Volunteering as social capital

Published: 7 November 2004

It is a great honour to be present here today, both for me personally and as Vice President for Europe of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. I look forward very much to our discussion on the important themes for today.

Volunteerism is at the heart and soul of every community, every country, every region and is vital to the social and economic development of the whole world.

Because of that, I believe that the decision to mark this Netherlands Presidency of the European Union with a major event heralding the value of volunteerism was historic, and likely to be of lasting importance.

It is our hope in the Red Cross Red Crescent Federation that the expertise gathered here in Maastricht for this Exchange on the broad themes of social sustainability and cooperation will make a big difference to the way governments and volunteer organisations, and the volunteers themselves, work together.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is a unique mixture of all the different components which are present here for this Exchange.

We are, first and foremost, an organisation built on a world-wide network, operating in virtually every country in the world, and in every country in virtually every community.

Our National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are established in every country by legislation which both guarantees their independence and gives them a place alongside governments. They function, everywhere, as the auxiliaries to the public authorities in the humanitarian field. This is why their volunteer base is so important to the discussion today.

Our National Societies count no fewer than 97 million volunteers and members around the world. This makes us by far the world's largest volunteer network, but we also know that this number is much less than the number of people associated with our work at different times and in different kinds of emergency or social service situations.

We also know that there are many millions of volunteers working with other organisations in all countries, and we work closely with those organisations to maintain the most favourable conditions possible for the volunteer environment.

I will describe several aspects of this work and the environment in which it takes place to help set the scene for other interventions during this important Eurofestation conference.

The Environment

The world has changed a lot since the first volunteering in what became the Red Cross Movement took place in 1859 on the battlefield at Solferino, in northern Italy. Since then there have been many great changes in the way society manages itself, and in the way government has sought to provide social and other services.

What we see now, nearly everywhere, is National Societies working with the skills and dedication of the millions of volunteers providing services every day to meet the needs of the most vulnerable in their communities. The National Societies, for their part, provide the training and the skills base required for the volunteers to offer the most suitable services to those in need.

This is not new, but it is of increasing importance to communities and governments alike. That is one of the reasons why the United Nations marked 2001 as the International Year of Volunteers, and why we in the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies embarked on an ambitious program, named "Volunteers 2005".

The United Nations aimed at increased recognition, facilitation and the promotion of volunteering in the implementation of the outcomes of the Year, with our friends from United Nations Volunteers providing the focal point and backbone for the work to follow.

The International Federation saw its role as strengthening National Societies' capacity to recruit volunteers and manage their interventions.

We have identified a number of expected results which give a good indication of the directions our work is taking, and which explain how we see volunteers fitting into the fabric of social action in the 21st Century:

- Volunteers network are in place in regions and suitable volunteering models have been identified and disseminated in each region. This recognises the cultural and other differences which exist in the world.

- One or several pilot National Societies with quality volunteer statistics and in depth knowledge on volunteering serve as reference in each region. This recognises the differences in priorities which volunteers address in different parts of the world.

- A majority of National Societies have introduced systematic volunteer management at the local level or are actively working to do so. This enables National Societies to work more effectively within themselves as well as with other national partners as well as governments at all levels.

- A majority of National Societies are engaged in seeking, developing and sharing knowledge on volunteering and systematic volunteer management. We recognise that there is learning to be done on a world-wide network basis, by all National Societies, all the time.

- Partnership have been developed together with international organisations, with UN systems, UNDP, UNV and WHO, or elsewhere with bodies like the International Olympic Committee.

- Specific indicators have been developed to measure capacity building and its impact so that a comprehensive report can be in place by the time of the next General Assembly of the International Federation, in Seoul in November 2005.

Our intention, at the General Assembly in 2005, is to revise Volunteers 2005 and extend the plan to 2009, taking account of progress made and opportunities identified.

The Action

It is important for all organisations involved with volunteering to understand, as we have learned, that volunteering and volunteerism need to be addressed for several distinct but increasingly important reasons.

One is supporting the natural human wish to help others in need, and providing an environment in which that support can be rendered in the most beneficial and sustainable way.

The other, of increasing but often neglected importance, is filling the gap between service delivery by those most commonly seen as the providers and the needs of the most vulnerable.

The latter is what is best addressed today.

It is a challenge most easily seen through simple statistics and a report presented to the United Nations Commission for Social Development in January 2004.

That report (United Nations document E/CN.5/2004/5) contains some stark and sobering information on the current state of public social services in the world. I will not quote it all, but some important conclusions are that policy shifts over the past two decades have reductions in public sector expenditure, and reductions in the government role in both the economy and society.

The UN report also notes that while the impact of these policies varied from country to country, a uniform result was "a retrenchment in social expenditures and a consequent cutback in public services".

This cutback, which was accompanied by increasing calls for "good governance" and closer attention to the work styles and methods of government social services actors led to enquiries which found that even well-funded and well-staffed government agencies commonly fell short of their own objectives, with the burden of failure falling hardest on the poorest social groups.

These groups are those with which the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies do most of their work. Those identified failings of the government actors were, in effect, leaving the poorest and the most vulnerable in the care of our volunteer network.

