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Speeches and statements


Closing Remarks by
UNV Executive Coordinator
Sharon Capeling-Alakija
at the IAVE World Volunteer Conference
Amsterdam, 18 January 2001

Edmonton 1998; Amsterdam 2001. In my opening remarks last Sunday I said: "what a difference a millennium makes". Today I say: "what a difference a conference makes"!
I wish first to pay tribute to Ken Allen and IAVE, for providing the inspiration for this gathering; to Theo van Loon, Daniel Kruithof and the entire NOV team, for their extraordinary efforts to ensure such a successful and enjoyable event. And to the Government of the Netherlands for its steadfast commitment to the volunteer movement in general and the International Year of Volunteers specifically.

Last Sunday, panellists at the round table were challenged by the moderator to state how they would judge the success of the conference. Astrid Heiberg, of the International Federation of Red Cross/Red Crescent, kicked off with the answer "everyone should leave here with a new idea". I have 3 new ideas picked up during the course of the week which I would like to share with you:

Volunteering is not sexy.

Youth are not the leaders of tomorrow.

Always overestimate the power of a dream.

Let me explain…

Maria Christina, I have to disagree with you: Volunteering is not sexy……. enough. Let's put the sex back into volunteering!!! We need to get the message out that volunteering is fun, it is good for you, it provides skills and experience, it opens up countless opportunities, it empowers.

I agree with what Kumi Naidoo said yesterday: Youth are not the leaders of tomorrow. They are leaders today and they should have voice and visibility. Young people must seize opportunities to participate today in discussions that will affect their future. I myself had the rewarding opportunity of sharing an informal session with a group of young people on Tuesday. I commend the conference organizers for making youth a priority here in Amsterdam.

As for the third idea, I believe it is important to put a different slant on the message we've been hearing about the power of dreams. I would say: always over-estimate the power of a dream. We all must dream but we must also all wake-up and take action. The extent to which our dreams are converted into reality will ultimately determine the success of IYV 2001.

We need good strategies and effective implementation. Volunteerism can be powerful--or unfocused. It can produce vital results--or merely good PR. It can be transformational--or merely recreational. It requires inspired leadership, strong coordination, good training, rigorous evaluation and a supportive infrastructure, as David Brettell reminded us, in the context of the Sydney Olympics.

If volunteerism is to be transformational in coming years, if it is to cement societies together, as suggested by Prime Minister Wim Kok; if it is to be the "engine of renewal" that UNICEF's Carol Bellamy proposed, it needs to figure more prominently in public policy and gain recognition as a valuable, and valued, form of activity. The work of volunteers needs to be honored and celebrated, affirming that caring matters and that economies exist for the sake of society, not the other way around.

I am struck by how often we take for granted the everyday heroism of ordinary people who choose to lend a helping hand when there is need. I am struck by how awkward it is, in public life, to speak about caring; how quickly we skim over our deepest values for fear of sounding sentimental, naïve, or simply unprofessional. And I am struck by the obvious but often overlooked fact that in our increasingly age-segregated societies, it is through volunteering that people reach across the generations as so magnificently demonstrated by our co-chairs.

Over the last several days, we have heard many people debate "what is a volunteer?". One of the first things I learned when I went to Bonn as UNV Executive Coordinator was our German name "Freiwilligen Programm der Vereinten Nationen." Ours, it turns out, is an organization of "free willers."

For me that translation brought home a truth that is there -- but less obvious -- in the English usage: at the heart of volunteerism is volition. And it taught me that words are important. And that we need to recognize that local expressions of voluntary action such as Minga, Whanaungatanga, Harambee, Shramadanah, and Palko all provide new insights into the rich and diverse ways in which volunteering manifests itself.

This conference has also given us new perspectives and a broader vision in terms of addressing the challenges ahead. All of you know best the challenges you face in your own environments. I wish here to share with you several challenges that I have heard as part of the discourse this week:

Volunteering brings particular benefits to those suffering from social exclusion. And yet, the most marginalized groups in society are the least likely to participate. We need to reach out.

There is no intrinsic contradiction between the duties of the state, the functions of the private sector and the responsibilities of people. Therefore, relationships between the volunteer movement and governments and the private sector must be enhanced.

Also, a false dichotomy persists between those who call themselves "activists" and those who call themselves "volunteers". Bridging this divide is our third challenge.

There is great diversity in volunteering: it can be organized or spontaneous, on-site or on-line; domestic or international; old or young; devoted to service delivery or social activism. We must recognize and accept this multitude of expressions held together by the common thread of reciprocity.

Minister Paul Boating eloquently described active citizenship and caring communities. The challenge is, to turn on its head the conventional wisdom of "thinking globally and acting locally". We now must also "think locally and act globally" to create a world community whose members share a common concern for one another's well-being.
It is our time. Time to change. Time to create, as Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in his opening comments, a better and safer world.

Thank you.

Sharon Capeling-Alakija
Executive Coordinator
United Nations Volunteers


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