Proposed International Year of Volunteers, 2001 - Background Note

March 97



A.Why yet another international Year's and of the Volunteers

In a sentence, the answer is: because the need for the spirit which animates volunteers has never been greater.

1. Volunteering oneself to be of service to others - whether to one's neighbours or to communities a world apart - has always been an intrinsic aspect of human behaviour, almost an instinct. The range of social and economic activities which draws on this volunteering element is enormous: many areas of activity, from the cultural and the political to group survival in times of crisis, would fail or shrink without the volunteer input. But it usually goes unrecognised, precisely because it is typically unremunerated, spontaneous, often informal and unstructured.

2. Indeed, where professionalism tends to be rewarded in monetary terms in order to be respected, and where most social relations seek to be mediated by price, volunteer behaviour appears as an anomaly, a quaint relic. It is frequently equated with being amateurish, “do-gooding”, quasi-charitable, to the point that in some cultures, people feel embarrassed to use the word volunteers Yet, in face of the violence, crime and despair which have come to mar the human landscape in societies North and South, the values at the heart of volunteer behaviour need to be nurtured and spread if the process of social disintegration is to be reversed, if the ideals of common purpose and dignity for humanity promised by the United Nations Charter are to find practical expression.

3. The “volunteer spirit” represents a major source of hope at this time: as an expression of human solidarity, of caring and help for others, and of spontaneous succour in times of crisis. A volunteer seeks to change society by stepping out of routine institutional behaviour in an act of individual faith. Today’s circumstances of growing social exclusion seem to have made volunteer contributions quite central, as an essential complement to other forms of social support. The other side of the coin is that volunteer action is an expression of belief in oneself and one’s identity and has great power in building self-confidence as well as competence. Significant experiences are gained from being a volunteer, whether in a domestic or international setting, from exposure to other beliefs, ways of life and culture. It is this rationale that makes it worth calling for an “international year for the volunteer”, and has made the first year of the new millennium appear an appropriate marking.

4. For the first time in IYV-2001, what would be celebrated is a motivating force, an expression of human generosity that is found in many shapes and situations throughout the world. “International”, because the actions of citizens throughout the world need to be recognised and acknowledged with gratitude. A “year” rather than a "summit", because time has to be given for ideas to mature, for a shared consciousness to be formed. It is not the world political leadership alone that is being targeted through such a high-profile designation, but civil society itself, ordinary people in their capacity as social beings. Local-level volunteer activities should find expression and dissemination at a global level, and link up with each other. The Year will need to find its place in systems of education, in cultural events, and above all stir the imagination of parents and children in homes and communities.

B. The origin and arrangements for preparing and coordinating IYV-2001

5. A number of broad-based volunteer-related organisations have, for some time, enthusiastically espoused the idea of an international year of volunteer service being declared by the United Nations. Foremost among them have been the International Association for Volunteer Effort (IAVE), with member organisations in some 100 countries; the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) comprising 25 million members worldwide; and an umbrella European volunteer federation, the European Volunteer Centre, which represents 20,000 volunteer associations.

6. The proposal for IYV 2001 was endorsed by participants at a Policy Forum in Tokyo in February 1996 convened jointly by the United Nations University and the United Nations Volunteers programme (UNV). In May 1996, a Conference in Washington D.C. on International Volunteerism which brought together 40 national organisations that collectively send more than 18,000 volunteers to serve abroad, also gave its backing to IYV-2001. The proposal meets well the guidelines laid down by the UN General Assembly for designating such years. The first official intervention by the Government of Japan was at the UN Development Programme/UN Population Fund Executive Board: at the Annual Session in May 1996, the Government of Japan expressed official interest in IYV 2001 and the Board took note of the proposal of the United Nations Volunteers to consider having the International Year of Volunteers 2001 as one of the instruments to promote volunteerism. UNV has, for the past decade, acted as the secretariat and coordinating point for International Volunteers Day, celebrated by some 100 countries on 5 December each year (designated by the UN General Assembly in 1985). The other volunteer bodies involved in the initial stages have expressed their satisfaction in UNV taking on a coordinating role, with the help of a committee in which they would wish to participate.

