Volunteers are also helping to reduce the digital divide, both within and between countries, through human capacity-building and literacy programs. They train people and help them apply specific ICTs to their particular development needs. They also raise awareness about the possibilities of these technologies (e.g. by providing outreach to local users in community telecenters).
Furthermore, volunteers can facilitate the production and dissemination of local content, enhancing the cultural and linguistic diversity of ICTs. Volunteers can help train ICT trainers, but also get training themselves by exchanging knowledge. In the context of a developing country, this increases the critical mass of qualified ICT specialists available locally, and reduces the dependency on personnel coming from abroad.
Typically, volunteers do not operate in a vacuum and are an accompanying force, working with many partners, be it civil-society organizations, local authorities or municipalities. As pointed out H.E. Mr. Adama Samassekou, "volunteers act in the spirit of a mission, which favors accompanying rather than intervention. A consultant is called on to intervene; the volunteer makes his competences and his know-how available. He shares them with others. By doing so, he commits himself to the environment in which he is operating and serves as a catalyst. The volunteer needs therefore to listen to people and in this way brings a community approach. He comes indeed to learn in order to serve better."
While volunteerism largely happens in the informal and non-profit sector, multi-actor partnerships can strengthen and enhance it. One such form is employee volunteering, building partnerships between the volunteer sector and the private sector. "Employee volunteering" or "employee engagement" may be described as the giving of employees' time and skills to the benefit of the communities in which they operate. This is done through a three-way partnership between the employer, employee and the beneficiaries of the volunteer effort. Forms of corporate volunteering can increase the chances for youth on the labor market, as employees or even as entrepreneurs, setting up, for example, local cybercafÃ©s. Private, public and voluntary-sector organizations constitute an enormous reserve of resources, skills and expertise, which can be called on to support local schools, communities and organizations. Businesses that support employee volunteering, on the other hand, benefit from a much-improved public image, and better-skilled and motivated employees.
New forms of volunteering have emerged through the availability and use of ICTs. One such application is Online Volunteering (also referred to as e-volunteering), a new way to collaborate through the Internet, with a different continent or in one's own city. In this way, volunteers translate documents, create Internet sites for non-profit organizations, and advise local communities through online fora and chat facilities on technical issues related to ICTs, regardless of the distance between partners, often combining onsite and online collaboration. Here again, multi-stakeholder partnerships are frequently developed and applied, involving people who are commonly excluded from the workforce, such as homebound individuals and people with disabilities.
As one of the main outcomes of the work achieved by the WSIS Volunteer Family, the Volunteer Action Plan presented in plenary in December 2003 is built on a multi-actor approach and 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. Initiatives and programs presented include Netcorps (Cyberjeunes) (www.netcorps-cyberjeunes.org) and the CyberVolunteers partnership-based Program (www.cybervolunteers.info).
The very essence of volunteerism is also the underlying human dimension and force of what we call Information Society. The word "volunteer" comes from Latin vol+ens, meaning free+will. A volunteer is thus driven by his or her free will. As such, the concept of volunteerism touches on the very essence of individual motivations of human beings and groups to achieve goals. This was the recipe that made the International Year of Volunteers a success, and allowed the Global Polio Eradication Initiative to mobilize ten million people to vaccinate 550 million children in 2000. This is also what drives the open source community, creators and publishers of web contents, and so on.
Involving millions of individuals worldwide, the volunteer sector is an important stakeholder at the international level. WSIS has been a good testing ground for a better representation of civil society in general and volunteer organizations in particular, in UN and other international processes.
The involvement of volunteer organizations in the WSIS clearly showed that for the volunteer sector to be taken seriously as a major actor in the search of solutions to world problems there is a need for it to first be understood better. It needs to be acknowledged that the scope of volunteerism is much broader than is often seen at first slight. Indeed, 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.
We, as representatives of a sector that constitutes a huge potential, but also needs to reaffirm its role, need to think about ways of making the voices of volunteers heard locally and at an international level. This is the only way that volunteers as human capital and volunteer organizations as facilitators of a social movement can obtain the support necessary to run effective volunteer programs, make a lot with little.
(1) Among these were ATD Quart Monde, CIVICUS (World Alliance for Citizen Participation), the European Volunteer Center (CEV), the International Association for Volunteer Effort (IAVE), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), Netcorps-Cyberjeunes, OneWorld, and ICVolunteers (International Conference Volunteers). The latter has to date served as the focal point and secretariat of the WSIS Volunteer Family. Throughout the entire first phase of the WSIS, the civil society volunteer family also closely collaborated with the United Nations Volunteers Programme (UNV).