WSIS Volunteer Family, Phase 1 Report


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Volunteering is one of the clearest expressions of solidarity in action. It is a global fact of life, a mass social phenomenon involving hundreds of millions of people around the world who offer their time, skills and knowledge for the well being of their neighbors, community or society at large. Ten million people volunteered in 2000 to vaccinate 550 million children as part of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. The total value of this support was estimated at ten billion US dollars. A study from ATD Fourth World reports that in countries where empirical studies exist, the contribution of volunteering is estimated to be between 8 and 14% of the GDP. 

volunteering and ictsThe Information Society is no exception. This new society of the 21st century is being shaped through a fundamental transformation of the world after the agrarian and industrial societies that marked the past centuries. The Information Society is a society in which the creation, distribution, and manipulation of information has become the most significant economic and cultural activity. Its tools are computers and telecommunications.

It should not be forgotten that the development of some of the key elements of the Information Society is to a great extent a product of volunteer effort. Well-known examples include Internet protocols, open source software and the World Wide Web itself.

Yet, not everybody on our planet has the privilege - and sometimes also the burden - to use these new tools. The so-called "Digital Divide" excludes millions of people from the access and use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). Today, an estimated 91% of ICT users are based in 19% of countries. This divide not only separates the North from the South, but also rural from urban areas, and marginalizes the elderly, people with disabilities.

The digital divide is most apparent in Africa, which is still at a very early stage in the development of ICTs compared to other regions of the world. Indeed, it makes little sense to talk about computer networks in areas where electricity is not yet available. Of the approximately 816 million people living in Africa, it is estimated that only:

  • 1 in 4 has a radio
  • 1 in 13 has a television
  • 1 in 35 has a mobile phone
  • 1 in 40 has a fixed line
  • 1 in 130 has a personal computer
  • 1 in 160 uses the Internet [Source: Mike Jensen, Third UN Task Force Meeting, UN, 30 Sep - 1 Oct 2002]

Volunteers are helping to reduce the digital divide, both within and between countries, through human capacity building, literacy programs and adapted software development. Volunteers train people and help them apply specific ICTs to their particular development needs. They raise awareness about the possibilities of these technologies, for example by providing outreach to local users in community telecenters.

Furthermore, they facilitate the production of local content enhancing cultural and linguistic diversity of ICTs.
Volunteers and the volunteer sector around the world today are making use of ICTs for the purpose of information sharing, networking, promotion, data management, volunteer management and fund raising. Electronic networking was a key factor in the outstanding success of the International Year of Volunteers 2001. Yet, the volunteer sector can still improve its wise and efficient use of technology.

One such application, for example, 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 sense, ICTs are opening up attractive new opportunities for involvement, especially for young people, which can be enhanced through increased collaboration between the volunteer sector and university networks. The availability of technology can thus result in a significant increase in the number of people who are able to contribute their time, skills and knowledge to development, including people living in other parts of the world, homebound individuals and people with disabilities.

It has already been acknowledged by the UN and governments around the world that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will not be achieved without massive involvement of the world's citizens as volunteers. One of the stated goals of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) -Geneva December 2003, Tunis November 2005- is to devise ways in which ICT can be applied to help reach these goals. Strengthening the connection between Volunteering and ICT will constitute an important step towards the attainment of those goals.

Volunteering therefore needs to be recognized and promoted as a social capital that can become the principal guide to a new way of attaining economic development, based on mutual respect and exchange.

General Assembly resolution A/57/L.8, after the International Year of Volunteers 2001, recognized the contribution of volunteering to economic and social development, and urged governments to support and invest in volunteer action. The WSIS is a further opportunity to put ICT-related volunteer action on the development map. This requires alliances and partnerships with governments, the private sector, academia and civil society.

As one of the main outcomes of the work achieved by the Volunteer Family, the Volunteer Action Plan presented to Governments in December 2003 is designed to: (1) strengthen the contributions of Volunteering to the progress of the Information Society, and (2) improve the way in which volunteers and volunteer organizations make use of these technologies.

For volunteers and volunteer organizations there is a need to work at all levels of action, described by Kumi Naidoo of CIVICUS (World Alliance for Citizen Participation) as the macro-level (governance), the mezzo-level (policy), the micro-level (operational). It is important to recognize that volunteerism goes well beyond the common stereotypes of cookie baking. Volunteerism includes social activists, open software programmers, and others making very real impacts on social, political and economic levels.

