UNV Response to March 2000 Hot Topic

Susan Ellis warns readers in the March edition of her hot topic that we're about to waste an opportunity to take full advantage of the International Year of Volunteers and, in this context, it appears that the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) is in some way responsible for this state of affairs. Let me say at the outset that UNV has enormous respect for Susan's work in support of volunteering and is indeed grateful that she has chosen to bring to the forefront a sense of urgency since, as she reminds us, there are barely nine months to go to the start-up of IYV. On the other hand, constructive dialogue requires clear statements of positions and accompanying rationale.

A few comments first on the background information to clarify what is UNV's role as regards IYV. The UN that Susan refers to which designated IYV are the member countries, including of course the United States. The parameters of the Year were handed down by governments of the member countries and the decision of those countries was that UNV should be the focal point "without prejudice to existing priorities" which in plain speech means that UNV was not to use its regular budget and staff in preparation for the Year. Notwithstanding this limitation on our sphere of action, we have indeed been able to move ahead on many fronts which are worth while stating here. Thanks to the generosity of a few donor countries some full time (ex volunteer) staff have been assigned to UNV's Headquarters in Bonn and to our offices in Geneva, New York and Brussels to work on IYV. A web site, guidance notes, a poster, a CD Rom and other material has been produced; IYV status reports are issued regularly; research topics have been launched; an ad hoc advisory board of NGOs has been established; and meetings, conferences, workshops all over the world related to volunteering are attended and addressed. With the help of UNV's network of UNV Programme Officers (who are all volunteers not staff) in 70 developing countries preparations for the Year are going ahead on many fronts. The pace we are pleased to say is picking-up and, while one could always wish for more, we certainly do not share the view that there is a "vacuum" as the article puts it.

The central point of the article is that UNV should have created a "unifying project" for the year to be truly international - it seems that we are guilty of engendering a "Multi-National Year of Volunteers". This is interesting as the idea of a core theme was discussed at the very outset and it was determined that the four goals of the Year, greater recognition, facilitation, networking and promotion of volunteering, should stand to symbolize what the Year intends to achieve and that it should be up to each country to decide how it wishes to mark the year. This decision was based on the premise that volunteering takes many different forms in different cultures and, indeed, in parts of the world it is not even recognized under the rubric of volunteering. UNV has wished from the outset to be inclusive - to count among stakeholders in IYV 2001 all individuals and organizations engaged in all types of voluntary effort in support of others however they may be defined. We believe that it is for each country to consider the special characteristics of volunteering within its society and the main challenges that an International Year can help address and to develop activities accordingly. Negotiating a joint project among all the world's nations around a subject as broad as volunteering is, we feel, neither realistic nor desirable. It would also, we feel, concentrate minds on a single event or set of events rather than on a continuous process which carries long after the Year is over. To paraphrase Susan's own mantra, this is not just a Year of Volunteers - the question of results which are sustainable long after the Year is over should be a prime indicator of success.

However, UNV has not left it that. The Guidance Notes available on the web site and now on CD ROM are a generic set of ideas which any country can adapt to the set of circumstances it finds itself in. We are actively encouraging a growing number of organizations in the North and the South to join forces with efforts at country level to prepare for IYV. Using its position within the United Nations, UNV has also set about placing volunteering on the inter-governmental agenda. Nowhere in the Commitments that 117 Heads of State signed at the 1995 World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen was support to volunteering mentioned. Five years on, in June 2000 in Geneva, a World Conference will be held to discuss achievements since Copenhagen and to agree on new initiatives. This time around Governments will be looking at set of recommendations on what they can do to enhance the environment within which volunteering can flourish. These recommendations were drawn up during a workshop organized by UNV in November 1999 which brought together experts familiar with various aspects of in volunteering from every one of the world's main regions.

UNV is delighted to see that preparations for IYV are advancing in the USA and we congratulate Points of Light, Junior League International and other collaborators for their vision in moving the process forward. On our part, we will continue to do everything in our power to support any country or organization which wishes to be a part of IYV 2001.

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