How will volunteers help meet sustainable development goals?

In Astana, Kazakhstan, United Nations youth volunteers for community development Han Na Kim (left) and Aizada Arystanbek (middle) support the MY World offline rollout by engaging people in taking the MY World survey and promoting volunteerism. In over 30 countries, volunteers, including U.N. Volunteers, were instrumental in conducting the survey offline and enhancing the participation of marginalized and other community members. Photo by: Ji Hyun Yang / UNV Kazakhstan

As we reach 2015 and the new sustainable development goals are firming up, United Nations Volunteers and its partner organizations are actively engaging to shape the role of volunteers and volunteerism in the global effort to create a better world.

Working on many aspects of the Millennium Development Goals over the past 15 years has taught us how important people’s participation and ownership is to make change sustainable.

We have seen this in the work of Li Wei, a national U.N. Volunteer engaged in protecting the Beijing forests from deforestation by convincing local fruit producers to adopt sustainable practices to generate better income. We have seen this in the work of international U.N. Volunteer Mohammad Sarhan, himself living with a disability, who raised funds for mobility equipment to enhance the quality of life of internally displaced people living with disabilities in Darfur. And we have seen this most recently with the U.N. Volunteers who are engaged on the frontline of the Ebola epidemic: people committed to making a positive change in the world.

The post-2015 development framework offers a unique opportunity to shift to an agenda that is more transformative, universal, inclusive and sustainable. Building on the MDGs, the new development framework should aim to couple sustainability with a commitment to leave no one behind by adopting an equality-focused and rights-based approach at all levels. This should be underpinned by a strong accountability framework.

The discussion at the global level is focusing on the “means of implementation” of the sustainable development agenda and on the need for the U.N. to be “fit for purpose” to support member states at the country level to deliver the next generation of goals. Now, it is time for all organizations that engage and deploy volunteers to make their voices heard and advocate for the opportunities that volunteerism offers.  

It is a chance to build on the creativity and active participation of people in all development investments; to involve larger numbers of volunteers in developing and implementing new policies; to enable people to be the change by creating new avenues for collaboration with governments, civil society and the private sector.

Volunteers and volunteerism are very much part of the post-2015 debate.

In his recently released synthesis report on the post-2015 development agenda, U.N. Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon has indeed recognized volunteerism for its contribution to a transformative post-2015 agenda: “As we seek to build capacities and to help the new agenda to take root, volunteerism can be another powerful and cross-cutting means of implementation. Volunteerism can help to expand and mobilize constituencies, and to engage people in national planning and implementation for sustainable development goals. And volunteer groups can help to localize the new agenda by providing new spaces of interaction between governments and people for concrete and scalable actions.”

At UNV, we work with partners to integrate volunteerism into development programs, mobilize an increasing number and diversity of volunteers in support of the results of the U.N. and the achievement of member states’ development outcomes, and advocate for the full recognition of volunteers in the development and peace arenas.

Volunteerism and volunteers are the ultimate renewable resource for sustainable development goal delivery across all thematic areas, whether on specific goals such as those on health, gender, education, sustainable consumption or environmental protection, or as a cross-cutting means of implementation that engages people on the issues they are facing. Volunteers and volunteer organizations can play a significant role in the framework in many ways, such as:

● Complementing essential basic services where they are lacking or where they are insufficient
● Mobilizing people to develop a sense of ownership and awareness about the challenges they are facing, for example to leverage collective action and attitude changes in areas such as environmental protection or sustainable consumption patterns
● Enhancing the effectiveness of peace and development efforts through participatory forms of monitoring and accountability. Local volunteers would be especially suited to assess progress and leverage local expertise
● Building trust as well as bridging social capital between diverse people who are not used to interacting with each other. By working side-by-side toward a common goal, volunteers overcome barriers and recreate lost solidarities, including in urban and diverse societies
● Building resilience and preparedness through concrete community action, enhancing knowledge and a sense of responsibility for one’s community
● Building skills across different areas; their own, as in the case of youth volunteers who gain skills enhancing their employability, as well as the skills of others, through transfer of knowledge and experience

In essence, volunteerism is an old and yet new approach to development, based on people participation, which applies to all countries — developing and developed — in a universal manner. Strengthening volunteer engagement for sustainable development goal delivery and enabling volunteer organizations to mobilize volunteers and facilitate volunteer opportunities bears an enormous potential to achieve a truly transformational agenda.

However, while volunteers donate their work, enabling volunteerism needs an investment for people to channel their contribution into meaningful engagement opportunities aligned with wider development efforts. A recent Australian study demonstrates that the contribution of volunteers is quite systematically underestimated, and values the return on investment at least 4:1. For every dollar invested, the financial value of the result is at least $4.

Volunteers’ contributions are normally equated to the replacement cost of the service they provide, rather than to the value of the overall effect, including human, social and physical capital.

“The investments of time and money by individuals, households, businesses and governments into volunteering deliver quantifiable returns to the community that exponentially exceed their monetary cost,” according to the study.

Today’s societies need to invent new opportunities for dialogue to develop solutions to address development challenges. As Einstein put it, “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

At UNV, we stand ready — as part of the U.N. system and as a volunteer-sending organization ourselves — to work with member states and partners to upscale and integrate volunteering into national implementation strategies for sustainable development goal achievement, and to foster an overall enabling environment for volunteerism as an expression of civic engagement.

Tell us your own volunteer story on Facebook or tweet us using #DoingMore, and check out all Doing More content here.

Doing More is an ongoing conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Australian Red Cross, Cuso International, IFRC, MovingWorlds, Peace Corps, Scope Global (formerly Austraining International), United Nations Volunteers, Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance and VSO.

About the author

  • Richard Dictus

    Richard Dictus is the executive coordinator of United Nations Volunteers, the U.N. organization that contributes to peace and development through volunteerism worldwide. Previously, he was U.N. resident coordinator and resident representative of the U.N. Development Program in Malawi.