Tag Archives: results

Online volunteers link communities with donors, trainers & partners

From February 2001 to February 2005, I had the pleasure of directing the United Nations Online Volunteering service, based on Bonn, Germany at the UN Volunteers program, part of UNDP. Originally launched as a part of NetAid, the service is a platform for UN agencies, UN volunteers, independent NGOs, government community programs and other mission-based initiatives working in or for the developing world to recruit and involve online volunteers. I continue to read all updates about the service, on the lookout for emerging trends, new challenges and suggested practices.

Below are links to updates from UNV’s OV service blog in 2015, 2016 and 2017 that are great examples of how virtual volunteering is about so much more than just completing tasks, and how the value of volunteers – online or onsite – isn’t the amount of hours they give, or a monetary value for those hours.

I have to admit that the story about the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) engaging online volunteers was a pleasant surprise, given how reluctant they were to engage with online volunteers back in 2001 or so. And it’s also worth noting that most of the blogs are written by online volunteers:

Online volunteers link a community in Africa with donors, trainers and partners
17 July 2017
Lake Nokoué is on the southern coast of Benin in West Africa. It is a community threatened by pollution and deforestation, and is also affected by congestion from sediments and the traditional acadja fish farming practice. Online volunteers played a substantive role in mobilizing a grant of USD 40,000 from the GEF Small Grants Programme for the Benin NGO “Association des Propriétaires d’Acadja de la Commune de Sô Ava” (APACSO). They also helped identify an expert in aquaculture to deliver an onsite ten-day training in fish farming for youth, women and low income fishermen, funded by an NGO from Belgium. APACSO also received three partnership requests from local organizations.

Fostering food security in Brazil
28 October 2016
The Chamber of Agriculture of the São Paulo State government in Brazil tasked online volunteers with supporting a participatory agro-ecological project in urban and peri-urban areas of the municipality Álvaro de Carvalho. The project aims to engage around 300 beneficiary families in vegetable farming in public spaces to enhance rural development and food security.

Online volunteers lend their voice to the UNDP 2013 China National Development Report
06 October 2016
Two UN Online Volunteers collaborated with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in China to record the audio version of the China National Human Development Report 2013,Sustainable and Liveable Cities: Toward Ecological Civilization. The report explores the current urban transformation in China from the perspective of human development, and discusses the recent history of China’s cities, key challenges and projections for the future, including measures that could guide urbanisation towards the goal of liveable, sustainable cities. The audio-book adaptation is among the first signature UN publications made available in digital audio media. It serves audiences with different reading and learning preferences, and has helped publicize the report for a wider impact.

Online volunteers research new trends and global best practices in ICT innovation
14 August 2016
ITU is the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies (ICT). ITU promotes the collaboration of the public and private sectors to develop global ICT networks and services. From March until September 2015, ITU engaged a team of seven UN Online Volunteers to research new trends and global best practices in ICT innovation. In the conference’s planning phase, the UN Online Volunteers mapped over 700 relevant initiatives undertaken by governments, universities and the private sector to promote ICT innovation hubs, clusters and parks in 115 countries.

Online volunteers worked to strengthen critical databases
20 March 2016
13 online volunteers worked on strengthening the UN Evaluation Group’s (UNEG) database of evaluation reports to improve the quality and use of evaluation across the UN System. The volunteers helped prepare brief descriptions of reports gathered from all UNEG members including the specialized agencies, funds, programmes and affiliated organizations. Online volunteers also collected meta-information used to classify and tag each report to make it searchable. By helping strengthen the database to improve the quality and use of evaluations, volunteers will be ultimately improving the effectiveness, efficiency and relevance of the UN’s performance. Also, online volunteers assisted in the development of a database of training providers for the International Association of Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP). The volunteers researched and listed training opportunities relevant to the humanitarian sector, and provided input to the development of new functionality in order to enhance the database.

Online Volunteers support the NGO Centre for Batwa Minorities
06 February 2016
Together with the Centre for Batwa Minorities (CBM), an NGO based in Kampala, Uganda, online volunteers from around the world helped advocate for the rights of the Batwa people and worked to empower communities and individuals of this ethnic minority in Uganda. More than 30 online volunteers worked on projects ranging from researching the human rights situation of ethnic minorities in Uganda, developing successful campaign concepts to protect the Batwa community, drafting proposals, managing and translating CBM’s website, to using social media to promote the objectives of the organization.

