Why voluntarism matters in Zimbabwe

Bishow Parajuli Correspondent

Not only can volunteers serve to address a specific development objective, such as the volunteering action against HIV and AIDS in Zimbabwe, but just as importantly, volunteers can enhance human development by transforming individual lives, including their own.

The International Volunteers Day was commemorated in Harare on December 4.

On this day, we did not only celebrate volunteerism in all its facets — but also paid special tribute to thousands of volunteers working to implement the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

As we work together for the next 15 years for a transformative change under the SDGs, I have a question for all Zimbabweans, “Are you part of the change?, Will you take the challenge of transforming your lives and that of your community? In short are you ready?”.

As I write this article, a human rights lawyer is advising a female headed household to protect her kids and property from insensitive relatives, a social worker is advising a refugee, a doctor is attending to an HIV patient, a midwife is assisting a mother to deliver her baby, an environmentalist is mobilising a community for tree planting, terracing, water and soil management, an engineer is assisting farmers with a feeder road to the nearest market.

The list goes on.

All of these people have one thing in common. They are all volunteers. They have a desire to contribute to the common good; out of free will, in the spirit of solidarity and without expectation of material reward. This is the power of volunteerism.

In proclaiming the International Year of Volunteers, the International Community — through the United Nations General Assembly — recognized the contribution that volunteers make to the progress, cohesion and resilience of their communities and nations.

Volunteering and community engagement empower people to change the world from the grassroots up, especially when enabled by strong partnerships at every level.

As such, the development challenges we are facing in Zimbabwe requires not only economic growth but the contribution and concerted action of individuals and groups in society to improve people’s choices, quality of life and well-being.

As you may know, the Millennium Development Goals will come to an end in just 27 Days; we have already put in place a comprehensive and all-encompassing global agenda, articulated by 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Our unfinished business in particular is poverty reduction, reducing maternal mortality, empowering the youth and women, ending child marriage and gender based violence, upholding rule of law and justice, and sustaining the environment, will require the ingenuity, solidarity and creativity of all 13 million Zimbabweans through voluntary action.

Not only can volunteers serve to address a specific development objective, such as the volunteering action against HIV and AIDS in Zimbabwe, but just as importantly, volunteers can enhance human development by transforming individual lives, including their own.

Volunteerism matters because it brings the marginalised back to the mainstream; it moves people from exclusion to inclusion; it provides an opportunity for ownership and responsibility for their own sustainable future.

Secondly, volunteerism is about universal values. It is about the desire to contribute in our common humanity. The act of extending a helping hand where it is needed most.

In Southern Africa it is called Ubuntu. Here in Zimbabwe, it is called Hunu. These are all expressions of people’s voluntary engagement in their community. It may be a different word, but it’s the same concept no matter the language. It’s a drive to voluntarily engage in your own community to change things for the better.

The SDGs challenges every one of us, all Zimbabweans; the goals were defined by all including over 20 000 Zimbabweans.

As such we have to ask ourselves what I should do to change my own life and make a difference in the lives of my family members, my community and my country. No one can do it for you. It is up to you. Of course, the UN and development partners will be there to provide support. But mark my word — we can only support.

We cannot underestimate the range and impact of volunteer action in our collective action to achieve the SDGs.

Volunteerism is not the preserve of the rich, it is rather widespread among the income poor. According to some studies, female and male volunteers contribute approximately the same number of hours.

Millions of people around the world devote their time and skills. In a study of 36 countries, it is estimated that there are 140 million people who volunteer at a given time in those countries. Imagine if there were a country called Volunteer Land, home to these volunteers . . . it would be the 9th largest country of the world, placing right after Russia!

Thirdly, we need to embrace the modern face of volunteerism. The United Nations Volunteers programme was established in 1970, it is administered by UNDP.

UN Volunteer Programme has currently over 7 500 Volunteers deployed to more than 132 countries. These are National and International Volunteers from over 150 countries.

Going forward, I would like to highlight three major trends in the wake of globalisation and the digital age.

The first is the way migration and travel are transforming the way people volunteer. The second is the private sector’s increasing involvement in volunteerism.

And last, how information and communications technologies (ICT) are opening up new means of civic engagement.

Online volunteering is on the rise (we have 11 000 online UN volunteers currently providing online support free of charge), despite the significant gap between developing and developed countries in terms of Internet access.

The UNV programme manages the online volunteer service so that thousands of people can volunteer from their homes.

There’s no longer an insurmountable distance between those who want to offer their skills and communities that need their help.

I am pleased to acknowledge that the Government of the Republic of Zimbabwe recognises and supports volunteer efforts.

However, collectively, we still have much to do: to complete and compile studies of national volunteerism, advance proposals for pro-volunteer legislation in Zimbabwe and strengthen and extend a global volunteer network that will increase the effectiveness of volunteer service delivery.

In Zimbabwe, the UN Volunteer Programme has 17 current volunteers from different countries of origin. These volunteers have provided technical expertise, assistance and support to several national development programmes.

The contribution of UNV partners; International and National Volunteers involving organisation in Zimbabwe, such as the UK Volunteer Service Organization, the Red Cross Movement, Japan International Cooperation Agency, Simuka Africa, amongst others is also important.

They have worked for sustainable development, facilitating humanitarian assistance to those households and communities whose harvest failed last year due to erratic rainfall and your role in protecting the environment. They are part of a movement that shows how volunteering can change the world.

Encouraging more people to volunteer is a 365-days-a-year task.

If you consider the committed work of volunteers of all ages around the globe, doing every imaginable kind of work, the Volunteers days should be a day that never ends.

Indeed, it cannot end, as the need for volunteers is greater than ever. Those that continue making meaningful contributions in your society should be applauded. I also challenge the rest of the Zimbabwean youth who have not yet done any volunteering to join the movement to make a difference in their community and their nation.

 Bishow Parajuli is the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative.

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