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International Volunteers Day 2008: On December 5:

Volunteerism for human development and peace-building

You have heard that your neighbour is ill, so you make sure that on the way home from work you stop by her house to make sure that she has been to see the doctor. If not, you may help her to get there. You may even help her talk through what it means for her and her family if it affects her income.

On the outside, this doesn’t seem like much. It is an act of kindness that takes five minutes of your time. But in real terms, you are making a difference to her life by helping to ensure her health and livelihood. It is you, volunteering to give of yourself to the benefit of another.

Volunteerism has many different definitions. Some volunteers give selflessly with no expectation of rewards, for many of us, it is an opportunity to learn or improve our skills in a genuine two-way exchange. Volunteers can be local, international or even ‘virtual’. Volunteers may be individuals or organised. They may be focused in a specific area, for instance, peace-building or development, or they may have a philosophy of helping anyone in need. At the end of the day, one’s reasons for volunteering are highly personalized, but all will embrace the value of service and the belief that each voluntary action makes the world a better place. In the words of Ghandi, “The best way to find yourself, is to lose yourself in the service of others”.

Globally, volunteerism contributes to many areas of human development and peace-building. Volunteerism can be the ideal link between global and local: volunteers may have experience of doing things in different ways, with different approaches, and commit themselves to transferring this information in a way that is beneficial to the people whom they serve. An example of this is in agriculture, where people can learn about new organic rice planting techniques that an international volunteer has learned while serving in a neighbouring country. Local volunteers can also be an excellent way to deliver health services.

For example, mothers may trust other local women who have volunteered to be community focal persons in newborn hygiene and nutrition.

In their commitment to serve, volunteers often make a commitment to building the capacity of those they work with, so that in the future, these people can make their own decisions and are better able to manage their own development. In Sri Lanka, this happens informally at a community level, through national organizations such as Sarvodaya and through the programmes of international agencies such as UNV or VSO. There is ample evidence that this work is having a tremendous impact, such as through UNV support to national disaster management plans, where national UNV volunteers are placed in the Disaster Reduction Centres in several districts. These volunteers are paired with a Government counterpart, and the objective is for the volunteers to transfer the skills and knowledge necessary in order to build the capacity of Government officers and the community to better respond to local emergencies such as the recent flooding in the East of the country or national disasters such as the 2004 tsunami.

The future of volunteerism is bright, and with people giving their time and energy for a range of reasons, volunteers will continue to be a driving force behind our societies. Developments in technology will continue to play a large factor in volunteerism globally. More and more, it can be seen that the digital divide is not as wide as it was once suspected: people in rural communities can now be linked by mobile phones and youth who were once isolated find themselves connected to the global community via the internet.

Because of this, online volunteering and organised volunteering through online social networking sites will continue to grow in popularity. Other areas of growth for volunteerism lie in capturing the human capital available from retired or disabled people. Although they may not be able to integrate into the traditional workforce, they have enormous amounts of energy and ideas to give. Local volunteerism and family volunteerism are also on the rise. As people begin to feel more disconnected from their communities and families, global trends indicate that there will be a revival of grassroots volunteering, allowing people to build a deeper and more meaningful relationship with their communities. Finally, we see an increase globally in corporate volunteerism, with Government organisations and businesses recognising their corporate responsibilities and acknowledging that is good for their productivity to have active and engaged staff.

On December 5 each year, volunteers around the world celebrate International Volunteer Day or IVD. IVD is an opportunity to reflect on the voluntary contributions made to development and peace-building and to thank volunteers for the efforts they have made. It is also an opportunity to stimulate discussion around volunteerism at all levels. Some volunteers use IVD to start local grass-roots initiatives; others use it as a way to draw the connections between the local and the global.

IVD 2008 will see the launch of a new project initiative on 11 December. The project, called ‘Establishment of a ‘Legal Empowerment Volunteers’ Scheme in Sri Lanka’ will mobilize university students to support the legal empowerment of various marginalized and vulnerable groups in Sri Lanka. It will be jointly launched by the Ministry of Social Services, the Legal Aid Commission and UNDP on 11 December 2008. It is an excellent example of how local volunteers, Government and community can link together to ensure the success of the development process.

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