Volunteers worked together online and on the ground for a survey in Bangladesh
02 February 2016
The United Nations Volunteers programme in Bangladesh involved a team of more than 50 online volunteers to reach out to Bangladeshi people and add their voices to the MY World survey. Online volunteers translated the survey’s ballot card and other texts into Bangla. Volunteers on the ground disseminated the survey in many different regions of Bangladesh and talked to people about their development priorities to collect the data. The MY World survey assignment also brought together people of different backgrounds and geographical locations.

Volunteering online for climate change mitigation
14 January 2016
For more than two years, 13 UN Online Volunteers supported the Fundacion Desarollo y Ambiente (FUNDA) on a research project that analyzes, categorizes and maps types of vegetation and landscape to predict the effects of climate change. The volunteers’ created a database for types of vegetation and topography in the Caribbean, Orinoco and Páramo regions of Colombia, verifyied the species’ botanical names, georeferenced the information using Excel and ArcGIS, and mapped the correlation of vegetation, climate, and geomorphological processes. After training the volunteers on the research approach, FUNDA set up working groups as well as weekly Skype meetings for tracking the team’s progress and assigning new tasks.

vvbooklittleMy experience at the UN working with both online volunteers and NGOs around the world who were also working with such, or wanted to, greatly influenced the writing of The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook. This book, co-written with Susan J. Ellis and myself, is our attempt to document all of the best practices of working with online volunteers, from the more than three decades that virtual volunteering has been happening. It’s available both in traditional print form and in digital version. If you read the book, I would so appreciate it if you could write and post a review of it on the Amazon and Barnes and Noble web sites (you can write the same review on both sites).

Also see:

The Virtual Volunteering Wiki: a free resource featuring a curated list of news articles about virtual volunteering since 1996, an extensive list of examples of virtual volunteering activities, a list of myths about virtual volunteering, the history of virtual volunteering, a list of research and evaluations of virtual volunteering, a ist of online mentoring programs, and links to web sites and lists of offline publications related to virtual volunteering in languages in other than English.

Our LinkedIn Group for the discussion of virtual volunteering.

Safety in virtual volunteering

Virtual volunteering: it’s oh-so-personal

Why Do So Few Women Edit Wikipedia? Insights into virtual volunteering

Even if all your volunteers are “traditional”, you need to explore virtual volunteering

EU Aid Volunteers on track to include virtual volunteering

The future of virtual volunteering? Deeper relationships, higher impact

My favorite virtual volunteering event originates in… Poland

Blogs & articles re: virtual volunteering NOT by me

Fans of celebrities & virtual volunteering

virtual volunteering is probably happening at your org!

Incorporating virtual volunteering into a corporate employee volunteer program

Internet-mediated Volunteering in the EU (virtual volunteering)

Research on USA volunteerism excludes virtual volunteering

History & Evaluation of UNV’s Early Years

Whilst trying to make a list of all of the Executive Coordinators of the United Nations Volunteers program since UNV began in 1970, to update UNV’s profile on Wikipedia, I found quite a delicious document from 1974, which provides the most detailed history of the origins of the UNV program that I have ever read – origins I don’t think most people are aware of, including most staff at UNV – as well as an evaluation of UNV’s first three years of operation.

Some things have changed quite a lot at UNV since this document was published – but some have stayed the same.

The article is The Platonic Acorn: A Case Study of the United Nations Volunteer. It’s by Robert A. Pastor who, at the time of this paper’s publication in 1974, was a graduate student at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Pastor was a former Peace Corps volunteer who went on to many high-profile international endeavors: he was a member of the National Security Council Staff during the administration of President Jimmy Carter, he was associated with various universities, and also served as a Senior Fellow at the Carter Center, where he established the programs on Latin America and the Caribbean, democracy and election-monitoring, and Chinese village elections. He died of colon cancer in 2014.

His paper about the first years of UNV was published in the journal International Organization, published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the International Organization Foundation. This article appeared in Volume 28, Issue 3 July 1974, pp. 375-397, and it’s accessible online, for free, from JSTOR. The Abstract for his paper:

This article presents both a history and an administrative analysis of the United Nations Volunteers, an international organization established by a General Assembly resolution in December 1970. The hope that the new organization would presage a new era of multinational volunteerism has proven groundless. In seeking to explain the ineffectiveness of the UN Volunteers, I look inside the organization and find that it has little or no control over its six principal functions. This extreme decentralization of responsibility is then explained not by a static description of the institutional but by focusing on the dynamic process by which state and transnational actors exercised influence during the different stages of the organization’s establishment and development. Those actors whose autonomy was most jeopardized by a new volunteer organization were most active in defining and limiting the scope of its operations. The relative lobbying advantages of state and transnational actors meshed with bureaucratic and budgetary constraints to ensure an enfeebled organization.

