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To the 16th Biennial World Conference of the International Association for Volunteer Effort

Imagen del UNICEF

Amsterdam - 15 January 2001

Co-Chairs of the Conference, Excellencies, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak to the importance - and future prospects - of volunteering.

As the United Nations recognised when it proclaimed this the International Year of Volunteers, we are gathered at a time of great promise.

Indeed, it is already clear that this 16th Biennial World Conference will be remembered not only as a celebration of the remarkable dedication of volunteers - but as a historic turning point in building universal support for their work.

Volunteerism has long been held up as an admirable thing in and of itself. Yet it is only recently that the international community has begun to acknowledge that volunteerism is also a powerful force for social development - and one whose immense potential we have only begun to tap.

Volunteerism is the engine of renewal and change in every society - and it is that same spirit, rooted in compassion and a profound sense of responsibility to our fellow human beings, that offers so much hope for the future.

For the volunteer spirit is inspiring ever-increasing numbers of children and young people to make their voices heard, whether it takes the form of the children's campaign for peace in Colombia - or the efforts of young people in sub-Saharan Africa to help their peers prevent HIV/AIDS.

As the Convention on the Rights of the Child makes clear, the readiness of young people to assert their right to participate and to be heard - and the willingness of all the rest of us to listen and to act - is the key to transforming the world.

It is a fact that Hortense Bla Me, a spirited youth leader and AIDS activist from Cote d'Ivoire, understands as well as anyone.

The young, she says, "are part of the solution. We have many talents and skills. We have a keen sense of the problems of our societies. And we can communicate effectively with others our age."

Fellow Delegates, the spirit of volunteerism that we celebrate today also animates the work of the United Nations and its agencies, including the UN Volunteers (UNV), who have become one of the foremost suppliers of volunteer professionals.

And it emphatically includes UNICEF, whose mission to protect the rights of children, help meet their basic needs, and promote their full development and participation has been enriched by the work of countless volunteers since UNICEF's founding in the aftermath of World War II.

Those who lend hands-on support to national immunisation campaigns; who help in humanitarian emergencies and a myriad other situations; and who advocate, teach, raise funds and stir public awareness - all are in the forefront of improving the human condition. And that undertaking must invariably begin with children, for the future of every country is inextricably bound up with the future of its children and the fulfilment of their rights.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is no exaggeration to say that without the millions of volunteers who lend their skills and their energies to the cause of children, the contributions of UNICEF and its partners would have been greatly diminished.

Instead we can point with pride to the triumphs of the last decade - triumphs that grew out of commitments made a decade ago at the World Summit for Children, when governments vowed "to give every child a better future."

Thanks to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, there is now widespread recognition that every child, no matter how poor or otherwise marginalised, has a whole galaxy of fundamental rights: the right to health and nutrition, to a primary education of good quality, especially for girls; to clean water and adequate sanitation, to gender equality; and to freedom from exploitation and abuse.

Moreover, children have a right to have a name and a nationality - as well as to express themselves freely and, in line with their evolving capacities, to participate in decisions that affect them.

As a result, the1990s were a time of remarkable progress toward the Summit goals in a variety of areas - including gains in child immunisation that have brought polio to the brink of eradication; the widespread prevention of iodine deficiency disorders through salt iodisation; access to primary education; widespread provision of Vitamin A supplements, and the promotion of breastfeeding standards.

In all of this, the efforts of volunteers have helped reinforce the work of governments, multilateral organisations and countless other dedicated people, including members of non-governmental groups and the business community.

Yet for all the millions of young lives that have been saved, and for all the futures that have been enhanced, these triumphs have fallen far short of the promises that governments made to children in 1990.

As the new Millennium began, children under the age of 5 were still dying at the rate of 11 million a year from preventable causes like diarrhoea, measles, and acute respiratory infections. This, while 170 million children are malnourished, often at a cost of developmental handicaps that can last a lifetime; over 100 million children, the majority of them girls, never see the inside of a school; and 1 out of every 10 children have serious disabilities.

And this toll is occurring in the face of daunting new challenges. Deepening poverty and inequity remain immense obstacles to human development, including the burden of external debt; gender discrimination and violence, environmental degradation, terrorism, and natural disasters.

At the same time, children continue to be caught up in the unspeakable effects of armed conflict between States and now, increasingly, within them - whether brutalised and exploited as child soldiers or slaves, or suffering as a result of anti-personnel land mines or the global trafficking in small arms.

And in the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the world faces a threat of terrifying resilience, whose consequences for children are as devastating to humankind and as potentially long-lasting as any war in history.

Yet in the face of so many daunting challenges, the work of volunteers, in all its diversity, is more important than ever. Examples abound.

In Brazil, a volunteer army of Brazilian women attend to the health, nutrition, and educational needs of young children in nearly 32,000 communities across Brazil. These volunteers, 130,000 strong, work with a remarkable organisation known as the Brazilian Child Pastorate (Pastoral da Crianca), monitoring child growth and nutrition, tracking immunisations, treating ailments such as diarrhoea and pneumonia, and supporting early learning for approximately 1.6 million children under the age of 6.

The Pastorate, working in partnership with the Roman Catholic Church, the Brazilian Ministry of Health, UNICEF, and Brazilian broadcast media, assigns volunteers to work with families in each community, providing essential education on child-rearing - and training other volunteers to do the same. And every three months, on a "Celebration of Life Day," they track 25 health indicators for each child and feed the information into a national database.

This technique - of observing, analyzing, acting, and celebrating - has reduced infant mortality rates by 70 percent or more in communities where the Pastorate is active. In addition, about 77,000 pregnant women are served each month, and tens of thousands of children benefit from its efforts to promote basic education.

