Ukraine’s wave of volunteerism

Vojtech Hledik: ​Don’t let this wave of volunteerism fade away

From Kyiv Post
Aug. 31, 2015, 10:18 a.m. | Op-ed — by Vojtech Hledik

When the unexpected happens to a country, the nation mobilizes immediately to address it. You see this in the aftermath of floods, earthquakes, epidemics and, yes, regime changes and armed conflict. Here in Ukraine there has been an impressive awakening of civil society since the EuroMaidan Revolution People have been looking for ways to get involved, and be part of the changes Ukraine is going through. Thousands of citizens began to volunteer.

When I read the news and look at recent public polls, volunteering in the country is mainly associated with the ongoing conflict: volunteer battalions and volunteers bringing supplies to the east. Our research shows that 70 percent of volunteer activities in Ukraine are linked to the support to the armed forces. I want to talk about the remaining 30 percent.

Our research also shows that 23 percent of Ukrainians have volunteer experience. It means there are three million people who help internally displaced persons; volunteer in schools and health institutions; dedicate their time to advocate for human rights, animal rights, rights of people with disabilities, those living with HIV; care for the elderly; organize clean ups and promote recycling; work in orphanages; support transparent and effective governance; fight corruption; educate teenagers about healthy lifestyle; organize youth camps and exchanges; assist people to find jobs; build community centers; teach coding and create websites for good causes. These are just some of the few ways Ukrainian volunteers have contributed to their country. No official statistics are able to fully capture the monetary value of volunteering. There are estimates that the added value volunteers bring into economy in countries with a developed volunteering culture and infrastructure can equal anywhere between one to four percent of a nation’s gross domestic product. Do the math; this is easily a couple of billion dollars in the case of Ukraine. Impressive but we can still do better.

This is why the UN Volunteers will stand ready to help the government of Ukraine and the civil society organizations in their efforts to improve legislation, networking, knowledge sharing, get access to and implement best practices including fundraising, and furthering volunteerism spirit as defined by the United Nations.

I have been asked many times why would someone work when financial reward is not the main motivation. The best way to answer this is to introduce the questioner to a volunteer or show the achievements from a volunteer initiative. If you have doubts about the benefits of volunteerism, and there is no volunteer nearby who could share his or her opinion, let me try to give you at least some reasons. Volunteerism provides you with a sense of purpose or the feeling of being part of something larger than yourself. It provides you with an opportunity to contribute your part to good causes while at the same time learn new skills and meet amazing people. It allows you to touch people’s lives instead of sitting on the sidelines criticizing everything and everyone around you. It encourages you to be part of the progress and development of your country and the whole world. Large changes consist of many little steps taken by many dedicated people. I like the definition of volunteerism as “one of the basic expressions of solidarity”.

Volunteering is especially beneficial for young people. The current job markets is very competitive and it is not easy to find a good job after school. But the catch is you cannot get work experience without any other previous work experience. I was in this situation just few years ago. Does it sound familiar? Volunteering allows you to gain all the skills that any employer is looking for: organizational, communication, time management, people skills—you name it. I sincerely hope that the time is coming when companies will appreciate volunteer experiences and skills developed through volunteering rather than only what is written in the “trudova knyzhka”. Volunteer experience has to be looked at as a great advantage by the employers rather that dismissed in favor of “regular” job experience which is often still the case in Ukraine.

Volunteerism also contributes to societal cohesion and to conflict prevention. One can interact with people from different regions and countries. Many young Ukrainians have never had the opportunity to travel to other regions in the country or abroad. Through exposure and contact with their peers from elsewhere, they will be less susceptible to stereotypes, prejudices, rumors and propaganda. The Government together with civil society organizations are planning to launch a national voluntary service to facilitate such exchanges in order to give young people an opportunity to work in different parts of Ukraine. It is a much needed initiative, and UN Volunteers will help to make it a reality.

Now we must not let this wave of activity and the enthusiasm for volunteerism fade away. There is a risk of disillusion of volunteers that their work is not appreciated or has no broader impact. The energy that came after Maidan has to be channeled to overall development of Ukraine. That will a very actual topic after the Sustainable Development Goals are adopted by the world’s leaders in late September.

UN Volunteers will engage with all involved partners to strengthen the volunteer infrastructure in Ukraine. This will help enable organizations to find volunteers for their activities, to encourage people to get involved, to ensure the legal protection of volunteers, to create a platform for networking among organizations, and to help people understand what volunteering is all about so they will be inspired by action, and act to inspire!

Are you ready?

Vojtech Hledik is the UN Volunteers programme officer in Ukraine.

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