Whew!

Pastor is very critical of UNV’s recruitment and placement processes in particular, as it slowed volunteer placement to a crawl. The problem was that, in the 1970s, each stage in the UNV selection process was managed by a different organization in a different location, resulting in 11 different stages between the volunteer-involving organization and the applicant. As a result, as of March 1973, UNV had filled just 93 posts from approximately 400 requests. In addition, 85 percent of volunteers were from least developed countries (LDCs). Then, it was seen as a problem, because the program was supposed to be “universal”, with a significant number of young volunteers from industrialized countries:

The organizational process also helps to explain why there is such a high percentage of volunteers from LDCs, and may help predict why this is likely to continue. Many applicants from LDCs view the UNV as a step into the UN civil service, and thus they are willing to tolerate longer delays than their counterparts in the developed world who generally view volunteer service as precisely that. The result, that LCD volunteers currently count for nearly half of all volunteers, is a bit ironic since one of the original purposes of volunteerism was to exploit the skill surplus of the developed countries.

I have no idea what the timeline is now between the creation of a UNV assignment and placement of a person into that assignment, but mentalities regarding people from developing countries as UNV has greatly changed: UNV now prides itself on a high percentage of volunteers from developed countries, the idea being that it is a reflection of south-to-south cooperation. The average age of UNVs has also increased, from people in their 20s when the program started to 38 now – a program originally designed to channel the energies of youth has become something quite different.

Another criticism by Pastor is that “Although volunteers are supposed to work directly with host country people, they find themselves working with and accountable only to foreign experts.” In the last few years, UNV has focused on its capacity to be a low-cost staffing solution for UN agencies, so this criticism could still be made – and may become a greater issue.

Pastor questions UNV’s ability at the time to fulfill specialized requests for volunteers, and suspects the level of specialization requested is much higher than what is actually necessary. He provides imaginary, outrageous examples of such requests, such as for a “French-speaking sand dune fixation expert.” He says, “Assuming that these specialists exist, the likelihood of finding one who would volunteer is negligible, while the price of the search is exorbitant.” Pastor’s paper was written more than two decades before the Internet became widely used in the USA, and then grew exponentially globally; recruitment of highly-specialized candidates for volunteering is now easy for most situations, and the number of applicants for these assignments shows an abundance of experts willing to take on such volunteering roles.

Another criticism in the document is if the UNV program was, in fact, a volunteer program because of the “high professional calibre” of volunteers – meaning the degree of expertise of the volunteers somehow makes them not really volunteers anymore. He notes that UNV “insists on selling its product as an inexpensive substitute for experts.” Since then, thankfully, the understanding of the word volunteer has changed, and it does not mean amateur, unskilled, or inexperienced. But for UNV now, in 2017, what does volunteer mean? In the USA, a person is a volunteer at a nonprofit or other mission-based organization if he or she is not paid by that agency for services rendered. In fact, the federal agency in charge of regulating labor has strict guidelines on who may be called a volunteer – and who may not. As UNVs, especially national UNVs from the same country where they are serving, receive excellent compensation, called a stipend rather than a salary, what makes them a volunteer? That I cannot answer.

Pastor’s review of UNV is a fascinating document which offers a lot of challenging questions about UNV – and some of these questions, IMO, need to be asked again.  I’m so sorry I can’t thank him for his paper, and talk with him about how UNV has evolved. I would have loved to hear what he thought of the Online Volunteering service in particular, which I think meets many of the goals originally set out for UNV but not realized.

In the course of my research, I also found the book The Role and Status of International Humanitarian Volunteers and Organization: The Rights and Duty to Humanitarian Assistance by Yves Beigbeder, ISBN 0-7923-1190-6. It was published in 1991, and from the pages available on Google, it seems to also have some scathing analysis of UNV’s performance up to that date. It’s hard to find information about the author; there’s scant information online about him, though he seems to be a prolific writer. Online, it says he served at the Nuremberg Tribunal in 1946 and had a “long career in UN organizations as a senior official.” Beigbeder’s book is hard to get hold of; it is offered online for about $100, well beyond the budgets for most folks interested in evaluating volunteer placement agencies (and beyond my own budget as well).

