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The United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme is the volunteer arm of the UN system, supporting peace, relief and development initiatives in nearly 140 countries. Created by the General Assembly in 1970, it is administered by the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

The programme works through UNDP country offices to send volunteers and promote the idea of volunteerism. As a volunteer-based programme, UNV is both unique within the United Nations family and in its scale as an international undertaking. It assigns mid-career professionals to sectoral and community-based development projects, humanitarian aid activities, and the promotion of human rights and democracy.

Volunteerism benefits both society at large and the individual volunteer by strengthening trust, solidarity and reciprocity among citizens, and by purposefully creating opportunities for participation. UNV advocates for the recognition of volunteers, working to integrate volunteerism into development programming, and mobilizes an increasing number and diversity of volunteers throughout the world.

UNV directly mobilizes more than 7,500 UNV volunteers every year nationally and internationally. More than 75 percent of UNV volunteers come from developing countries, and more than 30 percent volunteer within their own countries. During 2008-2009, around half of all UNV volunteers worked to advance progress towards attainment of the Millennium Development Goals, while the rest were involved in peacekeeping, peacebuilding, humanitarian assistance, post-conflict recovery and electoral operations.

The silent heroism of these volunteers is implicit in all they do. Despite being fully integrated into the UN security system, they are directly affected by the high volatility in security situations worldwide, which puts them at risk. In 2009, these risks cost the lives of two UNV volunteers during a violent attack against United Nations premises, while another was the victim of a lengthy hostage-taking event.

Nevertheless, UNV volunteers become closely involved with the communities in which they work and live, engaging beyond the scope of their daily tasks. Their participation has extended to include community clean-up activities and hygiene awareness campaigns, sport events, agricultural extension work, teaching in local schools, and blood-donation drives. In Burundi, UNV volunteers worked with an association of elderly women from ethnic backgrounds to publish traditional proverbs, advancing social cohesion and bridging generation gaps.

UNV is also active in cyberspace, where the UNV Online Volunteering Service connects volunteers with peace and development organizations worldwide. One part of the website helps volunteers to find opportunities, while the other helps organizations find volunteers.

The scope and impact of volunteerism through the United Nations system is staggering. 

In 2009, through the “Volunteering for Our Planet” campaign, UNV called upon environmental volunteers to register the hours they volunteered on environmental action and to address climate change. The campaign webpage recorded over 1.5 million hours volunteered in 166 countries between world environment day on 5 June.

In 2009, about 850 UNV volunteers served in the health sector, including in Papua New Guinea, South Africa, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago, and Zambia. In Malawi, over 50 specialist UNV volunteer doctors, including paediatricians, obstetricians and surgeons, ensured basic health service delivery and built the capacity of medical personnel with funding from the Global Fund to Combat AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the National AIDS Council.

In Honduras, the human security joint programme successfully engaged youth in three municipalities through volunteering initiatives, keeping them out of gangs, reducing gender-based violence, and directly impacting 55,000 youth, half of which were female.

A project in the Amhara and Oromia regions of Ethiopia addressed desertification caused by human activities and natural disasters.

During 2008-2009, more than 3,000 UNV volunteers supported peacekeeping, and special political and peacebuilding operations annually. Serving in 19 UN missions in 18 countries, they constituted some 30 per cent of all international civilian personnel involved in these missions. Volunteers worked in areas ranging from medical, logistical, and engineering mission support, to child protection, rule of law, elections, human rights, civil affairs, and disarmament, demobilization and reintegration.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo alone, up to 700 UNV volunteers annually contributed to the work of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, including through a disarmament, demobilization, return, reintegration and recovery programme focussing on foreign combatants. UNV volunteers with the UNDP disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programme, contributed to the successful demobilization of 23,000 national ex-combatants, including 10,000 child soldiers.

International UNV volunteers provided electoral support in Afghanistan, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea Bissau, Haiti, Sudan, and Timor-Leste. In Nepal, 140 UNV volunteers, half of them nationals, provided critical support to the electoral commission and mobilized 9,000 local voter education volunteers.

After the post-election violence in Kenya, UNDP and UNV launched a volunteer scheme designed to promote post-election community dialogue, working closely with the United Nations peacebuilding fund and the Government. Twenty-one national UNV volunteers trained 900 prominent youth leaders, retired professionals, women, and opinion leaders in peacebuilding, conflict resolution, community security, humanitarian response, and early recovery.

As proclaimed by the General Assembly, the International Volunteer Day for Economic and Social Development is observed annually on 5 December.  The UN Volunteers Programme will celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2011.

"Founded on the values of solidarity and mutual trust, volunteerism transcends all cultural, linguistic and geographic boundaries. By giving their time and skills without expectation of material reward, volunteers themselves are uplifted by a singular sense of purpose."

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (5 December 2012)