In the context of the WSIS, we often refer to the "Information Society". However, if nothing else, the efforts of the Volunteer Family in the first phase of the WSIS have underscored the tremendous diversity and broad-reaching aspects of information and communication technologies. They have the power not only to affect us globally, but to touch us locally. Volunteers are a key resource and driving factor in ensuring that ICTs are used effectively and sensibly in each of our societies. They are agents of solidarity all over the world, in the South and in the North, emblazing values of mutual help and exchange, working for a fairer and more inclusive Information Society.

Many of the concepts presented in this report have been developed through joint efforts by the WSIS Volunteer Family and the United Nations Volunteers Programme (UNV). Some of them have been previously presented at various times during the WSIS process.

Organization of this Report

For the WSIS Volunteer Family, the Summit preparation has been an opportunity to unite forces and examine the role of volunteers in the Information Society. This Report aims to distil the main conclusions of the work accomplished by the WSIS Volunteer Family. The summaries of the various sessions have to a great extent been written by volunteers.

Beginning with the Introduction, presenting key issues related to volunteerism and ICTs, the Report then proceeds with a discussion of the key concepts and activities of the WSIS Volunteer Family in the Background. The WSIS Volunteering Action Plan 2003-2005, providing a roadmap for future work of volunteers in the information era, is followed by the Message of Dakar, a common statement made by the participants of the International Symposium on Volunteerism and the Development of Human Capacity in the Information Society (ISV 2003). The last two sections contain detailed information about the Organization, as well as Summaries of the various meetings, Original presentations, Images and Links.

We would like to thank all the staff and volunteers who have contributed many hours to the success of the activities of the Volunteer Family, especially Louma Atallah, Charlotte Biedermann, Astrid Coche, René Delétroz, Victor Gabriel, Topias Issakainen, Kathy Monnier, Allan Nguyen, Randy Schmieder and Florence Utard.

Special thanks also to Alain Clerc, Louise Lassonde and Liliane Ursache of the WSIS Civil Society Division; H.E. Adama Samassekou, H.E. Guy-Olivier Segond, and H.E. Daniel Stauffacher and Alain Modoux of the WSIS Executive Secretariat; Amadou Top of OSIRIS; Dominique Hausser; Gail Hurley of the European Volunteer Centre; Manuel Acevedo of UNVolunteers; Renata Bloem of CONGO; Henri Valot, Merault Ahouangansi and their colleagues of UNVolunteers Mali; Liz Burns and Anthony Carlisle of IAVE and Silvano de Gennaro of CERN for their support, a critical factor of the Volunteer Family's achievements at the Summit.

We are equally grateful for the support of many individuals who provided invaluable assistance and advice on specific aspects of the WSIS process (full list).

These efforts were made possible thanks to the generous support of the Organsation Internationale de la Francophonie, the governments of Canada, Senegal, Switzerland and Taiwan (Province of China), the ICT4D Platform, the Banque Lombard Odier Darier Hentsch, MCART Association, CERN, NOROIS, the Commission Nationale de la Francophonie du Sénégal, European Volunteer Centre (CEV) and Morris-Chapman Brussels.

This Report is dedicated to Sharon Capeling-Alakija, former UNVolunteers Executive Coordinator, who passed away only a few weeks before the December 2003 Summit. It is our hope that the Report will be a useful tool to further foster Sharon's vision of an inclusive and culturally sensitive information society, one that takes into consideration the human side of communications. As Sharon pointed out at the International Symposium on Volunteering (Geneva, 2001), "During the first UN year powered by the Internet, more than 19,000 volunteer organizations and individuals have registered on the IYV web site. This represents a huge active constituency to shore up and advance the volunteer spirit all over the world." She also pointed out that 2001 was just the beginning. We hope to continue her vision.

To build an inclusive information society, we believe it is important to build even stronger partnerships between governments, civil society and the private sector. Further, it is essential to move away from old stereotypes of top-down North-South cooperation. Instead, we should try to learn from each other in a multilateral manner, built on respect and inclusion, strengthening all actors of the international arena.

It is my belief that this is ultimately the only possible way to move from an information society to a knowledge society. I am convinced that volunteers will continue to play a growing role as a catalyst for inclusion, empowerment and sustainable development in the rapidly globalizing world in which we live.

Viola Krebs
Focal Point of WSIS Volunteer Family

Message by Manuel Acevedo, Focal Point of the United Nations Volunteers Programme (UNV) for phase 1 of the WSIS

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 About the WSIS

For more information about the WSIS preparatory process, see:


International Conference Volunteers (ICVolunteers)
Focal Point for the WSIS Volunteer Family
104, rue de Carouge, PO Box 755, 1211 Geneva 4, Switzerland
Tel.: +41 22 800 14 36, Fax: +41 22 800 14 37
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