Mr Toily Kurbanov, Executive Coordinator of the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme, addressed the International Volunteer Forum in Astana, Kazakhstan, on 21 June 2023. Below are his remarks as delivered.
Your Excellency Mr President,
Ladies and gentlemen,
My name is Toily Kurbanov, and I bring to you greetings from 12,000 UN Volunteers worldwide. To help our interpreters: Менің атым Тойли Курбанов және мен сізге Біріккен Ұлттар Ұйымының волонтерлерінен сәлем жолдап келдім.
First, I thank the government of Kazakhstan for organizing this International Forum on Volunteering and for inviting UNV.
This Forum builds on the traditions of hosting important international conferences in this city. In this respect, the Forum bears the usual characteristics of the Astana style: a rich agenda, rigorous preparations, openness to the world, and the warmness of Kazakhstan’s hospitality.
But the Forum is also quite unusual. It brings together practitioners and experts representing a distinguished yet humble world of volunteering. A world that is made of people devoting themselves to their communities, working hard, and definitely not looking for the limelight.
It is the combination of the Astana style and the humble spirit of volunteerism that can help to start a new chapter for volunteering in development.
What might that new chapter be about?
If I ask that question to myself, the new chapter might reflect that volunteerism is shifting from a peripheral component of development into one of its core elements. That shift is already here - still small but already discernible.
Let me start with the Sustainable Development Goals, the SDGs. The UN General Assembly resolution on the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development highlights volunteerism as a “powerful means of implementation”. These words may sound bureaucratic, but they do convey trust in the power of volunteers.
We see more countries adopting laws on volunteering (as Kazakhstan did in 2016). We see volunteering integrated into development strategies and the creation of new institutions that foster local volunteer networks. Even in UNV, the number of volunteers contributing to United Nations’ peace and development work has increased two-fold from 6,000 in 2017 to 12,000 last year.
Some say this shift might be a short-term phenomenon, and that a lot of the recent recognition is due to the pandemic. During COVID the essential role of volunteering was so evident it was hard not to recognize people's impact. But evidence shows that the experience during the pandemic only accelerated pre-existing trends.
What are those trends?
There are many. For the sake of brevity let me mention only two.
One is the ongoing global transition from the industrial era to post-industrial economies. Formerly we used to have clear, even if rigid, concepts: education first; followed by employment; then retirement. Today life trajectories are less linear. Education takes longer; the transition from education to work is more gradual; and work experience often comes with changing occupations and lifelong learning. While with global aging, the retirement age is rising and opens opportunities for multiple occupations. Along the way volunteering has also transformed from a mainly youth activity into a lifecycle of action.
По словам великого поэта, «любви все возрасты покорны». Сегодня мы наблюдаем, что волонтерство, так же как и любовь, не признает возрастных границ. Правда, про любовь Александр Сергеевич добавил, что «на повороте наших лет печален страсти мертвый след». Но то было в 19 веке. Как показывает практика, в 21 веке к волонтерству это вряд ли относится. В ООН, возраст волонтеров варьирует от 18 до 82 лет. Тут уж действительно, все возрасты покорны!
The second trend is Digital Transformation. In the digital world, more tasks and interactions are becoming location neutral. With the right systems in place, this opens new opportunities for online volunteers: from data mapping and processing, and translations to editing audio-visual communications.
Traditional volunteering is very location specific: planting trees or delivering food and medicine to the elderly. Digital volunteering also means rolling up your sleeves – but behind your desk.
And this is not in theory. When the earthquake hit Türkiye and Syria in the beginning of the year, the first volunteers deployed by the UN were not sent from Bonn or Brussels, not even from Istanbul and Izmir. The very first people whom we mobilized after the earthquake were online volunteers who provided remote psycho counselling in Turkish, Kurdish and Arabic for children in affected areas.
The Digital Era is giving rise not only to hopes but also to anxieties. What if AI will replace humans in more fields of work? Today, most specialists would suggest that it is too early to draw conclusions about the future of work and we are yet to see full range of AI’s implications for volunteerism.
However, we know: what volunteers do, they do with their hands, their heads and their heart. No ChatGPT can ever replace volunteers.
We are at the cusp of the era for volunteering in development, and the trends that enable it are seismic and long-term. How that new era will unfold in different countries and sectors is yet to be seen. Yet one thing is clear: the future will be shaped not so much by grand design as by the power of taking small steps. Volunteers know this all too well. Volunteers act in small steps but know these actions will change the world. A volunteer working on climate adaptation in a remote village is making our future more sustainable.
A volunteer partnering with persons with disabilities makes our societies more inclusive.
A volunteer working in another country is helping our world to nurture global solidarity.
And the organizers of this forum — who brought these volunteers together — are helping to share experiences and foster new volunteer networks.
My African friends have once told me: “If you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together”.
Here together we are. So let’s go far.
Or, as you say in Kazakhstan: «Жақсылық етсең, жарты етпе».