Humanitarian volunteers: making change happen

posted in Feature stories - May 2012

Bonn, Germany: Whenever our televisions show distressing scenes of war, famine or disaster, inevitably we ask ourselves: “What can we do to help?” It’s the kind of question that makes us human, and many people do go the extra mile and act.

“There is never a year without humanitarian crises,” notes United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his message for World Humanitarian Day,  “and wherever there are people in need, there are people who help them – men and women coming together to ease suffering and bring hope.”

Chances are that these men and women make change happen through their own free will, and without expectation of reward. Chances are that these people are volunteers.
Humanitarian relief – “people helping people”, as the 2011 World Humanitarian Day campaign puts it – is the sentiment at the heart of volunteerism. Wherever disaster strikes, there are always those who rush to assist, and they deserve our recognition and support.

UN Volunteers take part in humanitarian efforts across the planet, with about 1,000 serving every year with the UN refugee agency UNHCR, and hundreds more with the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA). They undoubtedly form a vital resource for the UN’s aid agencies.

Relief organizations such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the Cascos Blancos in Argentina, or well-known charities like Oxfam, Save the Children and Médicins sans Frontières, are also reliant on volunteers.

But, crucial as they are, that doesn’t just mean the highly-trained individuals who work directly with people in need, often in difficult and dangerous conditions.

It means the legions of unpaid helpers who back them through administration and fundraising. It means those who donate their expertise through the Internet, perhaps via the UNV Online Volunteering Service. Most of all it means resilient people caught in the midst of the crisis themselves, who nevertheless take action to help their communities through.

And the need has never been greater, nor the challenges more intense. In 2011, the tenth anniversary of the International Year of Volunteers, ordinary people have made their mark as volunteers during tragedies such as the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, or the tornadoes in the United States of America. The ongoing Horn of Africa emergency is another case in point. Somalia and its neighbours are seeing the gravest food crisis in the world, and it is getting worse.

So we salute the many humanitarians, UN Volunteers and others, directly involved in averting this calamity, and call upon the international community to continue recognizing and supporting their work through legislation, policy and funding.

World Humanitarian Day, concludes the Secretary-General, is a time to examine our own lives and consider what more we can do to help. “Let those we honour today inspire us to start our own journey to make the world a better place and bring our human family more closely together,” he says. It’s something we can all be a part of.

Volunteering – people helping people – makes change happen. And there’s no time like now.

Written by philip
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