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Volunteer in Yemen? ‘Please be serious!’
15 December 2005
by Walid Al-Saqqaf

The word ‘volunteer’ is rarely appreciated or even understood by many Yemenis. Observers believe the current environment in Yemen does not encourage volunteerism due to high unemployment, extreme poverty and lack of basic services.

However, several organizations in Yemen and abroad are attempting to raise awareness of volunteer work. Among them is the United Nations, which celebrated International Volunteer Day on 5 December, emphasizing the need to raise Yemeni awareness of volunteerism in general and the United Nations Volunteer (UNV) programme in particular.

Whether these efforts are sufficient is still questionable.

With an unemployment rate of nearly 40 percent and biting poverty in more than half the population, one can understand that volunteerism is far down the priority list of millions of Yemenis.

Afaf Yahya, 29, a university student in Sana’a, said volunteer work is unpopular and in some instances, ‘out of context.’ “How can you volunteer if you have no income, no money and are concerned about the means to provide your kids with something on their plates every night?” she asked. “With all due respect to those calling for Yemenis to volunteer, I say, ‘Please be serious!’”

Others disagree with this view and, in fact, have transformed themselves into long-term volunteers in the UNV programme.

Palestinian UN Volunteer, Dr. Najeh Al-Sadek, believes in the programme’s mission. “The programme has achieved excellent results since I first enrolled in Yemen’s UN Volunteers programme,” he said.

Having worked in the health sector of UNV Yemen, Al-Sadek believes he has contributed to the programme by volunteering in the UNDP clinic, which provides services to UN personnel and their families.

Al-Sadek is one of nine UN Volunteers in Yemen, a few of which are Yemeni nationals. However, the majority come from other parts of the world.

UNV Yemen still seeks more nationals to enrol in its programme. Another UN Volunteer in Yemen, Hiro Ishihara, works for the programme itself. She said occasionally, it invites applicants to become UN Volunteers via announcements published in the Yemeni press. She explained that even though they do volunteer work, UN Volunteers receive stipends to cover work-related expenses, such as transportation, accommodation and per diems.

According to UNV Yemen, since its establishment in 1971, the UNV programme has had nearly 600 volunteers who have assisted in Yemeni governmental and non-governmental sectors.

Remarkably, the number of volunteers seemed to have dropped in the 1990s. Since 1991, the UNV Yemen website reported only 55 volunteers in the programme, less than 10 percent of the total number of UN Volunteers since 1971.

This year, the UNV Yemen team is committed to raising awareness of the programme and bringing it to the attention of potential candidates via the media and activities such as International Volunteer Day.

This is part of the framework of the global UN Volunteers programme initiated in 1971. The UN itself marked International Volunteer Day on 5 December to recognize the “invaluable contributions” of volunteers in facing challenges across the globe, from natural disasters to ‘silent crises,’ such as poverty and disease.

In a message on this occasion, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, “From the flooded streets of New Orleans to the flattened villages in Pakistan, ordinary people have risen to extraordinary challenges.”

He dedicated this appreciation to hundreds of UN Volunteers and other parties who contributed to relief and rescue efforts in the United States following Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Pakistan and India.

“They remain the true champions of our work towards the Millennium Development Goals,” he added, recalling the commitment by world nations to fight extreme poverty and lack of health and education services in order to achieve the MDGs by 2015.

Given the fact that most UNV Yemen activities concentrate in the public sector, the Yemeni government must do more to achieve better results for the programme. UNV Executive Coordinator, Ad de Raad, conveyed this view on a global scale saying more must be done to recognize and harness “the full potential of volunteerism for development.”

UNV Yemen’s activities so far have focused on the areas of strategic financial planning and management, management development through capacity building, human development and natural resources.

According to UNDP Yemen, a national UN Volunteers scheme is being created “to promote the concept of volunteerism and the use of national knowledge and experiences in contributing to the development process in Yemen.”