As one of the main outcomes of the work achieved by the Volunteer Family, the Volunteer Action Plan presented to Governments in December 2003 is designed to: (1) strengthen the contributions of volunteering to transform the information society into a society of shared knowledge accessible to all, and (2) improve the way in which volunteers and volunteer organizations make use of these technologies.
Through the creation of a Working Group on Volunteering and ICTs, the development of specific language related to volunteerism was included in the WSIS Plan of Action in which governments acknowledge that "everyone should have the necessary skills to benefit fully from the Information Society." It further states that "volunteering, if conducted in harmony with national policies and local cultures, can be a valuable asset for raising human capacity to make productive use of ICT tools and build a more inclusive Information Society. Activate volunteer programs to provide capacity building on ICT for development, particularly in developing countries." In the Civil Society Declaration, volunteers are mentioned in the context of poverty reduction and human capacity building.
Further, achievement and activities include:
If nothing else, the efforts of the Volunteer Family in the first phase of the WSIS have underscored the tremendous diversity and broad-reaching aspects of information and communication technologies. These technologies have the power not only to affect us globally, but also to touch us locally.
The concept of the information society suggests that there is only ONE such society. It also assumes that we are either part of it or excluded from it. Yet, local communities have each their own culture, language and way of thinking. This is why the notion of a single information society seems somewhat limiting. Volunteers are a key resource and driving factor in empowering communities to use ICTs effectively and sensibly in each of our societies. Volunteers are agents of solidarity all over the world, in the South and in the North, promoting values of mutual help and exchange.
Electronic networking was a key factor in the outstanding success of the International Year of Volunteers 2001 (IYV 2001). The General Assembly resolution A/57/L.8, after IYV 2001, recognized the contribution of volunteering to economic and social development, and urged governments to support and invest in volunteer action. While precise and global statistics on volunteerism do not exist, volunteering is estimated to constitute between 5 and 11% of the world's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). To illustrate this point, it is worth mentioning the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, where ten million people volunteered in 2000 to vaccinate 550 million children. The total value of this support was estimated at ten billion US dollars.
It has already been acknowledged by the UN and governments around the world that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will not be achieved without massive involvement of the world's citizens as volunteers. One of the stated goals of the WSIS is to devise ways in which ICT can be applied to help reach the MDGs. Strengthening the connection between Volunteering and ICT will constitute an important step towards of the attainment of these goals.
As previously mentioned, the phase 1 report of the WSIS Volunteer Family is titled, "establishing the framework for action". The Tunis phase is now a time to implement some of the priorities identified. To achieve this goal and in the spirit of cooperation, the WSIS Volunteer Family and the WSIS Youth Caucus have joined forces to work on national campaigns around the world and develop partnerships for cooperation for the years to come.
However, it is important to keep in mind some of the major challenges before us:
First, for volunteers and volunteer organizations there is a need to work at all levels of action, described by Dr. Kumi Naidoo of CIVICUS (World Alliance for Citizen Participation) as the macro-level (governance), the mezzo-level (policy), the micro-level (operational).
Second, there is a need for people to recognize that the scope of volunteerism is much broader than is often understood and goes well beyond the common stereotype of cookie baking. Volunteerism includes social activists, open source software programmers, and others making very real impacts on social, political and economic levels. It is an essential factor in turning youth into active citizens of tomorrow, and giving retirees a place to continue making use of their skills and knowledge acquired over a lifetime. In this way, volunteerism helps not only to bridge the digital divide, but also the divide that too often separates generations.
Third, by offering their time and skills, volunteers are able to achieve a lot with a small investment. However, it is important for governments and other potential donors to recognize that a minimal investment is indispensable to cover basic expenses for volunteers, if they are to be effective. Only if volunteers are given the place they deserve, alongside other stakeholders, can they make use of their full potential, in areas such as capacity building in the use of ICTs towards the attainment of the MDGs.
The Geneva phase of the Summit has been an encouraging beginning towards the construction of a society of shared knowledge, where ICTs are more than just technical tools, but where their social and human dimension is fully being considered. Thanks to the inclusion of the volunteer sector in the Summit process, it was possible for the WSIS Volunteer Family to contribute actively to this vision.
As H.E. Mr. Adama Samass√©kou, President of the WSIS Geneva phase PrepCom, points out, "volunteers commit themselves to the environment in which they are operating and serve as catalysts, paving the way for the future. Initiatives focusing on South-South volunteering, such as the CyberVolunteers Program launched in the context of the Summit, can further contribute to a society of shared knowledge, where volunteers listen to people and in this way bring a community approach. They come to learn in order to serve better."
In the months and years to come, we need to further strengthen cooperation between the volunteer sector, governments, academia, the private sector, and other civil society organizations. In doing so, volunteers can in fact help governments implement their objectives and goals in a spirit of accompanying, cooperation and solidarity in action.