Elsewhere, the tireless efforts of literally millions of volunteers, particularly in India, have been crucial to the anti-polio campaign that is led by the World Health Organization and UNICEF in partnership with Rotary International.

In 1999, for example, two and half million volunteers in India fanned out across the country to help immunise 147 million young children during the country's National Immunisation Days.

These volunteers - people from every walk of life, including teachers, doctors, and civil servants - work closely with UNICEF, national and state governments, and NGOs, spreading the message about the importance of immunisation and alerting parents to when and where their children can be immunised.

Many of the polio workers are child volunteers. In 1999, when thousands of pilgrims came to the village of Kelwara in Rajasthan, it was thanks to child volunteers associated with a network of 200 children's forums that a local polio immunisation campaign was up and running in time for the pilgrims' arrival.

In Namibia, young people are also active in volunteer work, where, with the support of key Government ministries and NGOs, they help teach life skills to other adolescents as part of a drive to help them protect themselves against HIV/AIDS.

The Youth Health and Development Programme (YHDP), designed for adolescents from 15 to 18 years old, employs some 450 volunteers, and they are, from all indications, the backbone of the operation.

Seventeen of them are youths who run the programme's regional offices, where they distribute informational materials and hold meetings. I had the privilege of seeing this project first-hand when I visited Namibia last February, and I came away deeply impressed with the industry and dedication of everyone involved.

In industrialised countries, volunteerism takes other forms. In the United States, collecting money for UNICEF in orange "trick-or-treat" boxes is a Halloween tradition that goes back generations. Indeed, for countless numbers of Americans, collecting money in these boxes was their first brush with philanthropy.

Now a year-round programme, the purpose of the campaign - known as Trick or Treat for UNICEF - is as much about informing children about the importance of global citizenship as it is about raising funds. Nonetheless, over the years, the Trick or Treat programme has raised more than $107 million to help children in the developing world.

The business community is also becoming increasingly active in other forms of volunteerism. For example, Warner Brothers, Turner Network Television, Time for Kids and Coinstar are all key supporters of the Trick or Treat for UNICEF campaign. And companies like British Airways, Aer Lingus, American Airlines, and the Sheraton and Westin hotel chains and American Express are involved in UNICEF marketing efforts linked to specific fund-raising activities.

Yet for all the value of development partnerships with business and the private sector, and for all the important contributions of NGOs and other representatives of civil society, we must never lose sight of the fact that it is governments that remain the primary actors in development.

It is the governments that have thought long and hard about the development imperatives; it is they who have set the targets and made the commitments. It is governments that sit on the executive boards of multilateral agencies. It is governments that think about development as a matter of social policy, who have development ministries and foreign ministries that fashion the world's humanitarian and political agendas.

And that is why, for practical, legal, and moral reasons, governments must be held to their commitments. And those commitments should include active government support of volunteerism.

Fellow Delegates, I said at the outset that we are gathered here at a time of great promise. And that is because the discussions under way here in Amsterdam are in a remarkable synergistic harmony with another international process: one that is leading toward the most important event for children in a decade - the General Assembly's Special Session on Children in September.

The Special Session offers an unparalleled opportunity not only for a high-level review of progress for children since 1990 - but to re-energise the international commitment to realising a global vision for children now and in the years to come.

That is because we now stand at the most opportune moment imaginable for reaching the remaining goals that were set at the World Summit - and for mobilising a global alliance dedicated to achieving a breakthrough in human development based on specific actions for children.

The time is ripe because we know so much more today about how best to ensure the rights of children and address their needs. This includes the knowledge, borne out by the latest scientific research and affirmed by years of practical experience, that what happens to children in the earliest years of their lives is absolutely crucial not only to their future, but to the future of all our societies.

We know, too, that it is crucial to ensure that every girl and boy receives a primary education of good quality; and that every adolescent must be afforded ample opportunity to develop into caring and responsible citizens.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the future of the world's children is in our hands as never before.

For if we know anything, it is that in a $30 trillion global economy, the knowledge, the resources and the strategies already exist to give children the best possible start in life, to educate them, and to help them navigate the complex passage from adolescence to adulthood - outcomes that are crucial first steps if we are to break the endless cycle of global poverty.

Fellow Delegates, the international commitment to building a better future for every child is strong, and it is clear. The challenge now is to bring it to critical mass - to engage many millions of additional people who can lead the fight for child rights at every level.

That is why, in tandem with preparations for the Special Session, UNICEF and its partners are working to mobilise a Global Movement for Children - an unstoppable crusade to end, at long last, the poverty, ill health, violence and discrimination that has needlessly blighted and destroyed so many young lives.

It is an effort that will require the active support not only of established leaders, but people of influence representing all of civil society.

That is why at UNICEF, we are systematically widening the circle of our partners, seeking new and innovative partnerships with the entire spectrum of civil society, from non-governmental organisations, religious groups and business and private enterprise, to people's movements, academia and the media, community and grassroots groups, families - and children themselves.

For children and young people, volunteerism is the purest manifestation of their fundamental right to express themselves freely - and to be involved in issues and decisions that affect them.

As Bruna , a 15-year-old UNICEF volunteer in Rome put it: "I thought it was only a matter of collecting money for the poorest children. But I learned so much - about children's rights, about life in other countries, about economics and geography. And I learned a lot about myself - about what I can do, and how."

Excellencies, Fellow Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen: volunteerism is not only behaviour that helps others; it is an expression of solidarity - and an affirmation of our highest ideals as human beings. And that is why all of us, including governments and civil society at every level, must do everything in our power to support it.

Thank you.