7. As a result, the 54 Permanent Representatives to the United Nations of Governments which were ECOSOC (UN Economic and Social Council) members in 1996 were contacted in writing by the UNDP Administrator as regards their interest in IYV-2001 and a majority among them have already expressed their support. If, as is hoped, ECOSOC and the General Assembly in 1997 endorse the proposal for IYV-2001, there would be adequate lead-time - three years - to work towards the full participation of volunteers and volunteer organisations world-wide. In fact, this opportunity is valued more for the process of bringing together ideas and people over the period, in ways that will last, than for dramatic outcomes during the year 2001 itself. Activities should benefit from communicating across boundaries with widespread sharing of information about volunteer work taking place in very different societies and cultures.

C. Envisaging the Year itself and activities

8. It must be emphasised that a “Year” is not a “summit" or "conference”: hence the focus, activities, and outcome will not only be different, but they cannot be expected to be as clear-cut. The true value of an international year declared by the United Nations lies in the universal status and legitimacy it gives to its subject. The Year can then be used as a handle or lever to bring volunteer contributions to people’s attention. It provides a powerful and recognised reason to campaign for them, to depict and talk and write about them, to stage demonstrations of examples, to give people a chance to experience their uniqueness - and, through all these methods, to reach a higher plateau of shared understanding and belief in the volunteer concept that will lead to more effective volunteer contributions in the future.

9. In terms of cost, IYV-2001 does not set out to be a large-scale celebration or platform requiring a major organising secretariat and operating expenses. It will depend, almost entirely, on a highly decentralised volunteer effort to raise the awareness of societies, nations and the international public concerning the relevance, significance, value and potential of volunteer contributions for their well-being. Recognition, facilitation, networking and promotion of volunteer activity - the essential aims of IYV 2001 - need not be expensive. The costs of the volunteer effort will be borne largely by the members of civil society themselves, including the private sector. Facilitating measures by Governments will clearly be crucial to its success, but without any noticeable drain on Treasuries. IYV-2001 is ambitious in scope, but not in terms of an expensive plan of action.

10. It would be contradictory to the very notion of “volunteer” if an attempt were made to envisage a tight plan and programme of activities, controlled by a single central body. The strategy, therefore, is to encourage associations and representative bodies to go down to their community-level membership or project-support level, and for that membership in turn to suggest and undertake the measures for recognition and facilitation, for networking and promotion, which seem to them appropriate and feasible. While some broad suggestions are offered in the following paragraphs, the challenge is to have a robust enough information exchange and dissemination system to be able to capture and project the wealth of volunteer initiatives and activities.

Country studies and ‘best practices’

11. Each society is best placed to define what encourages or inhibits volunteer behaviour among its people: what factors, what situations, which traditions, what messages come through from families, educators, religious authorities, media, the political leadership and elite as regards notions of service? What are considered the best examples of volunteer-led activity ? Which are the most representative profiles of exceptional volunteers from that society’s perspective ? Country-based studies could be made by the bodies closest to volunteer activity. In Australia, for instance, a recent official study indicated that the size of the volunteer ‘work-force’ is half as large as the country’s entire labour-force. The VSAs (Volunteer-Sending Agencies, including UNV), and NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) of the given country can help to organise contributions to these studies from people’s organisations, community groups, mosques and churches and temples, political parties and lobbies, trade unions and campaigns. The Year should bring together the lessons from these country studies, assuming their completion in the 1998-2000 period.

12. It must be clear that volunteer work far transcends the purely “developmental”, in the sense that it is not limited to activities designed to foster economic growth and its distribution. Much volunteer work has to do with survival in the face of natural or man-made disasters, epidemics, civil war or environmental destruction. Other such work will relate to dealing with issues of personal security and civil rights, and with seeking to de-fuse the causes of conflict. Other activities again will have a more cultural stamp: the celebration of customs and festivals, the spreading of language and education. Yet more examples may be found in the area of building up civil society institutions such as consumers’ associations, environmental protection societies, legal fora for the marginalised, organised struggles for gender rights.

