Volunteers can really make a difference

A United Nations volunteer with internally displaced people prepare a dinner for Ramadan in Abu Shouk Camp, al-Fasher in North Darfur, Sudan. Governments are encouraged to integrate volunteerism as an essential element of the post-2015 development agenda. Photo by: Albert Gonzalez Farran / UNAMID

In the past three weeks, thousands of local and foreign volunteers have converged in the areas affected by Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Volunteers were among the first to respond, and while their work is done quietly and without fanfare, their contribution is invaluable in such a crisis.

The United Nations Volunteers (UNV) program advocates for the recognition and promotion of volunteerism globally, in order to create an enabling environment for volunteers and volunteer-involving organizations, and encourage governments to integrate volunteerism as an essential element of the post-2015 development agenda.

“So much good work goes unnoticed, but we’re trying to get to the point where there is recognition that volunteerism is part of the development measuring framework and acknowledgment that a healthy society is one that supports volunteers and civic engagement,” Kevin Gilroy, head of the UNV Peace and Development Division, said during an exclusive interview with Devex.

UNV is working with UN entities and member states, volunteer-involving organizations, the private sector and other partners to jointly develop tools that enable recognition and measuring of volunteer efforts, such as a “global volunteerism index.”

“Society sometimes does take volunteering for granted, but if you could put a price tag on volunteering, it would be unimaginably huge,” noted Gilroy.

He mentioned how the Johns Hopkins University Comparative Non-profit Sector Project estimated that from 1995-2000 the total number of volunteers in 36 countries comprised 44 per cent of the workforce of civil society organizations, representing the equivalent of 20.8 million full-time workers.

“What is interesting is that the economic contribution of volunteers in these 36 countries was calculated at $400 billion annually. That is massive,” said the UNV official.

Catalyst for development

UNV was established in 1971 to collaborate with UN entities to integrate voluntary service into development assistance activities. For over 40 years, the program has been bringing professional volunteer talent into UN-led development efforts.

In the beginning, the focus was on providing additional capacity through experienced professionals working on international assignments either in UN organizations or affiliated projects. Over time, UNV has evolved in terms of its mandate, results and activities, driven by the changing external environment for peace and development, and the wider global acknowledgment of the role and impact of volunteerism.

UNV is currently operational in three domains:

  • Mobilizing volunteers to get directly involved in the humanitarian, peace-building, post-conflict recovery, sustainable development and poverty eradication work of the United Nations.

  • Advocating for volunteerism and civic engagement in peace and development.

  • Pursuing the integration of volunteerism across policy, legislation and programming as well as delivering on internationally agreed development goals.

“Our vision is very simple: We believe that a world where volunteerism is fully recognized within societies as a way for people to be engaged would enable sustainable development, peacebuilding and — ultimately — poverty eradication,” said Gilroy.

In line with this approach, UNV gives common, caring global citizens an opportunity to dedicate a portion of their professional lives to contributing to the peace and sustainable development work the United Nations undertakes around the world.

Highly skilled professionals

Traditionally, the program has recruited experienced professionals willing to work in countries other than their own on assignments that are often more suited to mid- and senior-level professionals. This is because many UN host entities require quite specific expertise.

At present, UNV has around 5,000 international volunteer assignments a year in 129 countries. About 80 per cent of these volunteers come from developing countries, hence promoting South-South development. International volunteers usually have five to 10 years of professional experience, and an average age of 38 years old.

These volunteers use their acquired skills to transfer knowledge and build capacity in the field. They are selected based on criteria defined by the requesting host agency, with a vetting process similar to that of any UN entity. They come from all walks of life and from over 120 diverse professions.

For instance, in the health sector, UNV professions include medical practitioners and specialists; staff counselors and psychologists; midwives and nurses; and dentists, pharmacists and laboratory technicians. Other volunteers are experts in protection, resettlement, reintegration and repatriation, and refugee status determination; monitoring and evaluation, reporting, program development and project management; public information and communication; rule of law, judicial monitoring, access to justice, security sector reform, community mobilization, entrepreneurship and employment; and technical and support areas, civil engineering, movement and transport control, ICT, telecommunications and supply management.

In 2014, UNV will offer UN Youth Volunteers aged 18-29 an opportunity to gain first-hand development experience by volunteering in development contexts. The UN Youth Volunteer Program was established at the request of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his 2012 Five Year Strategic Plan, and is still under development.

