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Volunteers crucial in engaging community in MDGs: Conference
08 December 2004

Islamabad: The first UN system conference on volunteerism and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) concluded with recommendations on maximizing citizen engagement in activities framed around the Goals, in Islamabad, Pakistan on 7 December.

The more than 200 international delegates who attended the three-day conference focused on the role of volunteers in supporting the actions of national governments in meeting their commitments outlined in the Millennium Declaration, the framework of the eight MDGs signed by world leaders at the UN Millennium Summit in 2000.

Delegates unanimously agreed that while volunteers cannot assume the entire challenge of meeting the Goals, they represent an invaluable resource to mobilize people in communities to lead and carry out initiatives such as generating health awareness, empowering women, and ensuring children receive a quality education.

“Focusing on volunteerism as a path to help meeting MDGs in no way absolves governments and others from meeting their own responsibilities,” says Ad de Raad, Executive Coordinator of the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme. “We should remind ourselves that although volunteerism can be cost effective and efficient it is not cost free.”

The delegates urged both governments in poor and developed countries to properly recognize, support, promote and facilitate the involvement of ordinary citizens in voluntary activities. Recommended actions include providing volunteers in all sectors with proper training, sensitizing the media on the importance of publicizing and recognizing volunteer role models, especially in countries where volunteering is viewed as charitable work, and ensuring national volunteer schemes have the financial and institutional capacity to support volunteers in their efforts. Liz Burns, President of the International Association of Volunteer Effort, says the socioeconomic situation in many countries is a major impediment to promoting volunteerism. “Most people living in poverty and poor health are unable to volunteer because of their life situation,” she says.

Gender inequality and the influence of cultural practices were also raised as key areas that could be overcome through the involvement of volunteers. Yassine Fall, a senior policy advisor on gender equality with the UN Millennium Project, says violence against women, religious traditions and the feminization of poverty are hampering development. “Violence against women is everywhere. We cannot address gender equality without addressing violence directed at women,” she says. ““We must train volunteers on gender issues, as many are replicating gender biases in the work they do.” Fall says gender has to be mainstreamed in development policy, and in countries where religious practices keep women out of society, men and religious leaders need to be educated and included in efforts to bring about change.

One recommendation brought forward on the last day of the conference was the addition of a Goal to address sexual and reproductive health. Meenakshi Datta Gosh, a principal advisor to the Indian Government on sexual health and family planning issues, says universal access to education in this area is necessary to facilitate the achievement of Goals 4 and 5: addressing child mortality and maternal health respectively. “We must provide women with options for contraception and young people with knowledge on safe-sex practices,” she says. “This is a whole area overlooked by the Millennium Development Goals. We strongly urge the inclusion of a MDG to address this.”

The final session of the conference focused on the involvement of volunteers in helping develop a global partnership for development: Goal 8, which is directed at developed countries. Margaret Huber, Canada’s High Commissioner to Pakistan, Kumi Naidoo, CEO of CIVICUS, an international organization promoting citizen action, and Dr Ishrat Hussain, Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, shared their insight on the role of rich countries to assist developing countries in reaching the targets of the MDGs.

“We need to understand the centrality of the MDGs. Without Goal 8, we cannot achieve the rest of the Goals,” says Kumi Naidoo. “Unless we have significant progress in trade, aid, and debt [relief], we may meet the Goals, but… it won’t be sustainable.”

In the developing world, Naidoo stressed the importance of volunteers and volunteer-involving organizations in rallying and mobilizing the poor to speak out against trade barriers such as agriculture subsidies.

A report encompassing the recommendations brought forward during the conference will be compiled in the coming months. The report is anticipated to provide direct input into next September’s review at the UN General Assembly of the progress made towards achieving the Goals set out in 2000.

Read the conference report (in PDF, 97KB)

From: UN Volunteers