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close this bookThe Courier N 159 - Sept - Oct 1996 - Dossier: Investing in People - Country Reports: Mali ; Western Samoa (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
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View the documentVolunteers show their worth
View the documentStructural adiustment, the environment, and sustainable development

Volunteers show their worth


by Thomas M. Neufing

Volunteers have become a major component in international development efforts. They make up a significant proportion of the total human resources available for development cooperation (up to a fifth of the skilled international personnel serving in developing countries). In the early days, volunteer service was strongly influenced by the idea of oneway technical assistance. Specialists, mainly from the North, served in developing nations where their expertise was desperately needed but not yet found among local citizens. Much has changed since.

After the US Peace Corps, the UN Volunteers Programme (UNV) ranks as the second largest volunteer-sendina agency with some 4000 professionals in the field every year. Its universality and internationality is reflected in the high number of UNV specialists (74%) who come from developing countries. The scope and size of the international volunteer contribution to development cooperation (notably areas such as HIV/AIDS and the environment), has increased significantly over the years as a result of the changing development challenge. The re-thinking of the role of technical cooperation is equally central to the volunteer debate and this has led to much greater flexibility in the ways in which volunteer services are provided. The important role volunteers can play in peace building efforts with a long-term development dimension, complementary to humanitarian relief, is increasingly being recognised.

Working with rather than for people

With the UNV's 25th anniversary, and the relocation of its headquarters to Bonn this summer, it is an appropriate time both to assess and to acknowledge the contribution made by these volunteers. Since the programme began in 1971, some 14 000 professionals have dedicated a period of their lives to serve as a UNV. The programme is administered by UNDP, and is therefore intimately linked to its structures, particularly in the field. Regarding community-based initiatives, the comparative advantage of UNVs is that of working with rather than for people over an extended period, thus facilitating their initiatives. The experience of many development agencies shows that in promoting socio-economic change at the village level, the type of person needed is one who-through long-term commitment and sensitivity -can learn as much from local partners as offer advice to them.

International volunteers are engaged mainly in rural development tasks. Those working through specialised NGOs such as the Red Cross, and Medecins Sans Frontieres have proved to be highly effective agents, supporting governments faced with disaster situations. In the case of UNV, the value of using volunteer specialists from other developing nations, as a way of encouraging technical cooperation amongst developing countries, is particularly recognised. Most volunteers- perhaps two-thirds - serve in least developed and small island countries. And about three-quarters serve in rural areas, working mostly in programmes of agricultural and community development, health, education and the supply of basic services. Since the end of the Cold War, a growing number have been deployed in emergency relief, refugee and rehabilitation programmes. UNVs make up 10% of the UN's civilian component in Cambodia; 4096 of the field staff of the World Food Programme and almost 100% of outreach workers attached to the UN Mission in Guatemala. UNVs are increasingly involved in human rights promotion, the organisation of elections and conflict resolution.

There is a consensus among the main international humanitarian and development actors that their programmes should be mutually supportive. For example, development efforts must respond to humanitarian crises by remaining on the scene and supporting immediate needs, as well as aiding in the prevention of crises which are known to be looming. Emergency humanitarian assistance should also pave the way for longer term development by viewing the immediacy of the moment through the lens of future sustainable rehabilitation. Both sets of activities should, ideally, be launched and implemented in tandem with local bodies.

External assistance efforts must include strengthening local capacity to cope with problems. Empowerment strategies which inform, educate and facilitate the people's own vision of peaceful and sustainable living environments (including respect for human rights) are fundamental to the future of communities coping in the aftermath of crisis.

Relief, rehabilitation and development?

The UNV programme has been active in exploring the efficacy of volunteer support to communities in crisis in order to bridge the gap between immediate needs and longer term developmental goals. In 1994, the UNV held its 4th Special Consultation, entitled, Between Crisis and Development - Volunteer Roles and UNV's Contribution. At this event, donor governments, UN agencies and cooperating partners from civil society had an indepth discussion of the issues surrounding volunteer efforts, and the complementary nature of emergency interventions and follow-up measures. The participants reconfirmed the need for local capacity building. They also affirmed the usefulness of the UN Volunteer contribution in crisis prevention, emergency rehabilitation and 'building bridges' to sustainable development. The work of UNVs in preventive action and promoting post-conflict development was highlighted. There has been a significant increase in demand for specialist volunteer services in all types of crisis. These may be economic, natural or man-made, but they all have in common the need to provide essential relief and rehabilitation services for basic survival (to refugees and resident populations). In many countries, disasters and internal strife have put so much pressure on essential public services that the longterm capacity of the people to recover may be threatened. Governments in developing countries and donors both believe it is fully justified to use volunteer specialists to help provide such services during the adjustment period.

'Mixed' teams

The contribution of both international and national volunteers is often essential to link immediate relief efforts to future long-term development. National volunteers-people working in their own countries within the UN framework-complement the international approach by providing the key grassroots perspective. UN Volunteers who speak local languages, live and work in remote communities, are familiar with community structures and are known to local leaders, play a key part in facilitating preventive action and providing follow-up in the aftermath of a crisis. UNV specialists are well-placed to build effective partnerships with national and local actors. In the last two years, some 2000 UN Volunteers have worked in various parts of the world in prevention and preparedness, peacekeeping, electoral support, human rights, rehabilitation and reconstruction, and humanitarian relief.

Burundi offers an example of an initiative designed to stem a crisis through local capacity-building. The UNV is financing a project there which supports the mediation and dialogue efforts of the UN Secretary General's Special Representative (SRSG) through the recruitment of UNV peace advisers and conflict resolution facilitators. This project is being run successfully out of the SRSG's office, extending public awareness of the reconciliation process. It includes use of the mass media to promote understanding, and brings local actors together to work for peaceful solutions.

The tasks undertaken by UN volunteers all fit into the spectrum which has 'crisis' et one end end 'development' at the other. The work, moreover, is undertaken in partnership-with civil society (NGOs and community-based organisations), government departments, UN agencies and regional international organisations (such as the KU).

Through efforts that aim to link relief, rehabilitation and development, new productive partnerships are emerging to enhance coherence, coordination and complementarily.

The growth of professionalism

30 years ago, the typical profile of an international volunteer was that of a generalist graduate from an industrialised country seeking first-time experience abroad before settling down to a career. Over time, the governments of developing countries made clear their need for practical and often specialised skills aimed at giving them the ability to manage their own programmes. They increasingly expressed impatience at hosting untrained volunteers. Professionalism became the key word. Unfortunately, the word 'volunteer' is still a source of confusion: it is often equated with 'amateur'. This is a perception that now needs to be corrected. The personnel sent out by most agencies that supply volunteers are likely to be in their thirties, with post-graduate qualifications and several years' practical experience in their fields. The typical UNV specialist is an example par excel/ence of this trend: 39 years of age, holding a Master's degree and with more than ten years of experience in a particular discipline.

It was not just the dedication, but also the professionalism of the hundreds of UN Volunteers serving in Mozambique that impressed Aldo Ajello, the former UN Special Representative in Mozambique (now EU Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region). 'If I were to run another mission,' he said, 'I would ask immediately for volunteers.' In terms of monitoring-which was vital in building up the trust and confidence needed to ensure the election results were accepted-'UNV electoral officers were our only real presence and they proved to be extremely professional.' ~ T.N.
Study by the World Wide Fund for Nature