Selection process

UNV receives around 70,000 registrations per year for international volunteers, and the organization keeps a roster of about 25,000 at any one time.

Supply is not the problem — the challenge for the recruiters is to identify the best potential candidates with the most closely aligned skill set requested for each assignment. In addition to the professional expertise and soft skills such as motivation, flexibility, communication, team work and commitment, requests often come with other specific variables, including languages, and geographical or cultural knowledge.

“Even with a rather large pool of applicants, some posts remain hard to fill,” said Gilroy.

He gave the example of the UNV program officers, placed in the field units to run the programs as the organisation’s eyes and ears on the ground. The official explained that for those positions, “we’re looking for a number of qualities, including leadership, inspiring management, advocacy, being able to work at a high level with the heads of other UN agencies, and at the same time run an office and deal with day-to-day issues that arise from the numerous volunteers in-country.”

“This may sound generalist, but the profile — someone who has experience in the field, understands programming, advocacy and human resources issues and ideally has worked with a volunteer-sending organization before — can be difficult to find,” he said.

Gilroy encourages skilled applicants to register. In particular, he calls on professionals itching to leave their desk jobs, to get engaged and share their technical skills and know-how in a development or post-crisis situation.

“The rewards can be very gratifying in terms of the solidarity that you’re sharing with the people you’re helping and the agencies you’re working with,” he pointed out. “It’s a very rewarding experience that will enhance your own personal and professional growth and, from that, you’ll not only give but also receive a lot to help you in the next stages of your career. And hopefully the experience will convince you to volunteer in other ways for the rest of your life.”


We also asked Gilroy to elaborate more on typical queries prospective UN volunteers may have before deciding to apply to join the program.

Why serve the United Nations as a volunteer?

A UN volunteer brings a certain motivation and commitment. It’s all about putting the “UN” and the “V” together. There are many different reasons why people want to join UNV, but what we’re looking for are people who are committed to advancing the work of the United Nations through volunteerism.

Can joining UNV lead to future employment in the UN system?

It can help, as a UNV assignment provides valuable insight into the work of the United Nations at field level, but that is not what the program is about. There are certainly current staff members of the United Nations who were UN volunteers at one point in their careers. The program offers an excellent opportunity to get out into the field and to use the experience as a springboard to move into the development or humanitarian world with the United Nations or other organizations. Just because we are a volunteer organization does not make us an entry point to the United Nations. We believe in the power of volunteerism to advance peace and sustainable development, and want volunteers who share this conviction.

Many highly skilled would-be volunteers are interested in volunteering, but it’s not easy to take an extended leave of absence — or even to raise the issue with a current employer. Any tips?

If I were an employer and one of my staff members came to me and said, “I’ve got this opportunity to go off for one or two years with UNV and work with UNHCR in the context of the Syrian crisis,” then I would see it as a significant contribution to that staff member’s personal and professional growth. Of course, it’s a matter between employer and employee whether or not they can be released for a period — but it’s a great opportunity that has a multitude of benefits.

How about people who want to volunteer but think they can’t afford to support themselves without a regular source of income?

UNV offers an allowance to cover basic costs, like most other international volunteer-involving organizations. The benefits are fair and reasonable, and in some cases can be extended to cover family members to live in the host country at a fairly modest level. It is not a salary, but a volunteer living allowance, typically around $2,000 per month, with full medical and life insurance under the UN security umbrella, and a comprehensive orientation and induction program — all prerequisites for a successful assignment.

What if I want to volunteer, but not long-term?

Not everyone can afford to volunteer long-term, which is why we offer the option of short-term volunteering opportunities of three months or less. We started this in the second half of 2013, offering partners the opportunity to recruit specialized UN volunteers as an alternative means to tap into high quality expertise for time-bound assignments.

How would I fit into the structure of the UN entity I would be serving with?

UN volunteers are fully integrated into the host entities and treated as integral members of the team with respect. A further advantage is working in a multicultural environment, which, in my opinion, definitely adds to a volunteer’s personal growth.

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About the author

  • Richard Jones

    In his role as Editorial Director Richard oversees content for digital series, reports and events, leading a talented team of writers and editors, conducting high-level video interviews and moderating panels at events. Previously partnerships editor and an associate editor at Devex, Richard brings to bear 15 years of experience as an editor in institutional communications, public affairs and international development. Based in Barcelona, his development experience includes stints in the Dominican Republic, Argentina and Ecuador, as well as extensive work travel in Africa and Asia.