16th World Volunteer Conference opens in Amsterdam

Published: 15 January 2001 0:00 CET

Marie-Francoise Borel in Amsterdam

Representatives from more than 40 Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are gathered in Amsterdam for the 16th World Volunteer Conference organised by the International Association for Volunteer Effort (IAVE). They have joined hundreds of participants representing dozens of other organizations with a strong volunteer base from around the world, such as the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) or Rotary International.

The aim of this five-day summit is to boost recognition of the work of volunteers by world governments through a global agenda for action, to be decided upon by participants, before the end of the meeting.

Opening ceremonies took place on Sunday January 14, with a series of keynote speakers, all of whom referred to the importance of celebrating and marking 2001 as the International Year of Volunteers (IYV), as officially proclaimed by the United Nations on December 5th, 2000.

Following an introduction by Ken Allen, World President of IAVE, Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok underlined his government's support of voluntary work through measures such as tax incentives and supporting the conference and IYV events. "Volunteer work cements civil society," he said. The UN Secretary General was represented by Gillian Sorensen, who pointed out the UN could not succeed in its tasks alone, without the "great, peaceful army of volunteers" who implement programmes and make things happen, by investing their "time, talent and compassion".

Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers all over the world often work with UN agencies such as the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the World Food Programme to distribute food and other emergency items, or carry out health information programmes and immunization campaigns.

Sharon Capeling-Alakija, Executive Coordinator of UNV, spoke of volunteers as a "vital force around the globe". They have "earned the right to be heard and supported", she stressed. Pierre Mairesse, of the European Commission said the Commission was preparing a new youth policy and had launched a seven-year programme last year to help disadvantaged youth in all European countries.

Following the keynote speeches, Federation President Astrid Heiberg participated in a panel discussion on volunteering, its realities and future. The panel also included Carol Bellamy, Director General of UNICEF and Frank Devlyn, President of Rotary International and member of the Mexican Red Cross.

Dr. Heiberg pointed to the essential work accomplished by some 100 million Red Cross Red Crescent members and volunteers all over the world. She underlined the fact that they were particularly efficient since they work essentially in their own communities. "Volunteers often make visible needs in the community which had not been acknowledged before," she noted. Panel participants also pointed to the importance of involving youth volunteers to a much greater extent in the planning of programmes.