Why Volunteers Can Help Lead the Changes Required to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals

In a few weeks, governments meeting at the UN General Assembly will endorse the 17 proposed sustainable development goals. Once this stage is passed, the focus will be on ensuring implementation and taking the discussion on targets and benchmarks for success to national and subnational levels. Attention to volunteers and volunteerism, as a critical component of the means of implementation, will be essential.

Many of the SDGs call for long-term attitude and behavior changes - for example, in the way we consume, so that we can all live within planetary boundaries. Many of those changes cannot happen until and unless there are volunteers who are living those changes themselves, and who are going out and not only advocating but helping other people to make the changes.

Volunteers can support sustainable development in many ways. More than 2,500 youth volunteers were mobilized in Guinea during the first 30 days of the Ebola crisis to convey the importance of personal hygiene and other things people could do to protect themselves. In Togo, 5,000 young people volunteer their skills and knowledge every year through a government-funded scheme to bolster social services in rural areas.

As part of the MDGs, combatting HIV required massive behavior changes on the most human of acts, sex. A lot of people needed to live the change around sexual behavior. Many of them were also willing to step out of their comfort zone and volunteer to explain to other people why it is important to change their behavior, why it is important to practice safe sex, why it is important to have themselves tested, why it is important to use condoms, etc.

A similar reasoning applies to one of the main objectives, poverty reduction. Poverty is not about income poverty alone, it is a multidimensional phenomenon that includes issues of e.g. education, health and opportunities. Volunteering offers people new kinds of opportunities to acquire skills and to see new perspectives. Through volunteers doing different things, people see new possibilities - they project themselves to different lifestyles and become more open for different life choices.

Volunteers can bring voices of people into the debate. The MY World survey brought in 7 million voices of people from the most remote parts of the world. Volunteers took care to translate the survey into different languages and took it to rural communities to make sure that even the most remote and sometimes most marginalized of people had a voice in the global debate. That same way of giving people voices can now be extremely important in the process of localizing SDGs. Volunteers can reach people that are otherwise difficult to reach.

Volunteers can also help measure progress. The SDGs require a 'data revolution'. Traditional ways of capturing information, through statistical departments and formal channels work well but are also relatively slow. If we want to accelerate the pace of change, we need to get used to also pick up information that lies on the street and translate it into bundles of information that will drive change and hold duty-bearers accountable for the changes that have to be made.

The SDGs will only be successful if all people and groups are fully engaged and have a voice in the way the SDGs are implemented. If we count exclusively on government policy, private and public investment to make things happen, we probably will not have enough resources to reach everybody. You cannot ensure we leave no one behind without volunteers.

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