A better future for volunteers: Amsterdam conference

Published: 27 January 2001 0:00 CET

Marie-Francoise Borel

Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies around the world are using the International Year of Volunteers (IYV 2001) as an opportunity to refocus their attention on volunteers and improving the situation of volunteers in their country.

At the IAVE (International Association for Volunteer Effort) World Volunteer Conference, held last week in Amsterdam, more than 40 National Societies reiterated their commitment to shaping their volunteer policies to better address current conditions.

"Volunteers are not simply a gift from heaven - they are the result of work," underlines Christer Leopold, who coordinates volunteer issues at the Federation Secretariat. The work he is referring to includes modernising volunteer recruitment campaigns, adapting programmes and working conditions to attract and keep volunteers, increasing their training and giving them public recognition, among other measures.

The Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement - which currently has some 100 million volunteers and members globally - has seen a decline in their numbers over the past decade. In order to counter this trend, the Federation adopted a new policy on volunteering and is currently putting finishing touches to a support plan to help National Societies review their volunteer policies. Lobbying governments to adopt fiscal and labour legislation which will facilitate the work of volunteers is another dimension which will require a concerted effort by National Societies and the Federation Secretariat.

The "models" of Red Cross/Red Crescent volunteering across the world are different - they have grown out of local cultures and reality. To illustrate the different forms that volunteering can take in different countries, several Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies addressed a special workshop at the IAVE conference in Amsterdam.

  • The American Red Cross, which has professionalized its approach to volunteers, pointed to the necessity of adapting to populations of different ethnic backgrounds who speak languages other than English - Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese, for example.
  • The Philippine Red Cross has experienced changes in tradition - under Spanish influence, volunteering was done within religious organisations. With the Americans came a philanthropic tradition. The priority for 2001 for the Philippine Red Cross will be to train trainers to give volunteers a solid framework.
  • In Uganda, volunteering was an informal assistance to others at the community level, so formal volunteering is still relatively new. The Uganda Red Cross is working on developing a code of conduct for volunteers.
  • The Chinese Red Cross has 20.2 million members and volunteers and 82,000 local chapters. To make this huge structure work, the Chinese Red Cross is concentrating on developing good community-based programmes, good planning, a good image and good relations with the government.
  • Recruiting volunteers is a priority for the Iranian Red Crescent. They are involved in a variety of activities to assist victims of disaster, the poor, the sick, the elderly and the destitute. Volunteers will be a major topic of the upcoming meeting of Middle East and North African Societies in Tehran in May.
  • The Netherlands Red Cross has 36,000 volunteers whose average age is 50. One of the priorities for the Netherlands Red Cross is to train more volunteer leaders and to involve them more in designing programmes for the most vulnerable.

Under the Federation's proposed five-year action plan, if it is adopted, National Societies will be encouraged to group themselves into regional networks - where traditions and culture are similar, to exchange and develop their expertise and experience. Federation delegates will be trained more systematically on volunteer issues and a "consortium" of National Societies will be formed to give ideological, practical and economic support to the work. This draft plan will be circulated to all National Societies in March 2001.

Federation President Astrid Heiberg told the Amsterdam conference last week: "More voluntary action is needed to meet the challenges that humanity is faced with today. What a responsibility on us to act and to encourage more action, and what a responsibility on the world community at large to do more to support the work of volunteers!"