For information only - not an official document.
Note to Correspondents   Note No. 105
       29 November 2000
 Volunteerism “A most Undervalued Asset” Participants Are Told 
At Opening of International Year of Volunteers 2001

High Levels of Civic Engagement Mean Lower Levels
Of Communal Strife, Says Secretary-General in Keynote Speech

NEW YORK, 28 November (UN Headquarters) -- The benefits of globalization would not reach the poor without the active efforts of volunteers bringing opportunities within their reach, the Secretary-General said this morning as he opened the International Year of Volunteers 2001.  The Year will be launched on 5 December, International Volunteer Day.  It will end with two sessions of the General Assembly devoted to an examination of how volunteerism can be further promoted.

In his keynote address, the Secretary-General cited the 40 volunteers of the new United Nations Information technology Service (UNITeS) who had just been deployed to developing countries to help people learn how to use the resources of the Internet and of information Technology for human development.  While the State was responsible, volunteers provided much of the effort on the ground. Societies should recognize and promote volunteerism as a valuable activity.  They must facilitate the work of volunteers, and encourage volunteer action at home and abroad to increase the efficiency of public services so that they reached more people.

In addition, the Secretary-General pointed out, evidence was growing that societies with high levels of civic engagement had lower levels of communal strife.  By promoting inclusion and trust, volunteerism helped build the foundations of social justice and stability.  “Today we need that engagement more than ever”, he concluded, adding that the Year was an opportunity to raise awareness about the vital work of volunteers in all walks of life, and to think of new ways to promote volunteerism at home and abroad. 

 “Many people would volunteer if they were asked”, said Sharon Capeling-Alakija, Executive Coordinator of the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) in her opening remarks on the meaning of volunteerism for social development.  She said volunteerism was a most undervalued asset; however, the Year was not just an occasion for celebration but also for change.  Albert Einstein had said problems could not be solved with the same thinking that had created them.  Volunteerism was a way of putting people at the centre of activities, as the Secretary-General had called for in his Millennium Report.  Volunteerism helped promote the spirit of a shared planet.  It helped to distribute the planet’s economic and information resources among all its citizens.

She cited the actualization of the Secretary-General’s vision for bridging the digital divide through UNITeS as an example.  That volunteer corps was bringing together the efforts of governments, civil society and the private sector. 

 Shinya Ono, Parliamentary Vice Minister from Japan, described the role of volunteers in delivering assistance after the Kobe earthquake.  The commitment and energy of those volunteers had been broadcast by television to give hope to the suffering people.  Among many activities marking the Year, a commemorative stamp would be issued by his government to educate the public on the benefits of like-minded people working together on common goals.  He introduced Takehito Nakata, Honorary Ambassador of the UNV, who had first proposed the International Year. 

Other speakers included Astrid Haiberg, the President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, who called on governments to improve the basis for volunteering.  She also called for improved management of volunteerism, saying volunteers could no longer be taken for granted but must be fully recognized for their contribution.

By videotape, Anita Roddick, Chief Executive Officer of The Body Shop, said the importance of work had been judged for too long by payment.  An important role in her company was to plan how employees could reach out to communities through volunteering.  Employees were encouraged to volunteer and were increasingly doing so as part of their jobs. It improved their lives and work by providing an opportunity to exercise idealism.  When staff went to hospitals and held HIV-infected babies out of genuine compassion and not just because it was a job, the experience was deeper.  Some services could be better provided by volunteers than by professionals. 

Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker, Co-Chair of the United States Committee for the Year, said volunteers were the world’s best hope for a better future.  She had arrived in the United States and had been cared for by volunteers.  That had inspired her to give something back to society and devote her life to volunteerism.  Life in the United Sates was increasingly tied to volunteerism, with 56 per cent of adults volunteering.  Governments should reach out to all citizens to maximize the potential of volunteerism.  People were looking for meaning and community in their lives.  They wanted to make a difference.  The International Year would give wings to those desires. 

Again speaking by videotape, Bernard Kouchner, the Secretary-General's Special Representative and head of the United Nations Interim Administration in Kosovo (UNMIK), said the UNVs had been indispensable in Kosovo.  Since 1999, nearly 700 volunteers had been providing technical and logistical expertise to UNMIK.  By serving as supervisors and trainers, volunteers had also been crucial during the registration process for Kosovo’s first free and fair elections.

Sergio Vieira de Mello, the Secretary-General's Special Representative and head of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), also participating by videotape, confirmed that volunteers had helped lay the groundwork for last year’s popular consultation in East Timor.  As the elections themselves approached, more volunteers would undoubtedly arrive.  Nearly half of the work force now was UNV staff from 90 countries.  While the importance of the volunteers’ work went unrecognized, they had helped bring about success in both Cambodia and the Balkans. 

Three United Nations Volunteers briefly highlighted their work.  Amy Stafford of the United States, who had recently served in Georgia, said it was the duty of volunteers to work with modesty and integrity to make others shine.  Olufemi Olugembi of Nigeria, who had worked as the UNV Project Coordinator of a Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in the Caribbean region, said the volunteering initiative would reduce social exclusion of people living with the disease.  Monette Rana of the Philippines, a UNV Programme Officer in Tanzania, said volunteers were often overlooked because people did not see them.  They were there, quietly making a difference in the lives of people on the ground who needed them. 

As a board member of the United Nations Foundations and an honorary president of the Brazilian National Committee for the Year, the First Lady of Brazil, Ruth Cardoso, said by videotape that volunteerism was an important component in building social and economic capital.  She spoke of her experience as President of Comunidade Solidaria, her country’s national programme to fight poverty and social exclusion. 

Speaking on sports volunteerism, Nadia Comaneci, former Olympic gold medallist in gymnastics, said this year’s Olympic Games would not have succeeded without the 50,000 volunteers who participated.  She herself has been volunteering for the Special Olympics for 10 years.  It took 500,000 volunteers annually to make those athletes’ dreams come true.  “We all need to be useful, but many of us need to be asked.  Give people a chance to feel important” by giving them opportunities to volunteer, she said.  Citing her many sports successes, she said some of her most valuable moments had come from helping others.  The World Cup, the Olympics and the Special Olympics all depended on volunteers. 

Introduced as a driving force in fighting AIDS and advancing literacy in her country, Jana Kukwaya, Uganda’s Minister for Gender and Youth, said volunteerism was pivotal in the development process.  It had been a mainstay of community action in most developing countries.  It was particularly powerful in mobilizing the community for aims ranging from school construction to the delivery of medical aid.

 Spain’s Don Felipe de Borbon, Prince of Asturias and designated an Eminent Person for the Year, said he was part of a generation that not only recognized the value of volunteer work, but actively promoted the spirit of volunteerism.  Those ideals were needed as the shameful gap between the world’s rich and poor widened.  Volunteers helped end disparities in health care, nutrition and education.  They also promoted a culture based on citizens’ participation that raised the level of livelihood for all humankind.  Political leaders, civil society and the private sector needed to recognize the importance of volunteerism and build social cohesion worldwide.  The UNVs, who fought for social, economic and spiritual freedom, were the true stars of the International Year. 

 The International Year of Volunteers 2001 recognizes the work of people who volunteer their efforts at all levels around the world.  The United Nations Volunteers programme has been designated as the focal point for preparations, implementation and follow-up.  At the recommendation of the Economic and Social Council, the Assembly is expected to adopt a resolution during the current session on the Year. 

Among Headquarters events related to the opening of the Year is an exhibit that will be displayed in the General Assembly lobby through 28 February 2001, prior to a world tour.

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