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Dublin: 0 °C Saturday 19 April, 2014

Column: What Ireland’s EU Presidency could mean for international volunteering

Ireland’s Presidency of the European Union has the capacity to give us influence in hitting the Millennium Development Goals, writes Malcolm Quigley.

Malcolm Quigley

VOLUNTEERS MAKE A unique contribution to achieving development goals, reaching far beyond what cash and technical assistance can achieve. Last year over 3,000 Irish people volunteered overseas. This is an extraordinary number – about one in every 1,500 Irish people travelled to a developing country to share their skills. This should be an enormous source of pride for Irish people, and at a time when major decisions are being made about the future of international development, it is crucial that volunteering for development remains at the heart of our work in the developing world.

Volunteering uses the power of people to bring about real change. When committed volunteers work in partnership with carefully selected organisations to transfer much-needed skills, they have the power to bring about real change in the lives of poor and marginalised people. In a development context that is increasingly professionalised and specialised, volunteers have distinct advantages over professional development workers and consultants. By living as part of the communities in which they work, they can gain insights into the causes of poverty and how they can be addressed.

A long and proud tradition

Ireland has a long and proud tradition of sending volunteers overseas. In many ways, the work of Irish development NGOs is built on the foundation of our missionary tradition. Every day Irish people travel to developing countries to bring skills in education, health, business and many other areas to some of the world’s poorest communities. They bring back with them invaluable skills and experience, and an understanding of global poverty and inequality, and what can be done to fight it.

A strange thing has happened to volunteering in the last 10 years. The number of people volunteering has increased dramatically, but at the same time volunteering has become somewhat sidelined in development circles. Often the examples of volunteering that donors and policy makers focus on are the negative ones, and the role that volunteers can make in achieving real development goals has fallen off the development agenda.

Focused volunteering

In the minds of many governments, development organisations and donors, volunteering is still about people working in isolation and offers more benefit to the volunteer than to the people the volunteer works with, but volunteering has evolved in recent years. Today international volunteers from developed countries, and volunteers who are recruited in one developing country to work in another, work alongside ‘national volunteers’, who volunteer in their own country.

Volunteering has also become more focused on bringing about long-term sustainable change, and volunteers work to make themselves redundant so that their work lives on long after they have left their placements. Volunteers aim to work towards bigger development goals, and their individual work contributes to programmes that fit into national and international development plans.

We have an opportunity to address this misconception about volunteering, and to elevate the role of volunteering for development in the minds of decision makers. As a country with a strong reputation in international development, and for whom volunteering is a pillar of our work overseas, we should consider what role we want volunteering to play in the international agenda in the coming years.

Ireland’s Presidency of the EU

Development cooperation is an area where Ireland’s Presidency of the European Union has the capacity to give us real influence. Ireland’s reputation as a leader in international development means that we have always punched above our weight in this area, and we hold the Presidency at a time when the EU, the world’s largest provider of development assistance, is deciding its policy position on what should succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The MDGs, agreed in the year 2000, have had an enormous impact on the direction of development cooperation, both in policy and in how development work is done on the ground.  As we approach the end date for these goals in 2015, attention has turned to the development of a new development framework to achieve them after 2015. In September, the UN General Assembly will meet to discuss the framework that will succeed the MDGs, and Ireland and South Africa have been selected to co-facilitate this summit.

This is an enormous opportunity for Ireland.  As a country that has never forgotten the value of volunteers, we should grasp this opportunity to make sure that volunteerism, and the idea that by bringing people together and sharing skills, is an important part of the future of international development.

Malcolm Quigley is the Executive Director of VSO Ireland. A graduate of the University of Limerick and the Solvay School of Business in the Free university of Brussels, Malcolm volunteered with VSO  in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2001 to 2004. He established VSO Ireland in February 2004.

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