18 December 2007
by Robert Leigh
To be empowered is to have dignity. And to have dignity is to be useful to society and to be recognized as making a contribution.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights reaffirms the dignity and worth of the human person, and it does so in the context of the right to work, to rest and leisure. As one reads the text of the Declaration, however, it soon becomes clear that the subject is paid work. Nothing wrong with this. Decent and properly remunerated employment is a fundamental right, and probably the most important single element affecting peoples’ lives. But voluntary work does not fit easily into this paradigm. I would argue that the fact that access to opportunities to volunteer is not generally perceived as a “right” has much to do with a long standing perception that volunteering is a one way process, with the “haves” assisting in some way the “have nots”.
Recent times have witnessed a gradual shift towards an expression of volunteering as a two-way process, with benefits generally accruing to the person doing the volunteering, as well as to the person on whose behalf the volunteer act is being taken. For many people voluntary action is a means of making friends, gaining skills, experience and confidence, increasing chances of employment, enhancing one’s standing in the community, or even living longer. But for many other people, excluded from mainstream society for reasons of income, education health, age, gender, or race, to volunteer can also be a tremendously empowering experience and a means of acquiring the most basic notions of dignity.
Let me give an example from the UN Volunteers ( UNV ) programme that illustrates this point. For a number of years UNV has assigned, as volunteers, people from societal groups who are usually perceived as the objects, not the subjects, of development assistance. These have included indigenous peoples and people with disabilities. One initiative, which has perhaps received the most attention, is called Greater Involvement of People Living with HIV/AIDS, or GIPA for short. Started in 1997 in Malawi and Zambia , GIPA now extends to several other countries in Africa as well as in Asia and the Caribbean .
A central feature of GIPA is that it provides for assignments of HIV positive volunteers as UNV volunteers. Its first objective is to create opportunities for infected persons, and those close to them, to contribute to their societies and so lessen the stigma, neglect and ostracizing experienced by those known, or rumoured, to be infected. An external evaluation of GIPA reported a drastic reduction in the stigma experienced by most of the volunteers when they first started their work. The volunteers found that, by becoming sources of information and reference on HIV/AIDS issues, they were considered experts - and attitudes towards them changed. One GIPA UNV in Malawi was cited in the evaluation as saying: “you have expertise in HIV/AIDS and people respect this and come to you and it makes you feel good”.
On 28 November 2001 in New York , at the event in the UN General Assembly marking the close of the International Year of Volunteers, Brigitte Syamalevwe, an AIDS activist from Zambia , addressed Member States from the podium. Brigitte had been living with AIDS for the previous ten years and worked, before her sad passing away, as a UNV volunteer in her home country. She was a mother of ten children and managed an orphan support group made up of over 200 orphans. This is what she told assembled governments about her volunteer work:
“Its not true that the only beneficiaries are the orphans. I am a beneficiary because when you are trying to find medication for persons living with HIV/AIDS, you are addressing my issue. I am the mother of the children you are going to have look after. I am the mother of potential orphans. But I will tell you today, that I am not very willing to die so that my children can be a “programme”. That is why I am volunteering. That I, together with the community, can find solutions. What I need from you, is to acknowledge that I am there, and I am the grassroots. I am the person that you are targeting, and can also be a benefactor as well as a beneficiary.”
Empowerment cannot be delivered by outsiders. Volunteerism, rooted as it is in solidarity and reciprocity, can engage beneficiaries as benefactors, as Brigitte Syamalevwe argued so eloquently. By recognizing this mutuality we can work towards creating conditions in which people can be empowered and gain dignity. Volunteerism can be a powerful force for enhancing the conditions within which excluded people can take their own destiny in hand, and acquire the dignity and hope to which every human being has a right.
Robert Leigh is the Senior Policy Specialist and Chief of Research and Development at United Nations Volunteers.