OPINION: Volunteerism – an antidote to a world in flux

by Olivier Adam and Achim Steiner | @SibiyaColile | United Nations Volunteers (UNV)
Thursday, 5 December 2019 09:15 GMT

Flood-affected people receives water purifying tablets from volunteers in Jamalpur, Bangladesh, July 21, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In every part of the globe, volunteers are at the forefront of every major shock and stress, responding to problems big and small that benefit all people

Olivier Adam is executive coordinator, United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme and Achim Steiner is administrator, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

As the world warms, as inequality widens and as an increasing number of societies suffer from instability and conflict, many people are left wondering what they can do about it.

As inspirational changemakers like Greta Thunberg show, you don’t have to start out as a world leader or a celebrity to make a difference. Standing in the street with a protest sign is not for everyone, though. And there are many ways to make a difference. 

Every day, an estimated one billion volunteers make a difference to the people and communities where they live and work. They create social bonds and give a voice to marginalized and vulnerable groups. They are often the first to act in moments of crisis. They dedicate their time, skills and passion to make the world a better place.

Right now, nearly 8,000 UN Volunteers, from 18 to 81 years old, serve with over 40 UN partners through the UN Volunteers (UNV) programme.

Volunteers help communities to self-organize around their own specific priorities – and support people who are marginalized to tap into mainstream areas of support and public services. That includes UN Volunteers in Asia and the Pacific who have worked at the local level to tackle violence against women and girls.

Or in Pakistan, where the World Health Organization mobilized over 150 UN Volunteers as district monitors to support measles readiness assessment campaigns, targeting 32 million children.

Volunteering also creates relationships and improves critical connections between people. UN Volunteers worked with the UN Mission in South Sudan to create neutral forums to bring conflicted parties together to help build peace. And in the Philippines, Christian and Muslim volunteers organized and implemented interfaith environmental protection activities. The solidarity, empathy and connections generated through social action comes to the fore during crises. During the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, local, national and international volunteers worked together to tend to victims and halt the spread of the disease, despite considerable challenges.

Volunteers also strengthen community resilience by integrating refugees and displaced persons, building ownership in the peace and development process and strengthening social cohesion within; and across groups. In Niger, for example, UN Volunteers working with UNHCR provided much-needed translation and interpretation services to refugees evacuated from Libya -- helping to improve the quality of protection and assistance provided to refugees.

New ways of harnessing the power of volunteerism are emerging all the time. Soon after Ecuador experienced a major earthquake in 2016, Zooniverse, a web-based platform for crowdsourced research, utilized 3,000 volunteers and artificial intelligence to review 1,300 satellite images. Just two hours after the earthquake, a “heat map” of the damage including road blockages was produced to accelerate the disaster response.

The United Nations keenly understands the need to harness the almost limitless power of volunteers bring to accelerate progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals -- a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by the year 2030.

On International Volunteer Day, we recognize the extraordinary contribution of volunteers to this end. In every part of the globe, they are at the forefront of every major shock and stress, responding to problems big and small that benefit all people. 

The remarkable results achieved by volunteers to shape that brighter, more inclusive future show that it is worth trying.

That is why they are a such a powerful antidote to a world in flux.