From local to global: How can social-activism volunteering unite communities?

Lysa John, Secretary-General of CIVICUS

Participation is a human right, deeply rooted in our need to form and voice opinions and influence the structures shaping our lives. While communities are increasingly connected through technology, threats to unity are increasing. Growing polarization, climate change, wars, economic inequality and disease do not recognize national borders. Now, more than ever, people need to work together on shared problems. The global level has therefore become a legitimate sphere of action for people and organizations to claim rights and advance change in this Decade of Action for the SDGs.

Social activism is a powerful form of volunteering and can promote social inclusion through citizen engagement in participatory development processes. The most successful struggles of recent times – against colonialism and authoritarianism, and for women’s and LGBTQI rights – involve a mix of local-level, spontaneous and voluntary acts by citizens coupled with organizational planning and commitment. Through volunteering, individuals can make a difference. Such activism can begin with a like on social media although new technologies also offer tools to mobilize citizens in new and creative ways.

Only three per cent of the world’s population currently lives in countries where fundamental rights of expression, assembly and association are, in general, protected and respected. More recently, we have seen the threats to public health posed by the COVID-19 pandemic being used to restrict democratic freedoms and suppress democratic demands. The SDGs must therefore provide an opportunity to model new international and national democratic processes for civic engagement. It is important to raise awareness that the SDGs will not be achieved without clear mechanisms for civic engagement, such as volunteering and social activism.

We need a new mobilization of social-activism volunteering to unite communities. We need to stimulate and cultivate participation, confidence and competence. Similarly, development and volunteer-involving organizations must walk with volunteers through activism journeys. This will enable connections with citizens already actively volunteering at the grass roots level, building from local to global. One example of this is Innovation for Change (I4C), a community-led global network collaborating to protect civic space and inspired by global experiences to overcome restrictions to basic freedoms of assembly, association and speech.  Another is the Diversity and Inclusion Group for Networking and Action (DIGNA), a collaborative platform that enables individuals and organizations to co-create strategies for inclusion across diverse contexts.

The Decade of Action must be the starting point for a series of new and inclusive national and local debates about what unity means and how democratic values can be defined to encompass everyone, including groups that have been historically excluded and those not previously recognized as citizens. In doing so, we must promote the inclusion of excluded groups in existing democratic systems and institutions and create new spaces that allow volunteers to develop the skills and confidence needed for participation. Evidence from participatory budgeting and community-controlled grant-making shows that the best decisions are made when people are asked to collaborate to define economic and social priorities.

Fostering avenues for individuals and communities to contribute to the SDGs through volunteering can help create a powerful new narrative about our shared future – one that addresses contemporary grievances and offers a positive vision that unites communities. The Decade of Action is an opportunity to reaffirm the direct links between development and democracy and recognize the key roles of volunteers as change-makers in these processes.

Plan of Action to Integrate Volunteering into the 2030 Agenda

The Plan of Action to Integrate Volunteering into the 2030 Agenda is a framework under the auspices of the United Nations through which Governments, United Nations entities, volunteer-involving organizations, private sector, civil society including academia and other stakeholders come together to integrate volunteerism into the planning and implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by:

  1. strengthening people’s ownership of the development agenda;
  2. integrating volunteerism into national and global implementation strategies; and
  3. measuring

You can read the full report here


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