For information only - not an official document.
      29 November 2000
Secretary-General Says Important Contribution of Volunteers often Overlooked

NEW YORK, 28 November (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of an address by Secretary-General Kofi Annan to a ceremony held today in New York to open the International Year of Volunteers:

 It is a very special pleasure for me to take part in this opening ceremony of the International Year of Volunteers.  At the heart of volunteerism are the ideals of service and solidarity and the belief that together we can make the world better.  In that sense, we can say that volunteerism is the ultimate expression of what the United Nations is all about.  So I am delighted to celebrate with you -- the millions of volunteers who serve tirelessly around the world -- to meet people's needs, to protect their rights, and to help give them a voice. 

 All over the world, volunteers are working with governments, non-governmental organizations and the private sector to deliver effective professional assistance.  Their motivation can be summed up in one word: sharing.  They share their time.  They share their skills and talents.  Above all, they share a human experience.  They know that the true measure of success in life is not what we gain but what we give back to our fellow men and women.  And they have the courage to believe that what they do will make a real difference. 

Sharing is also how they approach their work.  They do not seek to impose their values, their ideas or their agendas.  Rather they find out what people need and want, and they work with them to make it happen. 

 They teach children to read.  They act as mentors for young people.  They help women start businesses.  They help feed the old and sick who have no family to care for them.  They help build wells for communities, so that everyone can have access to clean water.  They help maintain peace and build democracy, lend a hand to the survivors of conflict and war, assist with the implementation of long-term development projects, and help preserve the environment.  They also serve on schoolboards, visit prisons and work in hospitals.  Whatever they do, they do in the interests of peace and harmony within and between communities, and so they help keep our societies strong and healthy.

 Yet, the important contributions that volunteers make are often overlooked in both developed and developing countries.  Indeed, most countries do not take their services into account when calculating national output.  In the few countries where they have been measured, it is estimated that volunteer activities make up between 8 and 14 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product.  In the United States for instance, the volunteer workforce represents the equivalent of over 9 million full-time employees, at an annual value of $225 billion.  In Canada, one third of the population does voluntary work, providing over 1 billion hours of their time to the service of others every year.  And in the United Kingdom, the same applies to nearly half the population. 

 A tiny sample of this worldwide voluntary workforce is with us here today.  As these dedicated individuals will tell you, volunteerism is not a matter of wealthy and generous people dispensing largesse to the poor.  It is people from all walks of life and strata of society, who have made the choice to serve their fellow men and women whether at home or abroad.  Of the 4,500 United Nations Volunteers serving around the world every year, more than two thirds of them are from developing countries, working in neighbouring states or overseas in a true expression of South-South cooperation. 

It is people like Catherine Phiri from Malawi who, learning that she was HIV positive, used her experience and her voice to break the silence on AIDS in her country, and founded an HIV/AIDS support organization.  Or Vannary Ing of Cambodia who, after the United Nations helped him return home from a refugee camp and take part in the 1993 elections in his country, wanted to give back some of what he had received.  He volunteered to join United Nations Volunteers' electoral team in East Timor.  Or Karim Kasim, a young Egyptian United Nations Volunteer, who carries his laptop to villages to explain how information on the Internet can help local people. 

I could tell you many more stories of courageous people like Catherine, Vannary and Karim -- or Amy, Monette and Olufemi who will tell us themselves about their experience in a moment.  Their dedication gives all of us a magnificent example to follow. 

In intervening not only with their hands and minds, but also with their hearts, volunteers do more than provide services.  They bring hope to those they help, and so help them find the strength to overcome their weakness.  Their reward may be new lifelong friendships, a new understanding of other peoples, of other cultures and other countries' problems and perspectives, or simply the knowledge that they have made a difference.  Invariably, volunteers will tell you they have received at least as much as they have given. 

It is such giving and receiving that binds a society together.  By promoting inclusion and trust, it helps build the foundations of social justice and stability.  Evidence is growing that societies with high levels of civic engagement have a lower level of communal strife. 

Today we need that engagement more than ever.  In most countries, the benefits of globalization will not reach the poor unless an active effort is made to bring its opportunities within their reach.  But on the ground, much of this effort will have to be provided by volunteers. 

And that in turn means that societies need to recognize and promote volunteerism as a valuable activity.  They must facilitate the work of volunteers, and encourage volunteer action at home and abroad.  And they must develop networks among volunteers in different countries, so that they can learn from each other's experience.  By calling upon volunteers and building partnerships with civil society, governments can help increase the efficiency of public services, and ensure that they reach more people.

This is what I had in mind when I asked United Nations Volunteers to lead an Information Technology corps of volunteers -- UNITeS -- which is helping people in developing countries learn how to use the resources of the Internet and of information technology for human development.  I am very pleased that some 40 volunteers have already joined UNITeS and have taken up assignments in developing countries.  I hope more will join. 

Bridging the digital divide is not going to be easy.  UNITeS is just one example of the exciting new areas that volunteerism can venture into.  The Internet provides an invaluable channel through which volunteers can be recruited, and other services offered, facilitated and promoted. 

Initiatives such as NetAid's online volunteering web site -- a partnership between the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Volunteers and Cisco -- are taking advantage of the new technologies by allowing people to volunteer online, and so to share their skills with those in need around the world.  All that is needed is some spare time, the desire to help, a computer, and access to the Internet. 

I hope that the International Year of Volunteers will help us make such generous initiatives better known.  We must also use it as an opportunity to raise awareness about the vital work done by volunteers from all walks of life, and think of new ways to promote volunteerism both in our own communities and further afield.  To learn more about how you can help, I encourage you to visit the exhibition in the Visitors' Lobby which will be opened later today. 

Finally, let me say a big thank you to all the volunteers around the world who collectively are making a magnificent contribution to ensuring a better and safer world for all of us.  We, at the United Nations, are very proud of our United Nations Volunteers, who help us carry out our mission in sometimes difficult and dangerous conditions.  Like the countless other volunteers we will be honouring this year, United Nations Volunteers are a shining example in action of the values of solidarity and shared responsibility that the Millennium Summit proclaimed as essential to international relations in the twenty-first century.  They are true citizens of the world. 

Thank you very much.

* * * * *