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Spotlight on volunteerism

Danial Norjidi

The fourth State of the World’s Volunteerism Report (SWVR) report unveiled recently, highlights the importance of volunteerism for shaping and advancing development.

Titled ‘Building equal and inclusive societies’, the 2022 SWVR is a flagship publication of the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme and was launched on March 28 as part of the Ninth Asia-Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development (APFSD).

According to the report, “Volunteerism is a powerful force, and an important part of the fabric of society. Globally, it remains an important vehicle for shaping and advancing development.

Its potential to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development that delivers to all is, however, yet to be realised.

“As countries and regions grapple with enormous challenges, one thing is clear: no single stakeholder, entity or sector can address these challenges alone. Now more than ever, partnerships are vitally important. Recognising this, the 2022 SWVR explores the ways in which volunteer–state partnerships can help address our most pressing challenges.”

Among the report’s key findings is that volunteerism can promote a culture of collaborative

“Volunteers contribute to shaping and prioritising issues that are important to them and their communities. By aligning their priorities with those of their governments, volunteers contribute to outcomes that are relevant and responsive to the needs of communities. With volunteers’ desire for better governance and commitment to inclusion and participation, volunteerism can help build a culture of participatory and collaborative decision-making.”

Another key finding is that volunteerism can alter unequal power relations. “Volunteers can alter and transform unequal power relationships between ordinary citizens and state authorities,” said the report. “With appropriate support, volunteers can take up more active roles and claim their rightful place in society. In this way, volunteerism enables people to own and shape the development agenda, with an inclusive governance approach that fosters rights-based participation.”

A third key finding is that volunteerism offers diverse pathways to civic participation, but
remains unequal.

“Faced with complex issues, volunteers find diverse causes to engage in and various channels for volunteering. While the diverse paths to volunteering are laudable, participation remains unequal, with limited volunteering opportunities for some groups. For example, women in the Global South face particular challenges. Besides juggling caregiving and domestic responsibilities which limit their aspirations and ability to volunteer, many women engage in volunteering as a form of ‘service’ and less in initiatives that involve prioritising issues, highlighting ongoing gender gaps in volunteering.”

An additional key finding in the report is that volunteers build bridges. “Volunteers are often in the unique position of brokering relationships between service providers and beneficiaries, a connection that is sometimes weakened by administrative issues and differing priorities. As such, volunteers act as mediators between marginalised groups and state authorities, often helping navigate bureaucratic processes.”

The report also puts forward some recommendations that it says can guide policymakers to deliver on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and build societies founded on inclusion and equality.

One such recommendation is to address barriers faced by marginalised groups in volunteering. “Policymakers can adopt policies to ensure access and inclusion in order to facilitate marginalised groups and volunteers’ participation in decision-making processes.

Policies aimed at promoting partnerships between volunteers and government and other entities, including the private sector, can be important in engendering the development of such partnerships.”

A second recommendation is to leverage partnerships through volunteering. “Policymakers should leverage existing support networks, volunteering practices and values when developing policies on volunteerism. Recognising the importance of partnerships among volunteers, volunteer-involving organisations and government, Bangladesh is co-creating a National Volunteer Policy with various stakeholders that aims to embed volunteerism within the national development policies and significantly strengthen local government institutions.”

The report also recommends addressing gender-related volunteering inequalities.

“Policymakers can adopt gender sensitive measures that can optimise women’s participation in volunteering; for example, by ensuring they have access to decision-making processes.

Understanding ongoing barriers that women face in volunteering is important. Studies that assess how collaborative decision-making processes reinforce or challenge gender norms, as well as other gender inequalities in volunteerism across countries and regions, can help close this gap.”

A fourth recommendation is to leverage volunteers’ expertise, knowledge and experiences.

“Policymakers should recognise the expertise of volunteers and implement measures to facilitate or create an enabling environment for the full utilisation of their skills. Policymakers should also consider building on the strong interest in diverse forms of volunteering beyond service delivery, including social innovation and civic engagement.”

Also mentioned in the report is a recommendation to promote social innovation.

“Policymakers should promote measures that support the development of new ideas in order to enable innovations that align with and are more responsive to communities’ development needs. Social innovation requires inclusive policies that enable marginalised groups to engage in innovations.”

Another recommendation is to recognise informal volunteers’ work and contributions.

“Policymakers should consider developing mechanisms for valuing volunteers for the work that they do, from recognising their opinions and integrating their input in decisions, to other considerations such as social protection for volunteers in marginalised communities.

“Policymakers should also recognise volunteers’ contributions, including through various forms of incentives such as social recognition to build on their desire to feel needed and valued.”

Lastly, the report recommends investing in volunteer data collection as well as research
and measurement.

“Policymakers should invest in the measurement of volunteering to close the gap in volunteering data, and generate better-quality, more comparable data. To better measure volunteering, they should also explore partnerships with national- and regional-level entities for the purpose of data collection.

“Partnerships to collect data and better measure volunteering with entities at the national level – for example with National Statistical Offices – with regional organisations at the regional level, and with partners – for example, ILO – at the international level can help close the gap in data management,” the report added.