Q&A: Volunteer Spirit Alive in Rio

IPS U.N. Bureau Chief Thalif Deen Interviews FLAVIA PANSIERI, Executive Coordinator of UN Volunteers


UNITED NATIONS, Jun 13 2012 (IPS) - When the Rio+20 summit gets underway in Brazil next week, the estimated 50,000 to 60,000 participants will not only include world leaders, government delegates and U.N. staffers but also a staggering array of activists from the far corners of the world.


The United Nations has identified some of the major participating groups to include farmers, businessmen, trade unionists, consumers, workers, students, indigenous peoples, religious leaders, academics, members of civil society and representatives of the international media.


But there will also be well over a thousand “volunteers” providing their services virtually gratis under the umbrella of UN Volunteers (UNV).


Administered by the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), UNV integrates volunteerism into development planning and mobilises volunteers.

Every year, about 7,500 qualified and experienced women and men of around 160 nationalities serve as UN Volunteers in some 130 countries.

They are described as “professionals” who play key roles contributing to peace and making an impact on development results.


FlaviaPansieri ExecutiveCoordinatorUNV 350In an interview with IPS U.N. Bureau Chief Thalif Deen, Flavia Pansieri, UNV’s executive coordinator, said UNV is very pleased to be able to contribute to a project, in conjunction with the Brazilian Government and UNDP, “to bring the Rio+20 Conference to the people of Rio de Janeiro”.


Through this social inclusion project, she said, about 1,500 volunteers from less favoured communities and universities will support the organisation of the conference.


UNV has been involved in the training of trainers and of the volunteers using experiences with volunteer management in other conferences and large events such as the Beijing Olympics, the World Youth Summit in Colombia last year, and the 2011 NGO Conference ‘Sustainable Societies; Responsive Citizens’ which took place in Germany, and was sponsored by the United Nations and the Department of Public Information.


Excerpts from the interview follow.


Q: What progress have you made in your “volunteer action counts” campaign for sustainable development?

A: Since its launch in April, the “Volunteer Action Counts” campaign has been a tremendous success, with more than 1,000 volunteering stories submitted and over 63 million volunteer actions counted so far on the campaign website.

The campaign encourages people and organisations to share their volunteering contributions to sustainable development by submitting their stories on the campaign website. The stories are submitted into one of several categories, from fighting poverty and hunger or strengthening communities to improving resilience and disaster preparedness or protecting the environment.

The stories are displayed on the website, and each story’s volunteer actions are added up and displayed through a volunteering counter.

In Mozambique, for example, over 700 volunteers have been mobilised through an initiative by a UK-based international voluntary organisation to support people living with HIV and AIDS. Among other things, the volunteers tend to vegetable gardens that provide food and medicinal plants for people living with HIV and AIDS.

In Estonia, through the “Let’s do it!” campaign, 50,000 volunteers cleaned up the entire country of illegal garbage in just five hours collecting 10,000 tons of garbage.

In China, India, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand, nearly 5,000 young Habitat for Humanity volunteers laid bricks, mixed cement and wielded hammers to help more than 500 families in just one day.

This simultaneous multi-country build event marked the culmination of a five-month long Habitat for Humanity Youth BUILD campaign to raise funds for, and awareness of, the dire housing situation in the Asia-Pacific region.


Q: How successful is the concept of volunteering in the U.N. system?

A: In 2011, more than 7,300 UN Volunteers worked for peace and development with UNDP and other U.N. agencies around the world, helping people to lead more productive and fulfilling lives through quality education and improved healthcare, or by ensuring equitable access to resources and sustainable practices.

To date, more than 14,000 UN Volunteers have served in more than 40 different peacekeeping and political and peacebuilding operations. Currently, more than 2,400 UN Volunteers are supporting 17 U.N. peace operations. They work in more than 120 functional categories, from human rights advisers to supply managers, electoral observers to press officers.


Q: How difficult is it to find volunteers against the backdrop of a spreading global financial crisis?

A: Volunteerism is a fundamental source of community strength and resilience that exists in all societies throughout the world. Volunteerism is expressed through a wide range of activities, including traditional forms of mutual aid and self-help, formal service delivery, campaigning and advocacy, as well as other forms of civic participation.


Q: What is the history of UNV?

A: On Dec. 7, 1970, the United Nations General Assembly decided through the Resolution A/Res/2659 (XXV): “to establish within the existing framework of the United Nations system, with effect from 1 January, 1971, an international group of volunteers, the members of which shall be designated collectively and individually as United Nations Volunteers”.

Since then, tens of thousands of UNV volunteers have served the causes of the United Nations system worldwide. The UNV programme contributes to peace and development through volunteerism. UNV is inspired by the conviction that volunteerism can transform the pace and nature of development and by the idea that everyone can contribute their time and energy towards peace and development.


Q: Are volunteers compensated in some form or other? Is UNV funded by voluntary contributions or assessed contributions?

A: The key benefit of being a UN Volunteer is the personal satisfaction the volunteer assignment brings to the volunteers as they make a positive impact on peace and development. UN Volunteers are supported by UNV in several ways- such as a volunteer living allowance, annual leave and medical insurance. UNV as an organisation receives voluntary contributions from donor and partner countries.