale up successful projects where volunteerism has had a transformative impact. The SVF is also used to develop innovative volunteer-based solutions as well as undertake research and knowledge sharing. Read more here

This article was prepared with the kind support of Online Volunteer José María Sainz Maza del Olmo.