13. Neither “North” nor “South” (nor “East” nor “West”) has any monopoly on volunteer activity, and societies located in each have a great deal to share with and to learn from the others. Much of the volunteer work will be found in small communities; some will act through NGOs, organised alliances, and existing social structures; again, there will be many examples of individual volunteer activists, including from private corporations and the civil service, who have committed themselves to the cause of populations and communities seeking improvement in their position, or suffering from some form of injustice. The Year should be able not only to catalogue the variety of such roles and practices but to go beyond that, to explaining the reasons for the choice of the best practices which will have been identified as worthy of emulation. As examples from the 1996 Habitat II Conference have shown, ‘best practices’ can indeed have powerful didactic and inspirational value.

14. Assuming the Year is able to highlight best practices and to honour those who deserve recognition for best volunteer leadership, it would be yet more valuable if these exemplars were to be analysed for what they can contribute to training, organisation and management of future volunteer activity. In particular, the historical, political and social circumstances that stimulated or permitted such actions need to be understood, if the transfer of experiences is to stand some chance of success.

15. For ideas to be articulated and public education materials developed, a series of workshops and discussions, mostly at national and local levels, needs to be organised well in advance of 2001, so that more structured discussions can take place during the Year itself. These could feed into an Internet discussion network, and groups broadly representative of civil society, as well as government officials, could be encouraged to participate in this venture.

Measures to facilitate volunteer contributions

16.Most volunteer activities are personal and informal in nature, so that employers and institutions - whether State or private - are not often encouraged to make special arrangements that would facilitate their implementation. While NGOs and charities are recognised today in many countries as worthy of State subsidies and tax concessions, volunteers who engage in socially useful activities generally do not benefit from such support. Recognised leave of absence, tax and social security benefits, recognition of field experience for career development: these are among the kinds of measures that would constitute important incentives and support for volunteer work.

Globalising the local

17. The international dimension of IYV-2000 is significant. “International volunteering” in the past has been equated with the organised actions of a few bodies specifically established (by churches or governments for the most part) on a bilateral or multilateral basis. Essentially, it has meant recruiting and sending people (sometimes training them in advance) from one country to another - usually from North to South - on volunteer terms. That is to say covering their expenses, (rather than paying market- determined rates), where these people can provide services to a host organisation or to a particular community for development or relief support, or (in the case of the churches) for missionary and/or other purposes.

IYV-2001 would seek to be more ambitious in its international scope, promoting an environment conducive to “globalising the local”, i.e. extending the huge variety of volunteer work being undertaken at community or national level across national boundaries. It would mean opening up the international space to citizen volunteer collaboration. The Year can be used to demonstrate such collaboration in a number of key areas.

In practice, the possibilities are limitless. Every area of human endeavour can be supported by volunteer contributions. The challenge is to select those concerns presenting the greatest common potentials or obstacles which can be addressed most effectively by inter-country volunteer experience, or to identify the actual global concerns that naturally transcend national boundaries.

18. For the former, there are areas such as literacy and immunisation campaigns, combatting drug consumption and trafficking, working against epidemics such as HIV/AIDS, bringing together indigenous peoples, conflict resolution, and the monitoring of elections. For the latter, the parallel with the growth areas of the United Nations system becomes obvious (e.g. poverty eradication, population and gender issues, housing and food security).

19. Areas such as environmental management, the promotion of human rights, and spreading and deepening the impact of the information technology revolution lend themselves naturally to trans-national volunteer collaboration. While it is clear that there is considerable potential for promoting international volunteer networks, it is also possible to envisage much tighter forms of collaboration: for instance, trans-national volunteer enterprises that supplement and complement those running within the market in the media, in credit and financial services, trade, craft production, etc.

