ICTs and Volunteerism: Volunteers Building and Shaping the Society of Shared Knowledge

Viola Krebs
24 August 2007


Within the last few years, the use and dissemination of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) has changed the way people exchange information and knowledge. In many ways, this evolution, and indeed revolution, has changed social habits and norms in an era of globalization.

It was at the African Regional Conference in Bamako in 2002 that the volunteer sector first became involved in the process of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), the first UN Summit to address issues related to ICTs. Since then, volunteers and volunteer organizations have actively contributed both to the preparatory process of the WSIS, the Geneva Summit (2003) and the Tunis phase (2005).

The Euroforum constitutes the last international gathering of the volunteer sector before the 2nd Summit of Cities and Local Authorities (Bilbao, 9-11 November 2005) and the Second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) (Tunis, 16-18 November 2005). It is a timely opportunity for us to formulate a message to be brought to these Summits.

In this presentation, we will share the outcomes of the work and active participation in the WSIS of a sector that is often underestimated, or even overlooked. We will also outline a proposal on next steps for the volunteer sector.

Identified roles of volunteers in the information society

With the creation of a WSIS Volunteer Family, a range of national and local volunteer organizations got involved in the Summit. (1)  Volunteers themselves also participated in the Summit, ensuring the smooth running of many of its aspects.

The very first step for the Volunteer Family was to define the role of volunteers in the information society, in terms of the activities carried out by volunteers and the partners they work with. This was done through:

  • A working group on volunteerism and ICTs (information and communication technologies) developing a thinking process and specific language related to volunteerism;
  • The organization of several meetings and conferences (Brussels, Dakar, Edinburgh, Bogotá, Geneva, Stirling, Barcelona, Bamako, Brazzaville), during which many ICT volunteer projects were presented;
  • The creation of an online library on "Volunteerism and Information Society" and a report "Volunteering and ICTs: Establishing the framework for action" (www.worldwidevolunteer.org/wsis2003).

WSIS participants discovered that volunteer activities held enormous potential to help make the information society a reality across the globe. Furthermore, it became clear that, to be most effective, volunteers would have to rely heavily on multi-stakeholder interactions and partnerships. In the information society, volunteers have played and continue to play a key role in the creation and development of software applications (open source software, contents development, etc.). In fact, some of the key components of the information society are, to a great extent, a product of volunteer effort. Well-known examples include Internet protocols and the World Wide Web itself.
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 cybercafés. 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).

Ways forward and challenges ahead of us

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).

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