Volunteer, civil society and governmental delegates from 22 nations gathered in Johannesburg this month for the Southern Africa Conference on Volunteer Action for Development. The conference was co-convened by United Nations Volunteers (UNV) and Volunteer and Service Enquiry Southern Africa (VOSESA), in observance of the 10th anniversary of the United Nations International Year of Volunteers (IYV).
Naheed Haque, deputy executive coordinator for United Nations Volunteers, gave tribute to the late Nobel Laureate Wangari Mathai and her Greenbelt tree planting campaign as the “quintessential volunteer movement.” Haque called for a “new development paradigm that puts voluntarism at the center of community-centered sustainable development.” In this paradigm, human happiness and service to others would be key considerations, in addition to economic indicators and development outcomes including health and climate change.
The international gathering developed strategies to advance three key priorities for the 15 nations in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC): combating HIV/ AIDS; engaging the social and economic participation of youth; and promoting regional integration and peace. Research data prepared by Civicus provided information on the rise of voluntary service in Africa, as conferees assessed strategies to advance “five pillars” of effective volunteerism: engaging youth, community involvement, international volunteers, corporate leadership and higher education in service.
VOSESA executive director, Helene Perold, noted that despite centuries of migration across the region, the vision for contemporary regional cooperation between southern African countries has largely been in the minds of heads of states with “little currency at the grassroots level.” Furthermore, it has been driven by the imperative of economic integration with a specific focus on trade. Slow progress has now produced critiques within the region that the strategy for integrating southern African countries cannot succeed on the basis of economic cooperation alone. Perold indicated that collective efforts by a wide range of civic, academic, and governmental actors at the Johannesburg conference could inject the importance of social participation within and between countries as a critical component in fostering regional integration and achieving development outcomes.
This premise of voluntary action’s unique contribution to regional integration was underscored by Emiliana Tembo, director of Gender and Social Affairs for the Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA). Along with measures promoting free movement of labor and capital to step up trade investment, Tembo stressed the importance of “our interconnectedness as people,” citing Bishop Desmond Tutu’s maxim toward the virtues of “Ubuntu – a person who is open and available to others.”
The 19 nation COMESA block is advancing an African free-trade zone movement from the Cape of South Africa, to Cairo Egypt. The “tripartite” regional groupings of SADC, COMESA and the East Africa Community are at the forefront of this pan-African movement expanding trade and development.
Preliminary research shared at the conference by VOSESA researcher Jacob Mwathi Mati noted the effects of cross border youth volunteer exchange programs in southern and eastern Africa. The research indicates positive outcomes including knowledge, learning and “friendship across borders,” engendered by youth exchange service programs in South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya that were sponsored Canada World Youth and South Africa Trust.
On the final day of the Johannesburg conference, South Africa service initiatives were assessed in field visits by conferees including loveLife, South Africa’s largest HIV prevention campaign. loveLife utilizes youth volunteer service corps reaching up to 500,000 at risk youths in monthly leadership and peer education programs. “Youth service in South Africa is a channel for the energy of youth, (building) social capital and enabling public innovation,” Programme Director Scott Burnett stated. “Over the years our (service) participants have used their small stipends to climb the social ladder through education and micro-enterprise development.”
Nelly Corbel, senior program coordinator of the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairo, noted that the Egyptian Arab Spring was “the only movement that cleaned-up after the revolution.” On February 11th, the day after the resignation of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, thousands of Egyptian activists removed debris from Tahrir Square and engaged in a host of other volunteer clean-up and painting projects. In Corbel’s words: “Our entire country is like a big flag now,” from the massive display of national voluntarism in clean-up projects, emblematic of the proliferation of youth social innovation aimed at rebuilding a viable civil society.
At the concluding call-to-action session, Johannesburg conferees unanimously adopted a resolution, which was nominated by participating youth leaders from southern Africa states. The declaration, “Creating an Enabling Environment for Volunteer Action in the Region” notes that “volunteering is universal, inclusive and embraces free will, solidarity, dignity and trust… [creating] a powerful basis for unity, common humanity, peace and development.” The resolution, contains a number of action-oriented recommendations advancing voluntarism as a “powerful means for transformational change and societal development.” Policy recommendations will be advanced by South African nations and other stakeholders at the forthcoming Rio + 20 deliberations and at a special session of the United Nations General Assembly on December 5, the 10th anniversary of the International Year of the Volunteer.