20.To summarise, among the types of activity one might envisage for IYV are the following:

  • structured workshops and discussions on volunteer philosophy and practice at local, national and international levels; educational material prepared;
  • Internet discussion groups established for the sharing of ideas and experiences: by 1998;
  • compilation and dissemination of local and country-level studies including on volunteer best practices; case material distributed for training purposes;
  • publicising and honouring the representative work of prominent volunteers worldwide;
  • drawing up local and national international ‘accounts’ of volunteer contributions;
  • encouraging governments and civil society institutions to adopt measures that will facilitate the making of volunteer contributions and the sharing of volunteer experience both nationally and internationally;
  • strengthening and furthering a variety of international volunteer collaboration mechanisms, from electronic and person-to-person exchanges and short assignments for experience-sharing and networking, to the setting up of trans-national volunteer enterprises in a number of areas;

D.Immediate steps to be taken

(i) Open up the dialogue on the content and approach of IYV-2001 between UNV and as wide and representative a selection as possible of prominent volunteers, volunteer organisations, people’s organisations, and programmes/campaigns making heavy use of volunteers; CBOs (Community Based Organisations), VSAs, and international NGOs;

(ii) Seek and obtain their support, as well as that of the UN system partners and Government delegations for the UN ECOSOC and General Assembly debates on IYV-2001 in Summer/Autumn 1997, leading to endorsement of the proposal;

(iii) Encourage partner organisations to use their regular resources, staff and field volunteers in order to start the process of local discussions and workshops on volunteer practices, identifying prominent volunteers, and preparing country and case studies;

(iv) Set up an Internet-based discussion group to widen the above audience participation as much as possible;

(v) Encourage the formation of country-based associations or committees for IYV-2001 as soon as UN General Assembly endorsement is received. These would have the responsibility of, on the one hand, stimulating activities at various levels, using grassroots and elite volunteer supporters; and, on the other, ensuring international volunteer collaboration in some of the ways suggested. These committees should be made up of volunteers acting in their individual capacity, although the criteria for their selection should so designed as to help ensure their collective influence in facilitating IYV-2001 activities;

(vi) Consider the possibility that the Human Development Report (prepared annually by the UN Development Programme - UNDP) might focus in the year 2000 or 2001 on volunteer contributions and their relevance to human development (but it is not suggested that they be incorporated as part of the Human Development Index);

E. Among a wide range of practical suggestions that may deserve consideration for preparations and activities during the Year:

  • obtain the secondment of staff from eg. IAVE (International Association for Volunteer Effort) and YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) to work with UNV, initially on a 2-year basis, on helping to organise the preparations for IYV-2001
  • obtain Junior Professional Officers (JPOs - preferably former Volunteers) for the same purpose
  • consult eg. UNDP, UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund), UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) and UNCHS (United Nations Centre for Human Settlements), and organisers of previously successful ‘Years’ on how to run effective campaigns with local associations and volunteer help; explore the possibility of UNICEF’s issuing a set of greeting cards in the years 2000 and 2001 on the volunteer theme
  • prepare and translate kits for primary and secondary schools on examples of successful volunteer-led activity in different countries: dissemination through private sector sponsorship
  • have one person work full-time on ideas for sponsorship by prominent volunteers and the corporate sector, e.g.
    • set up a ‘window’ of UNV’s Special Voluntary Fund (SVF) as a Special Trust Fund for volunteer and private sector donations directed to grassroots volunteer activity in honour of IYV-2001 (to be implemented by local volunteer groups);
    • credit card companies willing to issue a new set of cards providing a small percentage of earnings for volunteer activity, and with IYV-2001 printed on new issues; airline companies to do the same for boarding cards; this can be extended to many other areas eg. with Banks on cheque books, with theatres on entrance tickets, etc. ;
    • work with the football and other sports (eg. tennis, golf, boxing, Olympics 2000 etc.) federations to see which of their events could publicise the Year and/or provide a share of earnings;
    • encourage the volunteer participation of ‘pop’-groups, jazz musicians, and of course cinema and other entertainment personalities in their individual capacities;
    • institute awards for schools competitions for essays, posters etc, on examples of the best volunteer contributions.


