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Volunteers can change the world
03 December 2004
by Geof Brown

Kingston, Jamaica: The almost incredible volunteer services in the network of Ismaili Muslim communities in those cities, could, if imitated worldwide, literally transform the planet into a haven of amicable productivity.

The many positive responses to the last article in which I reminisced comparatively about the past heyday of Jamaican voluntarism, suggest that there are many who understand the significance of voluntarism for social and economic development.

The United Nations gave proof of that significance when it created the United Nations volunteer (UNV) programme in 1970 and further underscored that by designating one year as United Nations Volunteer Year.

Not all share the awareness of the UN or of former President Nixon of the US about the value and virtues of voluntarism. One myopic reader found the extolling of outstanding and effective volunteer contribution to the educational and social development of a society outlined in the last article, "boring". Nixon was no favourite of mine.

But he hit a kernel of truth when he observed that the real strength of America lay "in the aggregation of the splendid local voluntary organisations" that make up the society. There are those who think that it is reliance on this or that macro-economic policy salvation which determines the viability of a society. A sudden withdrawal of all volunteer activity at every level of a democratic society would give them a rude awakening.

The United Nations Volunteers programme is at once a global and a local volunteer project. For although based in Bonn, Germany, its some 30,000 highly motivated volunteers have served in local communities in about 140 countries since its inception.

The volunteers have served in a wide spectrum of sectors, including health, education, agriculture, architecture, strengthening community income-generation initiatives, town planning and community mobilisation. Here in Jamaica, since 1972, the UNV programme has focused largely on Human Resource Development.

As an example of the programme's operation at the local level, one recently completed project was mobilising communities in Falmouth to implement a number of micro-projects that addressed issues of concern to the town.

Another completed UNV project supported entrepreneurial development in 12 local communities. Please understand that not all the UN volunteers are foreigners. Some are Jamaican nationals volunteering under UN auspices. As such they are not constrained by partisan political labels, neither are they seen as agents of the government.

Further, there are Jamaicans currently serving as UN volunteers in places as varied as East Timor, several countries in Africa and also in Haiti. They are filling positions as IT specialists, logistic officers, nurses, village educators working with families that are affected and infected by HIV/AIDS. These Jamaican volunteers are a part of the more than 5,500 volunteers currently serving worldwide.

An outstanding feature of the UNV programme is the mobilisation of volunteers by volunteers. This is in keeping with the mandate and mission of the programme, "to mobilise and assign volunteers to countries to support sustainability". In other words, what you don't have is the parachuting of well-meaning foreigners dropping a little wisdom here and a little wisdom there (like the constipated elephant) and then departing, leaving little trace.

Indeed, some 70 per cent of the volunteers themselves are from developing countries. Their volunteering, therefore, takes on the character of mutual aid rather than the noblesse oblige of some neocolonial dispensations of assistance.

In the words of their descriptive material, "The UNV specialists in Jamaica are widely recognised for their professionalism and dedication, with the ability to contribute technical know-how to the development process here, particularly in urban settlements.

The programme provides highly skilled professionals in a cost-effective manner and will collaborate with the government and other stakeholders. especially in those areas where essential professional expertise, training and community mobilisation skills are required."

This collaboration is exemplified in the current thrust to develop a National Volunteer Centre in conjunction with the Environmental Foundation of Jamaica (EFJ) and the Council of Voluntary Social Services (CVSS).

The proposed centre will "act as a central point for mobilising, training and assigning volunteers to areas of need". Bravo! This is the kind of systematic approach to engaging and re-engaging volunteer power that may go a long way to restoring the glory that was in the heyday of the once proud Jamaican pioneering voluntarism. Hail the UNV programme on International Volunteer Day!