Mobilising UN Volunteers to address global challenges: MPP alumnus interviews Olivier Adam

Olivier Adam took office as the Executive Coordinator of the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) on 2 January 2017. Growing up during the Cold War, and witnessing the lasting impact of World War II on close family members, Mr Adam holds the UN Charter and the value of peace close to his heart. Over a 30-year UN career, he has served in various capacities within the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Secretariat, leading activities in areas spanning HIV/AIDS prevention, development policy and political affairs.

Olivier Adam, Executive Coordinator of UNV (Image credit: United Nations Volunteers)

As the UN marks its 75th anniversary, I had the opportunity to speak with Mr Adam about UNV’s work across developing countries, highlighting why he thinks gender parity is vital to volunteering assignments, and what he sees as the policies UN Member States can implement to create a more peaceful and sustainable world.

This interview was conducted virtually and recorded from the UNV headquarters in Bonn, Germany.

What is your motivation at UNV, and how do you envision its role growing over this next Decade of Action?

I visited the UN Headquarters in New York when I was in my early 20s. Reading the Charter values of respect for human rights, social justice, human dignity, equality, women’s empowerment, and development to bring nations together really resonated with me, especially during the Cold War at the time.

At UNV, working with volunteers means working with people who are highly motivated and have an interest in giving their time. We have a double mandate: promotion of volunteerism and placing volunteers across the UN system. UNV has already expanded the degree of partnership and presence across UN organisations, and increased the number of national volunteers working across 54 UN entities. In this Decade of Action, we want to work on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), continue expanding the role of volunteering, gain recognition for volunteering by our Member States and build conducive environments for volunteering to flourish.

In December 2018, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution on ‘Volunteering for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’, encouraging Member States to build volunteerism into national development strategies for the achievement of the SDGs. Why is it important for governments to leverage volunteerism, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Countries’ national reports, which are shared each year at the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, show that volunteers play a big role, especially in disaster preparedness and reduction, health and education. In our last report on the state of the world’s volunteerism, we demonstrated that not only can local volunteers respond quickly and flexibly to meet urgent needs, but they can also disseminate information and shape behaviours.

Secondly, volunteering creates opportunities for participation and ownership for people in the development process. We have volunteers that hold authorities to account for what they deliver, such as tracking policy justice or tracking trash accumulation in neighbourhoods. Many development solutions are local solutions to local problems that are led by volunteers – we want these solutions to emerge and be channelled in a structured way.

Recently, 179 countries and over 4000 participants from academia, the private sector and intergovernmental organisations met for the Global Technical Meeting 2020 on ‘Reimagining Volunteering for the 2030 Agenda’, jointly organised by UNV and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. What were the key takeaways and next steps identified at this meeting?

The first important message that we heard was that we need to recognise the great diversity of volunteer practices across the globe, and we need to better support and integrate the work of these volunteers and their contributions in wider development efforts. 

At the Global Technical Meeting, we examined different models of volunteering support and emphasised the need for further digital infrastructure to enable collaboration. Through our online volunteering platform, we have been able to engage people in volunteering activities in all areas from the comfort of their homes.

The meeting’s call to action prompts Member States to reflect on the principles, values and behaviours that position volunteering to be a transformative force for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. We will use this call to focus our efforts on developing our guidance and advisory services, and revitalising partnerships.

The UNDP reports that more than 700 million people live on less than $1.90 per day and a total of 1.3 billion people are multidimensionally poor. What forms of expertise can UNV provide to host countries with regard to ending poverty (SDG 1)?

Addressing poverty requires multidimensional approaches. Within our talent pool of 200,000 volunteers, we have development economists that help to shape strategy, community development experts, water and sanitation experts, education specialists and agricultural extensionists. We provide talent and build capacity to address all dimensions of poverty. While about 400 volunteers are dedicated to addressing extreme poverty through targeted programmes, really all of the 8,300 volunteers who are currently serving are in some way supporting SDG 1.

Since 1992, UNV and UN Peacekeeping have had a strong partnership in support of UN peace operations, deploying 2,000 UN Volunteers each year in some of the world’s most dangerous and fragile places. How does UNV recruit for peacekeeping operations, and what backgrounds and experiences do they look for in potential volunteers? What training and support do they provide to volunteers going into conflict areas?

Since the 1990s, peacekeeping has been an important part of the work that UNV supports – up to 30% of the civilian personnel on peacekeeping and special political missions are volunteers. 

We manage recruitment with the UN field unit embedded with the mission. The mission drafts the terms of reference, description of assignment and logistic profiles for recruitment. To assess candidates’ readiness, in the description of the assignment we include specific elements around hardship and the local environment. 

