Everyone Wants To “Volunteer” For UN

international volunteers day in kathmandu nepal

Anjila Mul, 22, and Sujita Amatya, 22, who got Bachelors in Science (Environmental Science) degree from Biswo Niketan College a few days ago, had gone to the “exhibition” hoping to get recruited as volunteer or explore opportunities in volunteering. “The focus is in the UN of course,” said Anjila, left, “because that’s world wide.”

[Here is what I reported in today’s Kantipur about the event]

I was in Basantapur (Kathmandu Durbar Square) yesterday to report about an event organized on the occasion of International Volunteer Day. Many young people from Kathmandu and other parts of Nepal had gathered there responding to advertisements that were published in some newspapers (including Kantipur where I work) that day. The advertisements that featured a statement issued by the UN General Secretary General on the occasion asked the readers to come to Basantapur. “If you want to become a volunteer, visit our exhibition at Basantapur on 5th December at 11:30,” said the adverts. Those who invited the readers were the UN Volunteers, JICA (Japan), KOICA (Korea), MS Nepal (Danish) and other organizations. Majority of the visitors were young and many of them had gone there hoping to get recruited as volunteer or get their CVs seen by the UN Volunteers officials. I met two girls and many other boys who said their main intention was to get enrolled into UNV.

There were several reasons for the the particular attraction in UNV:

1. A great way of earning experience for future job opportunities
2. World wide scope including international travels
3. You get paid (in the name of basic living allowance)
4. A cool first step to pursue a career in the UN.

international volunteers day in kathmandu nepal

The visitors were angry (they are smiling only to my camera) at the fact that there were no vacancies in the UNV and the “invitation” wasn’t for the recruitment as it appeared to be on the advertisement. “They say they don’t have any positions,” said an angry young man. “Then why they invited us?” A UNV official told me that that the day was not for recruitment but for celebration of the spirit of volunteerism. But the youths who were listening to the conversation didn’t want to agree.

There were a few foreign UN “Volunteers” wandering around and I found their presence at the venue a little bit ironic. These young foreign “volunteers” are supposed to contribute in a meaningful way in Nepali society. I wondered what experience they have for such contribution. If UN were to “employ” Nepali boys and girls as “volunteers” for jobs inside Nepal, I feel, that would be more effective. One foreign volunteer told me that he was “sacrificing him time” to “volunteer”. Oh come on, I wanted to tell him, be realistic and think about the “living allowance” that the UN provides to you. A volunteer, as defined in the dictionaries, is someone who works without payment of any kind. I firmly believe that no volunteers should be paid in any way. That’s the true spirit of volunteerism that supposed to be celebrated on the day. But how UN and other international NGOs practice with volunteerism is different from how dictionaries define the word. I asked myself would these foreign young “volunteers” come to Nepal and volunteer if the UN didn’t provide them the allowance. The answer, with some possible exception, is definitely no.

I know it’s a futile effort to talk about reforms in a UN agency but my feeling is that a Nepali “volunteer” doesn’t need the same amount of allowance that is provided to a foreigner for the same job that is done inside the country. [That is, of course, in the case that they keep paying volunteers! Even if they don’t pay, I am sure, many youths are ready to volunteer for the sake of experience and exposure to the UN systems.] And I bet the national “volunteers” will perform the job better than any foreigners (with some exception of course). Not to forget that if the local youth are “hired as volunteers” (providing the even half of what foreign volunteers get is equivalent of hiring them), that will certainly contribute in solving the growing unemployment problem in countries like Nepal.

I remember what a top Election Commission official had told me a couple of months ago about the usefulness of foreigners. “We have the fifty-year-long history of organizing and managing multiparty elections in Nepal and here some rookie foreigners who have hardly participated in the election process in their country come as election experts and lecture us how to conduct an election,” the official had told me. He was talking about the army of foreign “election experts” from the electoral department of United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN), some of whom were working at that time in a building in the Election Commission complex. “They don’t know how things work in Nepal and this has become a learning experience for them rather than us benefiting from their presence.”

international volunteers day in kathmandu nepal

A group of youths assemble around a foreigner to as her about volunteering opportunities.

There is this tendency in Nepal that foreigners are everything and their mere presence solves everything. I am not against foreigners coming here and contributing but I feel there must be a limit.

And about the intense youth interest to join the UN I just feel that Nepali youth are not exception. [I personally feel I will not fit in the monolithic UN bureaucracy that is notorious for sluggishness and bureaucratic hassles. I feel journalism gives me tremendous amount of freedom that is dearest to me even though it doesn’t provide much money.] Even people from developed country are interested in the UN job. It is widely believed (and many UN insiders have told me in several occasions) that one needs to pulls all sorts of strings and needs play the game of power and connections to get into the UN systems or get favors inside the system. I think those views are correct given the experience of those who told me them and seeing the struggle that happens for the UN leadership. Yes, the most visible example of such shameless power struggle can be seen at the time of the election of the topmost post of the UN itself (the General Secretary).

After hearing grievances and complains from angry and dissatisfied youths in Basantapur, I talked to Stuart John Moran, the UN Volunteers Program Manager in Kathmandu. He was more philosophical and talked about material life versus spiritual and gave the example of a happy holy man without a single penny might be than the one with lots of money. He also said that the exhibition program was organized- not by the UNV he clarified- to celebrate the spirit of volunteerism, not to recruit the new “volunteers”. And he also gave a quick lecture on the “rich and long culture of volunteerism in Nepali society” and suggested the youths to start their own grassroots-level groups and get involved in the act of volunteerism.

All that sounded good in principle but how do you expect unemployed youth, who are more concerned about the job than volunteerism without payment, to listen to such philosophical advice. Philosophy doesn’t feel the stomach in real life!

international volunteers day in kathmandu nepal

UNMIN “Volunteers”: (Second from left) Ngwfang Emmanuel, 32, from Cameroon, Nora Landheer, 27, from Switzerland, and Philippo Buseoni, 28, from Italy “volunteering” in United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN).

“Best thing about volunteering? Oh…God!” said Philippo and started thinking about the answer. “Satisfaction,” said Nora. “You can do something without expecting anything bad,” said Philippo. “Sacrificing for others,” came the reply from Ngwfang. Nora was quick to clarify that “volunteering” on behalf of UN doesn’t mean an entry step for the lucrative UN service. “Money is not the problem,” said Philippo. “[When you volunteer that] gives an idea about the person, whether s/he is committed towards to job or not,” explained Philippo who was in Lebanon before coming to Nepal in March.

Nora also came here in March while Ngwfang arrived in Nepal in September. Nora said she recruits volunteers while Philippo works at the Public Information section. Ngwfang said he works at movement control section.