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United Nations Information Technology Service (UNITeS):
A Legacy

Volunteers: Essential to ICT projects in developing countries

This article was originally published on 27 June 2002 on the Digital Opportunity Channel,
a joint initiative of OneWorld.net and Digital Divide Network.
by Jayne Cravens

United Nations Volunteers and the other organizations that make up the United Nations Information Technology Service (UNITeS) believe that volunteers are an essential and fundamental element to the success of information and communications technology (ICT) efforts in underdeveloped communities.

For instance, many successful community technology centers (CTCs) attribute their achievements in communities not to the technologies they make available, but to the personal assistance they provide in using those technologies. For many CTCs, there is only one sustainable way to provide substantial levels of personal assistance: involving volunteers.

Volunteers bring an attitude and a spirit to their work that is different than fully-paid staff. It is not a better work ethic or motivation, just a different one, one that complements that of fully-paid staff that are part of an ICT-for-development effort. Volunteers can bring their personal passion and fresh perspective to a project.

Volunteers can free up the time of fully-paid staff to deal with many other critical issues and tasks. This can allow those served by ICT initiatives to get more one-on-one assistance. It means that capacity-building efforts of an ICT project go much farther than they would with paid-staff alone.

Volunteers are often motivated to get their own family, friends and co-workers to volunteer their time and expertise as well. This means that volunteers can extend a programs sphere of influence and access to additional people, businesses and organizations.

Volunteers bring the luxury of focus. A volunteer is usually focused on a particular issue or activity at a project, and can fully concentrate on only that issue or activity, whereas fully paid staff must often take on a myriad of unrelated responsibilities.

Volunteers often feel more free than fully-paid staff to propose innovations or new ways of operating, and more free to criticize.

Unpaid volunteers are usually not dependent upon the project they are assisting for their livelihood. This can mean they can approach assignments with less pressure and stress than fully-paid staff, and may make them feel even more free to experiment in their service, to try new things or to offer criticism.

In certain cases, some people served by ICT projects are more inclined to work with volunteers than paid staff. These people may see volunteers as more neutral in their approaches than paid-staff, or they may feel that volunteers are there to help more because of personal motivation, while paid staff is there because it's their "job."

The priority to involve volunteers in community ICT projects has been embraced by the United Nations, which in 2001 launched the UNITeS initiative. UNITeS places and supports ICT volunteers in developing countries. One of the attributes that makes UNITeS unique among ICT-for-development efforts is its focus on the involvement of volunteers. And what makes UNITeS unique among other ICT volunteering efforts is its focus on recruiting volunteers from developing countries as well as industrialized countries.

With no formal recruitment effort underway, UNITeS is already bombarded with inquiries from people all over the world eager to give up several months or even a year of their lives to assist communities in developing countries with ICT projects. The supply of ICT volunteers is out there, no question -- and they represent a massive untapped resource.

Also see: Why and How to Involve Volunteers in Community Technology Centers. This UNV/UNITeS presentation was made at the Community Technology Center's national conference in Austin, Texas, and details why volunteers are an essential part of the sustainability and success of ICT projects, particularly those with a CTC component, with suggestions for better involving volunteers in these projects. (PowerPoint version, 300KB)

To see the complete, original UNITeS web site and its resources, including its extensive knowledge base, look up unites.org at archive.org

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