Harnessing the power of dialogue for youth volunteerism

© UNESCO/Dejevato
World Heritage Volunteers 2012 - Prambanan, Indonesia

With almost half of the world’s population under the age of 25, today’s youth are a major demographic force. As a wellspring of ideas for innovation, young people have become some of the world’s strongest advocates of civil society, and important partners of dialogue for governments. How can we empower the world’s largest, youngest, and most tech-savvy generation to collaborate and innovate for positive social change? How can we encourage youth to achieve solutions for today’s most pressing challenges, such as conflict, extreme poverty, environmental degradation, health epidemics, and illiteracy?

Youth volunteerism is one way forward. Facilitating access to work, it helps form young leaders for today and tomorrow. From 3 to 5 December in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia), an international conference on “Youth Volunteerism and Dialogue” will focus on the scope and direction of volunteerism in a diverse global world. Organized by the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Education, the King Abdulaziz Centre for National Dialogue (KANCD), and UNESCO, the Conference is unique in emphasizing the importance of dialogue in promoting lasting peace and sustainable development. The initiative builds on UNESCO’s vast experience in this domain and on the active promotion of volunteerism by the Saudi Arabian Government, both within the country as a social, ethical and humanitarian engagement, and as part of a wider strategy to strengthen dialogue and understanding among young people from different countries and cultural backgrounds. The Conference will be opened by His Highness Prince Faisal bin Abdullah Al Saud and UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova. 

“We need to craft new and meaningful forms of dialogue, especially intercultural dialogue – that go beyond exchanges, that engage personal responsibility, with the willingness to listen and learn, to understand and change one’s own views, to adapt to new challenges” said UNESCO Director-General. “This is essential for building the new forms of global citizenship the world needs today, to respond to humanitarian crises and build peace, to forge new approaches to sustainable development, to make the most of humanity’s great cultural diversity”.

World Heritage Volunteers 2012 - Peru

Intercultural dialogue is all the more critical, considering the diversity of cultural approaches to volunteerism. In many societies, volunteerism is linked to long-established and deeply rooted traditions of sharing and reciprocal exchanges through which people apply their energy, talents, knowledge and other resources for mutual benefit. In most languages, there are words to express the concept of volunteerism. In the Arab world, where youth represent 60% of the population, “volunteerism” and “civil society” are merely new names for age-old traditions, which are embedded in consultative councils and secular organizations aimed at combatting poverty and underdevelopment. Volunteerism in Arabic is (tatawa’a) ( تطوع ) which means donating something. It also means to commit to a charitable activity that is not a religious requirement. It originates from the word (tawa’a) (طوع ), which means compliance, smoothness and flexibility.  

Ahmad Alhendawi, UN Youth Envoy, who will be a keynote speaker at the Conference, explained: « Social solidarity is a key tenet of Arab culture. The idea of volunteering exists in Arab culture and in Arab countries, such as work relief for the needy, but we need to encourage this for the overall development process and not only in emergency situations. »

World Heritage Volunteers - Palestine 2010

At the Conference, over 100 youth participants from worldwide will meet to explore ways of better harnessing the power of youth volunteering. They will share the diversity of their volunteering experiences, and jointly define “best practices”; chart future avenues for youth aspirations and needs; and define new partnerships with foundations, NGO’s and the private sector. Five workshops will offer practical support to helping participants catalyze wider, more impactful change through their volunteer work, in areas such as humanitarian assistance, cultural diversity, intercultural dialogue and ICTs, which have revolutionized the way we learn, network, dialogue, and participate. A Declaration, capturing key features of an innovative volunteerism agenda, is expected to be adopted by the participants at the end.

Roun Thangdy, a youth participant from Cambodia, has high expectations for the Conference. « I hope I will be able to understand different concepts / aspects of volunteering project from the program and participants. I will reported and share the Conference’s findings on dialogue with my fellow Cambodian students and volunteers. More importantly, I will be able to come up with more ideas for promoting new projects in the related field when i come back from the conference. »

Volunteerism is an integral part of every society – and it is assuming increasing importance in today’s globalizing world, because of the way in which it maintains, even insists upon, the continuity of universal values such as solidarity and commitment. As anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

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