In the book, Beigbeder says that the UNDP Governing Council asked the UNV administrator to undertake a review of the UNV program in 1986 and in 1987. The report was a mixed bag on UNV performance at that time: it was noted that, in Yemen, “UNVs are quickly operational, less demanding in support services and more adaptive to difficult, harsh and isolated working conditions than other technical assistance staff.” But In Papua New Guinea, results were good and bad. “When UNVs have not done well, the cause was either poor project design, noninvolvement by supervisors in developing the job description, job duties imprecise or modified after the arrival of the UNV, wrong selection, or language deficiencies.” All of those can still be problems with UNV assignments – or for any international placement organization, for that matter. Addressing those problems is an ongoing issue.

Finally, my search also lead me to the self-published book Not Only a Refugee: An American UN Volunteer in the Philippines by Eleanor Grogg Stewart, about her time in the early 1980s, specifically in and around 1982, when she worked in a refugee camp. Several pages from her book are available on books.google.com. It’s detailed account of the early days of UNV, as well as trying to navigate UN bureaucracy.

It’s a shame that early accounts and evaluations of nonprofit organizations, international aid agencies, government programs and other mission-based entities are forgotten. It’s so interesting to read how much has changed, how much has improved – and how far we still have to go. How can we know if we’re making a difference if we aren’t looking at what our agencies promised in the past?

One final note: On 31 May, 2017, the Executive Board of UNDP, UNFPA and UNOPS convened in New York to discuss the findings of an independent evaluation of the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme and UNV’s new Strategic Framework goals and objectives for 2018-2021. Here is a press release about the meeting, which says Nina Retzlaff is the independent evaluator of the UNV Strategic Framework 2014-2017 and that she elaborated on key points and early findings from her evaluation at the New York meeting, noting that there was a high level of satisfaction from UN partners on the work of UN Volunteers and that “91% of UN partners confirm UNV responds to their needs, [and that] 92% of the UN Volunteers report a satisfactory experience.” She also said that “UNV’s programmatic niche is in Youth and Volunteer Infrastructure.” I would love to read the evaluation but, cannot find out if it’s even been finished, let alone published. It would be fascinating to read how it compares to these earlier aassessments.

Also see:

Get to know the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

2015-07-21-SDGsGoodbye, Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), hello, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs are the 17 goals towards which all United Nations efforts will now work, and the UN will encourage all NGOs and governments to work towards them as well, to make our world a better place. Like the MDGs before, the SDGs will help UN initiatives better focus its work across various agencies, various partnerships, and various regions.

I congratulate my United Nations colleagues, especially those at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) , who have been working on drafting these. I encourage you, if you work in addressing any of the areas mentioned by the SDGs, or you want to work in international development, to become familiar with these, and to start referencing them in your work.

The MDGs were introduced in 2000. I began at the UN in February 2001, and I found the MDGs incredibly helpful in approaching my work, in making it more focused. In my opinion, the MDGs did an excellent job of focusing the work of the UN, various NGOs and governments, providing a framework for all of our initiatives. The MDGs are simple, with goals with which no one would disagree, for the most part. The MDGs are “an explicit recognition of the reality that a large proportion of people in the world were deprived and poor.” The MDGs sought a time-bound reduction in poverty to improve the living conditions of those deprived and excluded, and it was an attempt to place this persistent problem, until then a largely national concern, on the development agenda for international cooperation.1 The MDGs specified a destination but, purposely, did not chart the journey, so that each country – indeed, each community – could develop its own way of reaching the goals.

But, as we all knew it would, the world has changed significantly since the MDGs were created in 2000. Notions of developed and developing have continued to evolve. Now, international development is less about the transfer of aid from rich to poor countries and more about progressive change from within, and empowering those local agents of change. The world has always been interconnected, but challenges and opportunities seem to happen so much more quickly now, across borders, requiring incredibly rapid responses. The MDGs were always meant to be replaced as the world evolved, and now they have. No, we didn’t reach the MDGs by 2015, but we did better target our work towards the world’s most poor.

The MDGs made no mention of human rights and did not specifically address economic development; the SDGs correct this. The SDGs apply to all countries, rich and poor alike, and the UN conducted the largest consultation in its history to gauge opinion on what the SDGs should include. I’ve read several comments that say the SDG framework brings together the different aspects of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental – in a much more integrated way than the MDGs, but I haven’t read any specific examples of that, or seen any illustrations of this yet.

The deadline for the SDGS is 2030. Will we reach the goals by then? Probably not. But we will make progress towards them, if we have the will to do so. Are the SDGs perfect? No. But there better than what we had, and better than nothing. I often think the arguments against the SDGs, like the MDGs, keep us from activities that the world desperately needs.

Footnotes

1. “The MDGs after 2015: Some reflections on the possibilities,” by Deepak Nayyar, for the UN System Task Team on the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda, April 2012