To the 16th Biennial World Conference of the International Association for Volunteer Effort
Amsterdam - 14 January 2001
Prime Minister Kok, Assistant Secretary-General Sorensen, Mr. van Hulten, Ms van Hulten, President Allen, Excellencies, Friends and Volunteers Everywhere:
It is an honour to join you for this historic meeting - and a privilege to be among so many great leaders in the cause of volunteerism.
On behalf of the United Nations Children's Fund, let me take this opportunity to congratulate all those who have helped make this 16th Biennial World Conference possible, beginning with the International Association for Volunteer Effort, the National Volunteer Center of the Netherlands, the City of Amsterdam, and the countless individuals who have worked so hard - the majority of them, of course, as volunteers.
At the same time, I want to commend the Government of the Netherlands, whose long and enlightened support of volunteerism, in a nation where the volunteer tradition has always been strong, stands as a shining example of how governments can help advance the cause of social development.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the value that the international community places on volunteerism is reflected in the fact that the United Nations has proclaimed 2001 as the International Year of Volunteers - the culmination of a process that began in 1997, when the Government of Japan, another champion of volunteerism, formally proposed the idea.
The UN's designation of 2001 recognises the important contributions that millions of active volunteers are making to the cause of social and economic development the world over, from community workers and philanthropists to self-help groups.
But it is also designed to help focus attention on the challenges ahead, including the need to enhance the role of volunteers, and to bring more people into their ranks - including young people, older people and those with disabilities.
But 2001 is an important year for other reasons as well. For the new Millennium has presented the international community with a chance to set a new and swifter course toward human development.
This includes focusing national efforts and policies on meeting the basic needs of all, with special emphasis on protecting the rights of children and women. For it is they who bear the heaviest burden of poverty - a burden worsened by the catastrophic spread of HIV/AIDS, by the proliferation of armed conflict and instability, and by the paralysing effects of external debt, gender discrimination and violence, environmental degradation and natural disasters.
A series of crucial international conferences this year - on combatting racism, fighting HIV/AIDS and ending child sexual exploitation - will address a number of vital issues in which volunteers have already made immense contributions - and there can be no doubt that their knowledge, skill and energies will continue to make a difference.
For in serving the cause of development, volunteers inspire others by their example.
That is why UNICEF and its partners so value the work of volunteers, whose willingness to help others, in a spirit of reciprocity, has been at the heart of UNICEF's efforts to serve the best interests of children since UNICEF's creation more than half a century ago.
Worldwide, one has only to look at the valiant efforts of the volunteers in nearly 100 nations who have saved countless lives by ensuring the immunisation of some 450 million children a year. Traversing deserts and jungles and urban slums, these volunteers - some 10 million of them - have brought vaccines to such places as remote corners of Sudan, to the Indian subcontinent and to war-torn parts of Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East.
And volunteers are crucial to UNICEF in other ways as well. The work of UNICEF's 37 National Committees, which play a crucial role in raising public awareness as well as funds, is supported by more than 100,000 volunteers throughout Europe, North America and elsewhere.
The volunteers working with our National Committees are involved in a wide range of activities, as one can see just from the example of the Netherlands.
Take Hetty de Knyff, one of the 4,200 UNICEF volunteers, whose work includes giving guest lectures to Dutch schoolchildren on child rights and the situation of children in developing countries.
Or look at the Dutch volunteers, tens of thousands of them children, who help raise funds by walking, running and skating in UNICEF's annual "sponsor run."
Or take the 25,000 children from over 400 schools in the Netherlands who helped commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by volunteering to speak to their peers about the importance of child rights - supported by an army of adult volunteers who had lobbied the schools, provided informational material, and helped the children prepare.
As Sharon Capeling-Alakija, Executive Coordinator of the United Nations Volunteers, put it recently, volunteers are "free-willers" - people whose independence and free will has shaped their commitment to making the world a better place, and in the process have helped expand the concept of volunteerism to include many kinds of service to others, ranging from civic engagement to philanthropy to advocacy.
Indeed, the widening definition of what it means to be a volunteer is fueling hope that their ranks will be swelled by more and more young people who will respond to the challenges of the 21st Century by realising their right to express themselves freely, and to participate in issues and decisions that affect them.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the spirit of volunteerism is at the heart of all our efforts to build a better future for every child, as Governments promised at the World Summit for Children more than a decade ago.
It is in pursuit of that solemn pledge that the General Assembly will convene a Special Session on Children in September, an event that offers an unparalleled opportunity not only for a high-level review of progress since the Summit - but to redouble the international commitment to realising a global vision for children now and in the years to come.
And it is why UNICEF and our partners are working to mobilise leaders and citizens at every level to carry the banner of a Global Movement for Children - an unstoppable crusade to end the poverty, ill health, violence and discrimination that has needlessly blighted and destroyed so many young lives. It is an effort in which the contributions of so many of you from every part of the world - NGOs and individual volunteeers alike - will be crucial.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen: Volunteerism is a force for good that has already made an indelible mark on development - but whose full potential the world has only begun to tap.
UNICEF has every hope that this Conference will mark the enhanced recognition of volunteerism at every level, not only as a reservoir of skills and energy, but as a centrepiece of national and international development strategies.