I'm not complaining or making a political statement in saying this. What I do say, though, is that it is vitally important that the exchange being facilitated by the Netherlands here at Eurofestation must take account of the priority faced by the poorest, the marginalised, the most vulnerable - the people left behind as governments have found new ways of reducing deficits and reshaping their budget structures.

The International Federation, through its New York representation, addressed the Commission for Social Development on these issues. We welcomed the way the document I've mentioned had opened the way to a fresh look at the way vulnerability was being addressed, and we called for much better recognition of the role of volunteers in bridging this ever-widening gap.

We spoke again, on the same subject, during the current session of the United Nations General Assembly. It is, however, a matter of rising concern for us that so few governments have been willing publicly to recognise the dangers this gap pose for their own communities.

It is also an issue which I have to address every day, at the Villa Maraini Therapeutic Community, where with a dedicated band of committed social workers we work with drug users in streets, neighborhoods at risk and in courts and gaols. We work with partner organisations in Italy, and support similar work done by Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in other countries.

It was because of this, and my background as President of Italian Red Cross Youth from 1972-76 that I was able to contribute to the European Red Cross Network on AIDS from 1998-2003. Both those experiences, and the position I now hold as Vice President for Europe in the International Federation have given me a profound but humble knowledge of just how important it is to bring together all the experience available in the volunteer world to make a difference to life in today's communities.


I shall now mention several processes we have helped energise with other organisations, with particular reference to those represented by my distinguished colleagues on the panel here at Eurofestation today.

The President of the International Federation signed an agreement with the President of the International Olympic Committee in 2003. One of our prime motivations in working towards this agreement was our belief that the combined force of two of the largest networks in the world with a direct stake in enhancing the value of volunteerism could produce significant results for the most vulnerable in communities.

This motivation remains critical today. A most valuable symposium was held in Johannesburg in June 2004 which has already led to agreement between our National Societies with National Olympic Committees in southern Africa to support community mobilisation in action programs to combat the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

I would like to see similar things happen in Europe. My own background, in the Italian Red Cross and in work with people living with HIV/AIDS, has convinced me that the valuable exercise which took place in Johannesburg can be repeated in Europe as well as other parts of the world. Our agreement with the IOC is aimed at stimulating National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to meet with their counterpart National Olympic Committees, share objectives and capacities, and design mutually supportive or joint action programs.

The International Federation also works actively on the subject of volunteerism with the Parliaments of the world. Our partnership on volunteerism is spearheaded by action taken jointly by the International Federation, the Inter-Parliamentary Union and United Nations Volunteers.

This partnership, which has the blessing of the world's parliaments, has produced a Guidance Note - in the form of a booklet - which will help all Parliaments ensure that the legislation they adopt does not unnecessarily or even accidentally harm the volunteer environment we are all pledged to support.

The booklet was launched at the most recent Assembly session of the IPU, and is now being dispatched to Parliaments, Governments, Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and all others with a stake in this important mission. The next step will be meetings in different countries engaging relevant parliamentarians and counterparts from the Red Cross or Red Crescent Society and other leading volunteer organisations to work out the best way of implementing its processes in that country's parliamentary environment. [The booklet is available from the Federation website at http://www.ifrc.org/docs/pubs/vol/volunteers-legislationbook.pdf].

I can also offer a word to our panel's chairman, Mr Tim Sebastian of the BBC, on this subject. He comes from one of the world's great media organisations, and as such provides a voice which reaches quickly to the minds and hearts of our volunteers everywhere.

We are grateful to the world's media, including of course the BBC, for the way it has shown the work of our Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers in times of emergency and disaster. The work most commonly seen is that done at times like the terrible earthquake which ravaged Bam in December 2003, or during the Oder River floods floods which have been a recurrent source of death and devastation to the people of Germany and Poland.

Not so often seen, however, is the work our volunteers do as part of their ordinary contribution: work with the elderly and the disabled, work for people suffering from disease. Even less visible is the work we do to help marginalised communities - people who are often without even the right to access the dwindling government social sector themselves.

These people were named at the European Red Cross and Red Crescent Conference in Berlin in 2002, as people living in the shadows. They are a mixture: asylum seekers, trafficked women and children, people left behind without documents after a conflict, people whose cultures or religions make it difficult for them to access the support pillars available to the country's majority.

People living in the shadows often have good human reasons for fearing governments, and the government response is too frequently to ignore them or even to increase the pressures of marginalisation. This is a situation which the humanitarian spirit of volunteers does not tolerate. Our motivation in the Red Cross Red Crescent is our seven Fundamental Principles.

Humanity is at the heart of them all. But it is not reserved to the Red Cross Red Crescent. Humanity is the prime motivation of all volunteers, and that is why it is so important for the dialogues at Eurofestation to search for new and better ways to allow humanity to express itself through the grant of voluntary service.

That is why I was so glad to be able to be here, for there is so much we can do together. Provided of course that we recognise that if we don't work together volunteers will run the risk of giving their dedication without the support their objectives deserve.