A lot of the profiles are technical profiles like ICT, transportation and mechanics, but we also have volunteers that are working on the peace component, like officers of political affairs, gender, civil affairs and human rights. Most peacekeeping volunteers have to have three to five years’ experience.

We provide a number of online training courses about the UN, the mandate, and around issues such as sexual exploitation and abuse, especially in the context of the mission. Peacekeeping missions have a structured induction system and an embedded field unit that supports volunteers. In Colombia we have international and national volunteers, as well as people that are working at the community levels. One of the most important elements of this aspect of UNV’s work is security and duty of care. The volunteers are part of the UN security apparatus and they are fully integrated in the missions.

In 2012, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on UNV to develop the UN Youth Volunteers programme. Today, UN Youth Volunteers are a driving force for peace, development and humanitarian efforts in communities worldwide. How can we build civic engagement among young people and create a generation of youth leaders who promote volunteerism at local, national and global levels?

The 2012 Mercy Report shows that expanding participation of young people early on creates greater electoral and political participation. The Youth Volunteer category enables us to recruit young people who may have less experience. However, it is more complex to place young volunteers, at least within the UN system, due to their relative inexperience and the lack of funding to provide training. We want to make sure there is capacity to train, mentor and support younger volunteers, and to expose them to opportunities. Through our advocacy, we have been encouraging volunteering infrastructure, policies and legislation that are relevant to young people, especially in countries with youth bulge and high unemployment rates. Since we started the youth programme in 2012, we have deployed close to 2,700 youth and university volunteers – mostly with UNDP, UNICEF, UNFPA, and some with UN WOMEN. Interestingly, of all those who apply, about two thirds of young applicants are female.

The challenges facing young women globally during the COVID-19 pandemic are at the forefront of humanitarian efforts undertaken by UN Women. How will UNV ensure that women’s issues remain a focus for volunteer assignments worldwide both in the field and online? How will UNV continue to create volunteer opportunities that encourage and empower women to lead in volunteer placements?

Our priority was achieving greater gender parity in the UN Volunteers that we deploy both in the field and online. We supported the balance acquisition team in ensuring that shortlisted candidates included more women than men and, since 2019, we have had full gender parity – 51% female volunteers – and the number of women in the talent pool last year increased by 34%. In addition to improving gender diversity, we also improve diversity of country of origin, bringing volunteers from underrepresented countries to strengthen our talent pool.

We monitor UNV contributions to SDG 5 (gender equality and women’s empowerment) and related indicators, and we use those systems to refine our approaches to gender mainstreaming. In 2019, out of 3,314 UN Volunteers who responded to the volunteer reporting application, around 10% directly work on SDG 5 and two thirds reported that they have worked on promoting gender equality during their volunteering assignment. Also, when advising governments of Member States on establishing volunteering programmes or related legislation, we incorporate step-by-step guidance on mainstreaming gender in these policies.

UN Volunteers are deployed to safeguard ‘climate refugees’ in vulnerable communities, especially in the least developed countries and small island developing states most affected by climate change. How are UN Volunteers able to provide support to Member States affected by natural disasters, and how is UNV advancing efforts to bring climate goals into action?

While we are not first responders like the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, we are able to mobilise volunteers quickly. We work closely with other humanitarian partners to coordinate volunteering efforts and then we draw on civil society organisations – generally youth volunteers – to support implementation of programmes.

On climate goals, we have volunteers working on adaptation and mitigation projects funded by the Global Environment Facility and the Green Climate Fund. Since the UN is not staffed or resourced to deploy people in very remote places, we are able to recruit local – and some international – volunteers to support smaller island states in community rebuilding, mitigation or replanting.

The Blavatnik School of Government holds a vision for ‘a world better led, better served and better governed’. Its diverse global community is committed to improving the quality of government worldwide. What message would you like to send to the School’s students as the world celebrates the UN’s 75th anniversary?

In the current context of climate change, growing distrust in the political establishment and rising inequalities, now more than ever we need to work for a world that is better led, served and governed. Leaving no one behind at this time means ensuring that we tackle what has been a very unequal pandemic.  I think if one works with the UN, one ought to be aligned to its core values and be optimistic because we can all make a difference. In times of disturbance there are beacons of hope. I think it’s really important that the mandate of your school is exercised in people’s professions after graduating – go and do something that serves the common good and the School’s guiding principles.

Syed Shoaib Hasan Rizvi (MPP 2018) is an alumnus of the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He is the founder of ‘I am an entrepreneur’, a not-for-profit organisation that provides skills training, microloans and mentorship to women in Pakistan who have the passion to start their own ventures but lack resources.

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