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Sunday, 21 February 2016





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On call for ‘public good’

Top UNV officials explain volunteerism in Sri Lanka and the world:

The year 2015 marked an interesting turning point for United Nation Volunteers (UNV). Not only did they gain greater recognition for their work and the impact they have in the communities as well as at a national level, the United Nations General Assembly also passed two resolutions on volunteers and carried out multiple researches on their work, attracting the attention of multiple stakeholders.

To discuss the state of volunteerism in Sri Lanka and in the world, the Sunday Observer sat down with Geoff Prewitt, Chief of Development Programming Section of the UN Volunteers and Sveva Pettorino, Programme Officer for UN Volunteers Sri Lanka.


Q: According to the State of World Volunteerism Report 2015, last year is considered an interesting year for volunteerism, with volunteers being considered the agents and pioneers of the peace building process. Could you outline the work UN Volunteers do around the world?

Prewitt: I think it’ll be correct to say that volunteers have been mostly engaged in tasks related to disaster response, which includes peace and stability. We had some unfortunate incidents last year, such as Ebola virus and the earthquake in Nepal, where we saw volunteers take a new sustained momentum because of the immediacy of the response required.

Sveva Pettorino

Geoff Prewitt

V- Awards

Celebrating volunteers in Sri Lanka, V Awards 2015 was held at Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre on Saturday February 13. Sri Lankan volunteer Kasun Jayatunga won the Volunteer of the Year award.

Within the UN Peace Keeping operations globally, UN Volunteers fill 1/3 of the civilian capacities.

Volunteers often get more recognition in the context of peace keeping and crisis environments, but they make thousands of daily contributions to public good, not in a reactive way but a proactive way, such as street cleaning, volunteering in public schools, ensuring that individuals receive better sanitary conditions, and many other ways.

Q:UN Volunteers accommodate field volunteers as well as online volunteers and they work under different capacities. Can you explain this?

Prewitt: UN Volunteers hosts an online volunteer framework, which matches existing requests for various assignments; these requests can be as simple as translating a document to as complicated as compiling data around specific survey questions, or doing a media campaign around domestic violence or design a website. There different project and exercises are done online, which then we use as a repository. We have over 20,000 individuals look through these requests after registering with us. We had 11,000 assignments done online last year.

The beauty of these online assignments is that you can sit in Brazil and work on an assignment in Mozambique. Truly inclusive and universal.

On the other hand, as to field volunteers, over one billion people have volunteered in the world last year. UN Volunteers is a small part of that, but our mandate is to promote that level of volunteerism. We placed 6500 standing volunteers in over 120 countries last year. The majority of them are working with different UN agencies.

Q: With such a large number of volunteers, how do you manage quality as well as the quantity of volunteers?

Prewitt: As for the quality aspect in the international modality, we have a roster to which people upload their information against specific set of credentials, such as academic and career experiences, languages they speak and so forth. We spend a lot of time reviewing that information and checking for accuracy. If they pass these stringent quality criteria, they officially move to our roster. When we receive requests from UN agencies for possible candidates, we run the profiles of the vacancy through the database of the International UN Volunteers and forward CVs of suitable candidates to the relevant agencies. In the national modality, it’s mostly decentralised to the country representation, who takes the responsibility of working with the requesting agency and jointly designing the job description of the assignment and advertising in local media.

We also have a youth modality and regular modality, because within UN Volunteers we recognise there is a demographic divide, especially in Sri Lanka, where inter-generational dialogue is very important.

V- Force

Volunteerism supports individuals to develop soft skills as well as work specific skills, in addition to contributing to the development of the country.

Explaining volunteerism in Sri Lanka, Sveva Pettorino said there is a large population of volunteers in Sri Lanka, registered under V-Force that brings together people who have a passion for volunteering. The V-Force was started with 10 volunteers, who now number over 5000 supporting various UN systems under different capacities. The concept of V-Force, she said, is a unique initiative in Sri Lanka that other countries look upon as one of the best practices in organising volunteers.

Q: One aspect of giving prominence to volunteerism is to encourage mainstreaming it and give it state level acceptance. How has the UN Volunteers work been on this front so far and in what countries has this become a significant success?

Prewitt: This is one area UNV has been active and we use the term Volunteer Infrastructure to explain it. By deploying Volunteer Infrastructure, we are setting up a national scheme for volunteering, a national coordinating body for volunteering or national law for regulating volunteering. Over 20 countries have such Volunteer Schemes and there are countries such as Burkina Faso in West Africa that have successfully implemented it, regulating youth, particularly the graduated youth, for them to get jobs suitable for their skills.

UNV is an inter-governmental body. We are in countries to help the host governments and communities. The more we can do to contribute to a national apparatus that can help sustain and involve volunteers, the better we are doing our job. Another matter is the power of volunteers whether it’s political participation, taking on tasks that are otherwise monetize, their presence makes a difference. In 2014, the number of volunteer working hours was 1.79% of the GDP of Sri Lanka. The more we could harness this as positive energy, the more we can use it to develop Sri Lanka, and the government is fully supportive of the volunteering efforts.

Sri Lanka has an excellent base of volunteers who are doing great work and as a country; Sri Lanka has the potential to share their volunteers with the neighbouring countries as well.

Pettorino: We work with the Ministry of Social Empowerment and Welfare. We established the Infrastructure, called the National Volunteering Secretariat, which is now the main entity to match the demand and supply of volunteers in Sri Lanka, coordinating with the NGOs and organisations that are in need of volunteers.

We started this as a partnership and now it functions completely under the Ministry. There is also a policy on volunteerism that has been drafted, which will be approved soon to leverage more on the importance of volunteerism in Sri Lanka.

In the context of National Volunteerism Secretariat, we conducted the first National Conference on Volunteerism last year, with the participation of volunteers from the UN systems and other NGOs and volunteers in other organisations, who are engaged in Corporate Service Responsibility programmes.

The first national survey on volunteerism in Sri Lanka, had a sample of 15,000 people in all districts, proved that at least 40% of the people are engaged in volunteering activities in Sri Lanka.

That gave us evidence as to how we can take it to the next level.


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