The Significance of Volunteers & Volunteer Contributions The existence of a common “core” understanding of what a “volunteer” or “volunteering” is, or “volunteer contributions” are, has been assumed thus far in this Note. Nevertheless, an International Year of Volunteers is not as obvious as, say, a Year of the Child or a Year of Disabled Persons: although there be some difficulties of boundary definition, there is a considerable degree of consensus on what a child or a disabled person is, and on the willingness to face up to problems confronting them. The same is not true of volunteers, with frequent questions of ‘What’ and ‘Who’ is a volunteer, or ‘Why’ and ‘When’ does someone volunteer?

A brief reference is made below to some of the polemics surrounding these terms, if only to conclude that it may better to leave these debates to smaller discussion groups, to Internet “chatting”, or to the search for a common platform during the Year itself. A look at some of the important areas of volunteer contribution may be a better substitute for a definition. It will also give some notion of how volunteer work has suffered in terms of public recognition and support.

Volunteers & their absence from the major debates of today One of the mysteries that should be investigated is why the word “volunteer” hardly finds mention in the areas that are subjects for heated contemporary debate:

state, civil society, and NGOs;
individual versus communitarian values
internationalism in a context of weakening national sovereignty.

Perhaps it is because volunteer behaviour does not have a separate institutional or ‘agent of social change’ category. Volunteer contributions clearly constitute a large part of what makes civil society function, come together and work for common causes. Based on solidarity values, volunteer motivation is essential again to community feeling and action.

Volunteerism or volunteering as organised behaviour: locally, nationally, internationally As noted above, part of the reason for its ‘lost face’ is also the spontaneous, informal nature of much volunteer work. Especially at (i) the local community level, where most of it takes place, volunteer activity is in response to an immediate need, for instance a crisis, as in the classic case of volunteer fire-fighting, or in organising a fair, or play, or demonstration. What gets more attention is a more institutionalised effort as in the case of running a creche or community kitchen or undertaking a specific form of social work.

At the (ii) national or state level, as for instance in conducting a literacy or political campaign, a large degree of organisation is called for in order to enlist volunteer support, transport it, train it, provide materials, etc. Yet even here, the massive volunteer input gets submerged by the nature of the campaign itself, and by those administering the campaign who are usually full-time paid officials.

It is only when volunteers are (iii) shipped internationally that the focus falls on the volunteers themselves, partly because of the external infrastructure and expenditure required to support them. In this last instance, their management is also associated with some specialized body dealing with volunteers, such as the Peace Corps (US), or the UNV programme.

Understanding the volunteer drive in all these cases would be a first step towards being able to capitalise on its strengths.

Semantics and guilt by association Reference is sometimes made to “pure volunteering”, when it is unsullied by association with any payments, with the market, with jobs and careers, with survival, with mutual help. The price of purity would seem to take volunteer behaviour out of the real world altogether, or to relegate it to a very marginal role. Volunteers, then, would belong only to the idle affluent, who could afford to be nothing but altruistic.

In reality, much volunteering is done in times and conditions of stress, when people are fighting for survival - whether through chronic poverty or current disaster. At the community level in particular, in village societies and city slums, who is to say how much of the volunteer mutual help and collective effort that exists is due to altruism and how much to the struggle against the odds of nature, repression and exploitation ?

There can be no doubt that the term “volunteer” has at times been misused by factional interests for selfish ends, from the time of so-called “volunteer” armies, to so-called “national volunteer” schemes that are designed to extract free labour or demonstrate loyalty to dictatorial regimes. Volunteers themselves, like communities, may emerge and act for bad (for society) reasons as well as for good. The term is also misused when it becomes a device for evading wage legislation, as a way of lowering costs and obtaining labour on exploitative terms. It is surely possible, however, to discriminate wisely when taking up the cause.

“Core” values of volunteer behaviour A few key values and ideals lie at the core of volunteer motivation. These include the notion of free will, of not being coerced or pressured into volunteer activity; of solidarity, the belief in making common cause with others; of service to others on the basis of belief in oneself, using one’s best capacity and talents to be of help (including “professionalism” of the highest order when it is called for); and perhaps fundamental to all volunteer drives is belief and commitment to a social cause, the urge to respond to need of those in distress or who are vulnerable, weak and marginalised. Another characteristic is one of modesty, of not blowing one’s trumpet while volunteering (which makes it difficult to celebrate a Year with their willing participation as protagonists!).

