When looking around the world, especially from a child’s perspective, there’s a lot to worry about. Climate change, preventable death and disease, looming joblessness, pervasive violence and displacement to name a few.
We at UNICEF are, of course, charged with improving child welfare and contributing to a better world for children.
But too often it feels as though change is not happening fast enough. For all the progress of the last two or three decades, at least as much progress still needs to be achieved. The question we struggle with is … how? Is our current way of doing business driving change at a sufficient pace?
Change happens when people come together and act collectively after common cause
A couple of years ago, several UNICEF colleagues began to think about how change happens and what role UNICEF could play to accelerate it. We came up with a deceptively simple answer: change happens when people come together and act collectively after common cause. What would it look like for an organization like UNICEF to be part of people-powered collective action that delivers tangible results for children?
That is how the idea of UNICEF volunteers was hatched. Born of an idea that UNICEF should work with volunteers in the communities where we operate.
At a moment where general trust in institutions is at an all-time low, we are also witnessing an unprecedented level of participation from citizens across the globe, hungry to do more than cut a cheque, click a link or like a post. In a matter of hours, small, people-driven campaigns can become massive movements with tremendous policy, legislative and political force.
The UNICEF Global Volunteer Initiative was launched in 2018 to make the most of this interactive moment and bring people power to bear across UNICEF programme, policy, and fundraising work for children. By including volunteers in UNICEF, we can ramp up our work and deliver through the last mile (for example — deploying volunteers to eliminate every last incident of polio), amass the political capital required for policy wins, build the trust we need to help us reach deeper into the communities we serve and grow a donor base whose loyalty we can trust well into the future.
We’re already witnessing dramatic results
In just 19 months we’ve been able to establish or increase volunteer engagement programmes in over 30 countries.
Our first organization-wide stocktaking showed we’re already working with 995,980 volunteers across the globe. The journey of tapping into volunteer power as a positive force for children is well underway.
- Rwandan youth volunteers in rural communities re-enrolling young people who have dropped out of school
- Youth volunteers in Colombia reaching across territories affected by the recently- ended conflict and setting up peace and reconciliation programmes
- Youth volunteers in Kyrgyzstan filling gaps left by traditional government services and running disaster-risk preparedness trainings for kids across 1000 schools
- Volunteers in Jordan staffing centres for children and young people because government run schools are over-stretched with the massive influx of refugees
- Youth volunteers in India leading the charge to reduce the prevalence of child marriage
- Volunteers in Nigeria extending UNICEF’s work by going household to household as part of campaigns to end polio, to spot and respond to cases of sever acute malnutrition, to monitor local water stations in rural communities, and to engage families around the importance of keeping children in school.
If we fail to build and strengthen relationships with the communities we serve, we neither make the most of the current moment, nor protect our mission in a changing world.
Volunteers have the potential to change not only how UNICEF does business but how sister agencies operate in diverse contexts as well. With unparalleled reach, trust, and scale, volunteer engagement can help extend humanitarian work and produce dramatic results for children.
David Ponet is Chief, UNICEF Global Volunteer Office.