Switzerland's Secret Army: 2001 International Year of the Volunteer. Geneva-based ICVolunteers Rally Support

Geneva-based ICVolunteers Rally Support
June White
01 April 2001

Every month 44 million man-hours go completely unpaid in Switzerland. It's the equivalent of nearly 250,000 full-time employees working for nothing - and the total in unpaid salaries is estimated at SFr. 19.4 billion a year. Not another exploitation scandal surely? Anything but. One in four people in this country carry out some form of charitable voluntary work, with only the feel-good factor for recompense.

At the beginning of this year the statisticians in Berne came up with the startling notion that voluntary work accounts for 5% of the Swiss Gross National Product. Even allowing for over-zealous us accounting (how much would a hospital visitor earn? What price a Dad refereeing his lad's football match?), if this bill was called in then the country's various charitable associations would be on their knees.

News of Switzerland's secret army of volunteers was released to coincide with the UN'S declaration of 2001 as the International Year of Volunteers. At the UN, Secretary General Kofi Annan urged governments and institutions worldwide to recognise the vital contributions of volunteers.

"By calling upon volunteers and building partnerships with civil society, governments can help increase the efficiency of resource pool that goes from lawyer to linguist and back again. There are also journalists and IT specialists who give their services.

"We don't have a typical volunteer. There are 40 nationalities represented and we estimate that there are probably 50 different languages spoken. It is quite a resource," she continued.

Having said that, the ICVolunteers is anxious to point out that it only offers non-professional translation and interpretation services, and has no desire to put professionals out of a job.

"We are here to help those conferences that just could not go on if they had to shoulder the burden of every cost. Of course that will need professional services and ours may well be just to complement these. Often we work hand in hand with professional conference organisers, we are not an alternative way of doing things," said Ms Krebs.

Last summer's major international social development event, Geneva 2000, was typical of the IC Volunteer's mandate. A conference about the developing world, held in a seriously expensive corner of Europe.
"There were thousands of delegates in Geneva for that event and our volunteers were invaluable,' she continued. "Sometimes it's just a guiding hand that is needed, sometimes it's receiving delegates and reporting on meetings." Volunteers even take their work home with them - as part of the Geneva Host initiative. Here a host family will offer a home from home to a delegate who cannot afford local hotel tariffs. "For a delegate from the developing world, paying SFr. 150 a night to stay in Geneva is just not an option. If we can help then it might enable someone to speak at that meeting who would otherwise been forced to abandon their trip," said Ms Krebs.

Criteria for IC Volunteer aid are that the meeting or event must have a humanitarian theme or concern a project with social impact. It must be non-profit making and show a tight budget. "Our mission is to help with subjects that are important for our society". It is also one of the roles of the ICVolunteers to raise the profile of such issues and to promote an exchange of ideas," she continued. "We are currently involved in a lot of different fields and it's very exciting. Last summer we worked at the UN General Assembly and at a Forum organised by the Swiss government. Next month we go to a conference in St. Petersburg, Russia and later this year to South Africa for the International Conference Against Racism." Launching the Swiss initiative for the International Year former President of Switzerland Adolf Ogi described how he had worked as a student volunteer to help prepare ski pistes in Kandersteg. He did it for the good of the community, he said, for tourism and in the vague hope that he'd get a free lift pass... Well, they do say charity begins at home. 

Volunteers receive only basic out of pocket expenses, yet are a shining example of what can be achieved given the mandate.

"We don't have a typical volunteer. There are 40 nationalities represented and we estimate that there are probably 50 different languages spoken. It is quite a resource."- Viola Krebs, Founder, ICV

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