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Volunteers for a better world
08 December 2006
by Audrey McLaughlin & Lawrence Hill

As Canadians, we are forever searching for ways to define ourselves. On the United Nations-declared International Volunteer Day, 5 December, we encourage Canadians to define themselves as global citizens for change by demanding equality and justice throughout the world.

Over the past three decades, more than 75,000 Canadians of all ages and from all walks of life have taken up the challenge to volunteer abroad. We are bankers, writers, lawyers, IT specialists, social workers, students, mothers, fathers and grandparents. As volunteers we've worked on the front lines in the global fight against poverty, women's inequality and HIV/AIDS.

For many of us who have had an international volunteer experience, our lives are changed forever. It is difficult to grasp the incredible extent of poverty throughout the world and the impact that poverty has on every aspect of people's lives. But this reality becomes crystal clear when you live and work alongside people who lack the most fundamental necessities — like safe drinking water, nutritious food or access to basic health care.

We volunteer because we can and because we care. We believe every citizen of the world should have the same rights, the same opportunities and the same basic necessities of life regardless of where they happen to be born.

Our volunteer experiences include bringing computers to children, helping women's groups start small businesses, and promoting public awareness of HIV/AIDS. We share our skills and our knowledge and we in turn learn courage and dedication from those with whom we've worked, and who continue to live and work after we are gone, to make their communities a better place to live.

And there is more work to be done. Every day, 50,000 people die of causes linked to poverty. More than 800 million people go to bed hungry at night. Even more people, 880 million, lack access to basic health care. In many countries, women lack basic human rights. Two-thirds of children denied primary education are girls and 75 per cent of the world's 876 million illiterate adults are women. Added to those challenges, particularly for young people, is the scourge of AIDS. Six thousand youth aged 15-24 are infected by HIV-AIDS daily.

For many of us, statistics like these are overwhelming, but so too is the feeling that we must act. Canada and Canadians are known around the world for our commitment to building a more equitable and sustainable world.

It was, after all, a Canadian, Marshall McLuhan, who first spoke of the world as a "global village." More than residents of any other country in the world, Canadians understand the meaning of this phrase. We are a multicultural society welcoming people from all over the world and are justifiably proud of our international reputation for peace and engagement in the major issues facing the world.

And we can do more.

We should fulfill our long-standing promise to spend 0.7 per cent of our national income assisting the world's poorest citizens. We should embrace broadly supported goals, such as cancelling debt owed by the poorest countries and work for fairer trade rules. We should increase our investment in the promotion of women's equality and the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Those of us who have volunteered overseas have been profoundly affected by the experience. We are invigorated by what we as individuals accomplished and motivated by the thought of what could be achieved if whole communities and Canada as a whole could be motivated to act. We have become Global Citizens for Change.

Global Citizens for Change was launched by a coalition of Canadian international voluntary co-operation agencies, including: Canada World Youth, Canadian Centre for International Studies and Co-operation, Canadian Crossroads International, Canadian Executive Service Organization, CUSO, Oxfam-Québec, SUCO, Voluntary Service Overseas Canada and World University Service of Canada.

Today, Global Citizens for Change is mobilizing communities across the country to help build a more just world. We are actively seeking to engage fellow Canadians and our federal government in addressing important global issues. Our website provides information on how all Canadians can make a difference such as by organizing a community meeting, writing a letter to your local newspaper or meeting with your Member of Parliament.

As a wealthy nation, Canada has the capacity to make a real difference. We can again become a world leader by championing basic human rights and creating a more equitable and sustainable world.

As citizens, we can help ensure effective national and international policies are put in place to address global development issues.

It's time to act. Together we can reach beyond our own communities and country and bring positive change to the lives of our fellow global citizens.