Press Briefing


There were 5,000 United Nations volunteers serving in approximately 139 countries worldwide but volunteerism was still one of the best kept secrets of the United Nations, the Executive Coordinator of the United Nations Volunteers (UNV), Sharon Capeling-Alakija, told correspondents this afternoon at a Headquarters press briefing.

[The UNV was created as a subsidiary organ of the United Nations by the General Assembly in 1970 to be an operational programme in development cooperation.  Among several associated funds managed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the UNV is a volunteer-based programme, which is considered both unique within the United Nations family and in its scale as a multilateral undertaking.  It assigns mid-career women and men to sectoral and community-based development projects, humanitarian aid and the promotion of human rights and democracy.  It also seeks to foster volunteer contributions in general.]

Ms. Capeling-Alakija said that, for the first time in the Organization’s history, there would be a substantive discussion on volunteerism.  That would take place tomorrow, 15 February, in the Commission on Social Development, which had put the role of volunteerism in the promotion of social development on its agenda in the context of the International Year of Volunteers, for which the UNV was the focal point.  Recent initiatives had included the service of 107 volunteers near the epicentre of the earthquake in India, and the addition of 81 new volunteers to support future elections in East Timor, boosting the number to nearly 700 from 90 different countries.  Also, UNV had been developing strong relations with academia, the private sector and, most recently, the Winter Olympic Committee, which this year would honour some 70,000 volunteers around the world who had supported the Olympics and enabled events to run smoothly.

Asked about the profile of an average volunteer, Ms. Capeling-Alakija said that if there was such a thing as an average United Nations volunteer, it would be a person aged 35 to 40 with five to 10 years professional experience, a masters degree, and fluent in two to three different languages.  Approximately 38 per cent of the volunteers were female.  She was trying to increase that to 40 per cent, but in operations like Sierra Leone, most of the 100 volunteers were involved in male-dominated areas of expertise like logistics, civil aviation and radio operation in support of the peacekeeping operation. 

Did people take a year or so absence from their work? the correspondent asked in a follow-up question.

The Executive Coordinator said that depended on the nature of the assignment.  There were volunteers serving for one to two weeks in a fairly highly focused and often highly technical assignment, and from four to six years in an assignment in human rights verification or long-term development activities.  So, the duration varied.  The time limit was not driven by UNV’s contract, but rather by the needs of the more than 30 United Nations organizations that involved volunteers in their activities. 

Asked if there was a volunteer operation in the Middle East, she said that the Palestinian territories had been one of the programme's largest commitments,

where it had placed mixed teams of national and international volunteers in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as in Yemen, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.  In the Middle East, a lot of the work being done outside the Palestinian territories was in information communication technology.  Presently, the region had much interest in that field.  In Egypt, the volunteers had been involved in a series of UNDP activities concerning tele-centres in rural areas, which involved the application of information and communication technology for rural populations.  There had been a cross-posting of volunteers from Egypt to Jordan, which was very interested in repositioning itself in that field.

How did the financial resources match the need? Were there many more requests for volunteers than she could handle? another correspondent asked.

Ms. Capeling-Alakija said yes.  For example, UNV received some 2,000 inquiries each month from people who would like to volunteer.  It was tremendously positive for people to want to take time out to serve the United Nations.  The present value of the programme was approximately $80 million, which financed the whole operation.  The monies were paid by the client that was using a particular volunteer.  For example, if the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) needed people who were experts in child rights in South America, it would pay the pro forma cost of the volunteers.  The UNV would then recruit, prepare and support them while on assignment. 

She said that more resources would lead to a greater demand.  The UNV had been able to help out, to some extent, by mobilizing fully funded volunteers from some of the United Nations organizations in the fields of gender, human rights and other areas.  If more volunteers came fully funded, there would be more assignments for sure.  The decline in resources for official development assistance (ODA) had limited the capacity of organizations like UNDP.  Some 80 to 90 per cent of United Nations volunteers 10 years ago were serving in development programmes, whereas now, it was closer to 40 per cent in development programmes and a very heavy contingent towards emergencies, peacekeeping and electoral support.  That had reflected the shift of resources away from development to emergency, as evident in the kinds of requests UNV was getting for assignments.

Another correspondent asked if UNV was permitted to enter into bilateral arrangements with governments or whether it simply operated under United Nations auspices.

Through UNDP "track resources" in support of government programmes, she said, the volunteers were actually working in the programmes of developing country governments.  The volunteers, however, were under the United Nations umbrella in every respect, including security.  They came from everywhere, including

70 per cent from developing countries themselves.  There was a very large South-South element of the programme, for example.  In fact, the largest single supplier country was the Philippines. 

Perhaps one of the longest-standing programmes in the human rights field had been in the United Nations Mission in Guatemala, where UNV had, at any one time, up to 300 volunteers from about 35 countries working in support of human rights verification and education, and a strengthened peace process, she replied to a question about the Programme's involvement in human rights concerns.  The situation in Guatemala had been of particular interest because UNV had recruited indigenous people from other parts of Latin and Central America to work in some of the more remote communities because there had been a tremendous distrust of outsiders and a lot of fear following the peace settlement.  In order to "open up"

those communities, build trust and inform people of their constitutional and human rights, UNV needed access to those populations.

She said that UNV had recently launched a pilot programme in conjunction with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and UNDP, aimed at building a rights-based approach in the United Nations development activities.  Human rights experts had been recruited and briefed by the Human Rights Commission in Geneva, and were now deployed in 15 country offices of UNDP where they would assist in realigning its development efforts.  In Peru, UNV had used nationals -- human rights lawyers and experts, such as former judges -- to support the office of the ombudsman to extend his work beyond Lima into other communities. 

In terms of selection, she responded to another question, the UNV was looking for a combination of enlightened self-interest and altruism in appropriate proportion, over and above the right professional qualifications for a particular assignment.  The programme also wanted to be able ensure that the “V” in UNV remained in upper case and bold.  It sought people who would be motivated and engaged with the people they were serving.  The selection process derived from partnerships with organizations in some of the industrialized countries.  For recruitment in the developing countries themselves, the programme had United Nations Volunteer programme officers based in the UNDP country offices to assist in the recruitment and support of new volunteers.

How could UNV manage to be a humanitarian and technical organization without interfering with the political aspects of a situation? another correspondent asked.

She reminded the correspondent that the volunteers were working under the United Nations umbrella in a particular country.  Nevertheless, they obviously came up against people who had not quite made the transition to a country that was opening itself up to scrutiny in the area of human rights.  The people placed in those kinds of circumstances were usually experienced and savvy and able to operate with a good balance of courage and sensitivity.  There was no “cookie-cutter” answer; each situation was unique. 

International years tended to make people’s eyes glaze over, she replied to another question, but the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), for example, of which she was once the head, had emerged from the International Year for Women in 1975.  The United Nations had provided a platform from which to take a “rag-tag and industrialized-country oriented feminist movement" and evolve it, over the past 20 years, into an international women’s movement.  The International Year of Volunteers was providing her organization with an opportunity to bring the issue of volunteerism to light.  Indeed, UNV had managed to hijack the 2001 agendas, including of the Commission on Social Development, where it would have a whole day to talk about the social and economic contributions of volunteers.

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