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The New UNV Report Is A Celebration Of Civil Society.

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This is an adaption of a speech presented by Mark Cumming, the head of Comhlámh at the recent launch of the 2015 UN Volunteers State of the World’s Volunteerism Report.

I spent several years in APSO recruiting and preparing people to work in International Development and had the pleasure to recruit many Irish people to work as UNVs – in particular programmes connected with the peace processes in Guatemala and GAZA.  

They did excellent work, learned a lot – so it’s a privilege to be here today supporting UNV launch the State of the Wold’s Volunteering Report 2015 – Transforming Governance.  As Comhlámh I am delighted that we provide the pre-departure training and debriefing supports for UNV today.

I’m delighted to have a few moments to reflect on this report, drawing out some personal reflections from my work and considering what this means for our work as Comhlámh with the Irish Volunteering sector.

Comhlámh  has this year celebrated its 40th anniversary, we were delighted to be received at the Áras by our President Michael D Higgins at which he celebrated the work that Irish volunteers have and continue to play internationally and locally on their return to Ireland building a culture of solidarity to tackle poverty and inequality both here and overseas.

I was struck by the introductory remarks by Richard Dictus, Executive Director of UNV in his introductory statements to the report where he talked of ‘the art of the possible’ ; this I feel works as a metaphor for Comhlámh – in Comhlámh we talk of ‘space’ – facilitating spaces for people to consider their motivations for volunteering  and then facilitating spaces where returned volunteers can come together and engage in issues on their return to Ireland.  When we bring people together in this way – what we find again and again is that we’re into ‘the art of the possible’.

There is huge value in international exposure – it shakes you up and transforms the way you look at the world including your thinking about the way you live and opens you to consider issues of solidarity and gets you to critiquing your own society.  

As one criss-crosses Irish public life, again and again you come across people whose lives were shaped by their time working in global development.

This report by UNV makes an excellent contribution to our understanding of what is good development and the role played by volunteers at multiple levels in supporting good governance.

If the strap line of UNV is inspiration in action – the strap line for this report should be inspiration in words with a really great vision for our collective future!

There is a powerful statement in the report that captures the underlying values at the heart of the report:    Development at the most fundamental level involves redistribution of power among members of society.




Pictured: John Crowe, Eamon Cullagh and Alison Boyle of Irish Aid, Mark Cumming, Richard Dictus & Lauren Philips of UNV

The report is energised with this spirit and engagement through-out.  

The report is a celebration of civil society – the work of civil society is imbued with the values of caring, mutual support, human worth, dignity of the person and respect for the environment.  Without volunteers there is no civil society.   In these times there is much talk for the adoption of business models but let me sound a note of caution – for profit organisations have a place – but not all organisations or activities can or should be organised on a for profit basis.

The report names that there is a challenge to gather empirical evidence on volunteerism and governance – however  – we know instinctively that good governance , i.e., well behaved, responsive institutions – this can’t happen without many things being in place including an active dynamic civil society – such a civil society is all the random and diverse groups of actors volunteering in their communities, ngos, church groups etc.

I worked on governance programmes in Sierra Leone – volunteers were trained to monitor social service delivery – ironically – while oftentimes local people and the NGO staff supporting them faced attacks for their exposure of corruption – one of the by-products was an increased willingness on the part of people to pay taxes to the local government.

The report discusses the enabling environment for volunteering to function  – it notes that in some contexts there are serious limits to the freedom of association, freedom of expression.  Governments are closing civic space – restricting access to funding, limiting advocacy and lobbying by civil society, the report notes there is increasingly a tendency towards subcontracting the voluntary sector to deliver on highly conditional contracts that limits the autonomy of and ability to question the direction things are going in.  

Any of you aware of the work of the Advocacy Initiative and who attended a recent Comhlámh Debate on this theme will be aware of these discussions here in Ireland.  

In our own country we have seen a tendency by government to see the role of civil society as service providers who can and should compete with the for profit sector in the provision of services.  This model negates the value of volunteering and separates out the participation of volunteers in making and shaping the society around them through their shared collective efforts supported by an enabling state.

The report talks of 4 types of volunteering – it is a really useful reflection

The four types are – mutual aid/self help; philanthropy and service to others;  civic participation; advocacy and campaigning

I was recently doing a session with a group of volunteers doing pre-departure training  – I ask them why are people poor and we gather all the ideas into four quadrants – in one we have all the basic needs sort of issues, education, health, jobs etc – in another we have all the natural disaster issues, earthquakes, tsunamis drought etc – the other we have gender issues and in the final one all those governance related issues.  It brokers a great discussion on responses and helps the volunteers to put into context their contribution while having an eye to the wider underlying / structural causes of poverty and inequality.  

What this exercise does it help us arrive at what this UNV report highlights – NAMELY that working to improve services and at the same time supporting communities to tackle the root causes of poverty and injustice are complementary.  This is evident and comes out beautifully in that exercise with volunteers who identify for themselves the interlocked nature of why people are poor.  

The report pulls no punches and outlines the huge Inequalities in wealth and power on the planet   –  it points to the challenge for ordinary people to hold their governments to account in a world where institutions of global governance remain state centric but power has shifted towards a smaller circle of key global individuals and corporations – the eighty richest people own as much as the bottom 3.5Bn of humanity.  

That said it’s not all doom and gloom – the reports highlights the emergence of global networks which challenge the status quo, questioning the unjust economic order and the current global crisis.  The report highlights the role of NGOs and international organisations to support local civil society action and cites the work of volunteers in responding to the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh and how volunteers locally and globally have brought support to the victims of the disaster but also pressure on the global garment industry to pay compensation and improve its act.  In this regard the Comhlámh trade justice group was active on that campaign in Ireland.

Finally, this report is essential reading for the Comhlámh signatories to the Code of Good Practice for Volunteer Sending Agencies and development agencies more generally in the Dochas network.  If you are looking to get a joined-up perspective about development and see the bridges between the delivery of services and engaging with the underlying structural causes of poverty and seeing how to support communities into finding and articulating their voice – read this report.  

If you are struggling to understand the potentiality of local communities to voice for themselves – you need to read this report.  It is full of optimism and hope.  It is also realistic and does not shy away from the very real global gaps in power and influence and the lack of an enabling environment in many societies for volunteering actions to flourish.  But that’s what our work is about!

We are a member alongside UNV of Forum/IVCO  (the global network of international volunteering organisations)  – we have committed to the Tokyo Call to action launched at the recent annual Forum meeting calling amongst other things for a commitment to the recognition of volunteering as a means of achieving the SDG’s

In closing, I would like to acknowledge Irish Aid for the long-term and ongoing support to international volunteering from Ireland  – we look forward to the on-going development of the Volunteering Initiative – there is plenty to consider from this report being launched today which we look forward to reflecting on as the Volunteering Initiative grows and develops   

We will share copies of the report in a mail out later this month to all the development NGOs in Dochas and the Comhlámh Code of Good Practice Network.

Thank you.


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