Examples of outstanding volunteers In any society, people would have no hesitation in pointing to specific individuals who have convincingly demonstrated these core values in the highest degree. Global acclaim is given to a Gandhi, a Martin Luther King, a Mother Teresa, a Nelson Mandela or a Rigoberta Menchú Tum. Today’s technologies have allowed international prominence to extend to people like Medha Patkar (leading the efforts of villagers displaced by massive infrastructure projects). But there are a multitude of volunteer leaders whose contributions remain unknown and unsung outside their own communities, and whose examples would be equally inspiring to new generations. If these people are truly respected, then it is the duty of society to spread their example. IYV-2001 would perform a valuable service by publicising the quiet commitment and life-work of such volunteers.

Some types of volunteer-based programmes There are so many instances of volunteer-based programmes that only a few contemporary examples will have to suffice. One of the most recent is the massive earthquake that hit the Kobe area of Japan in early 1995. In dealing with almost every aspect of its aftermath, volunteers from all parts of the country were in the forefront, over 20,000 per day at the peak period, down to 500 every day a year later, and some 1.35 million in total. A similar effort by volunteers, estimated at about 2 million people, helped with the catastrophe of the Bangladesh cyclone, long before foreign aid came to the scene. Huge numbers were also involved in the Maharashtra, India earthquake in 1994.

It is clearly not just natural disasters that call forth volunteers. People remember with a certain sense of nostalgia the extent to which they themselves participated as volunteers during the World Wars, in running routine services, in civil defence forces, in organising food and shelter and nursing during air-raids. These events, too, fall under the category of crises, but many other large-sized programmes dealing with more chronic concerns are able to take on the scale they have by being able to count on massive volunteer effort. A case in point is the ongoing National Literacy Mission in India, which initially drew on the Nicaraguan example. In every state (or province) of the country, an all-out literacy campaign is being conducted with the help of district officials, but where the materials preparation and training are being handled by NGOs as state resource centres, and the actual literacy training of villagers and slum dwellers is being undertaken by millions of unpaid volunteer trainers from among school teachers and academics, civil servants, trade unionists and almost anyone in civil society capable of the role.

The kinds of armed conflict that have characterised the latter half of the Twentieth Century, and promise to become a hallmark of the next as well, are those that overwhelmingly involve civilians rather than professional armies, mostly within rather than between countries. Huge displaced and refugee populations add to the trauma of killings. While the attention is on external actors providing relief and trying to make peace (and among whom international volunteers are increasingly prominent), other volunteers from among those populations are also involved, mostly silently and sometimes in much larger numbers, in roles that range from relief and reconstruction to trying to build bridges between those at war, sometimes by cultural means such as music, poetry and theatre.

Throughout human history, people have been struggling against disease, hunger, homelessness, unemployment, destitution and sheer social and gender injustice and inequity. Much of the total volunteer effort has been directed at participating in these struggles: through community organisations, NGOs, charities, unions, parties - sometimes even the organs of State and the private sector, where exceptional individuals step outside their bureaucratic and corporate boundaries. In all of them, the volunteer input is an essential component that cries out to be more effectively used.

In common with all volunteer activity, more effective contributions demand, as a first step, better recognition and understanding. The second is to promote an institutional environment more favourably inclined to making full use of volunteer creativity and motivation. It is up to societies and to governments to recognise the volunteer force as one that is vital, as a binding and leavening instrument, not just to their well-being but to their very survival.

To sum up, IYV-2001 could play a major role in helping ensure that the vital contribution which the volunteer movement makes to the development of humankind progresses with the necessary encouragement and in appropriate directions.

IYV 2001
c/o External Relations Group
United Nations Volunteers
Postfach 260111
D-53153 Bonn
Tel: +49 228 815 2000
Fax: +49 228 815 2001
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