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International Volunteers Day 2016

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 #GlobalApplause – Thoughts on the context of International Volunteer Day from Comhlámh’s head, Mark Cumming.




In 2015, just under 2,000 people from Ireland volunteered in 50 countries across 6 continents. The roles covered a range of areas, including medical and health professionals, teachers, engineers, youth workers, trades people, journalists, accountants and legal professionals.These volunteers went with one of the 43 Irish volunteer sending organisations, north and south of the border, who are part of the Comhlámh’s Code of Good Practice. The Code has set the standard for organisations involved in facilitating international volunteer placements in developing countries.


There are many reason why people choose to volunteer overseas. Our current state of affairs provides the context.We live in a deeply divided and increasingly unequal world. More than 2.5 billion people, over a third of the world’s population, survive on less than $2 per day. Poverty, inequality and that feeling of being left behind are not uniquely manifestations of many countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America but they are also present in Ireland.

But there are positive developments. The international community has adopted a set of 17 global goals known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The commit all of us to work to end poverty, fight inequality and injustice and tackle climate change by 2030. The SDGs identify the central role to be played by volunteers in reaching these universal goals.

Volunteering has and continues to be a major component of the fabric of Irish life – think GAA or homeless food provision on our street – . And it also reaches across the globe. Irish people have a long history of volunteering in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Volunteers are drawn from across a range of professions and age groups, and their experience of realities in these countries helps them to make a unique contribute to action for global justice. The focus of the Code is to ensure overseas volunteering has a positive impact for the three main stakeholders: the volunteer, the sending organisation, and the local project and community.

The Comhlámh Code is internationally recognised as a bulwark against the commodification of volunteering. In contrast to ‘voluntourism’, the Code is underpinned by a belief in global justice, it is based in good development practice and addresses locally identified needs focused on the local partner’s projects and communities. This is key, namely that programmes are based on realistic aims and objectives and provide volunteer roles that are appropriate and valuable to the host community.

At the recent global meeting of international volunteering organisations, the question was posed by the director of the United Nations Volunteering programme. “We need volunteering, yes, but, for what type of development – not the type of development underway as we will need four planets if everyone lives the way we do in Europe?” Comhlámh believes that this points to a greater need than ever before for ordinary citizens, people’s organisations, to become critically involved in the thought spaces to plot a new future by testing out alternative models of development and ways of living.

Responsible volunteering is not about charity, but rather working in partnership on locally owned programmes in a spirit of solidarity that values the sharing, the dialogue and intercultural learning that takes place. A volunteer’s journey doesn’t end on return to Ireland – in many ways this is the beginning. Recent research by Comhlámh and others points to growing numbers of returning volunteers reporting being more involved in volunteering at home in various community based initiatives and social action work.

People becoming actively involved in their own communities is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy. There is a need to create a sustainable, equitable, and just society, locally and globally. Volunteering plays a key role in strengthening civic engagement, promoting social inclusion, deepening solidarity and ensuring widespread participation in development.

Development at the most fundamental level involves the redistribution of power among members of society. For power to be redistributed there needs to be a greater participation of ordinary citizens in all spheres of life which is something that volunteering facilitates.

With the right supports in terms of pre-departure training and debriefing post placement, the time spent volunteering raises a new awareness of development issues and in particular the 

interconnectedness of our world. What is innovative in the SDGs is that they are universal, they apply to all countries, rich and poor. They explicitly recognise the inter-dependence of countries on our one planet and how policies in one area impact on another, be that agriculture, climate change or trade.

As we celebrate International Volunteer Day 2016, let’s recall the role played by voluntary effort in building our own society and also those who have served across the globe in pursuit of a globally just and equitable world.



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