More dedication, more solidarity, more humanity

Interview with Viola Krebs, Coordinator of the Geneva Symposium
Sergio Ferrari
17 November 2001
The International Year of Volunteers (IYV2001) declared by the United Nations will end next December. Twelve months of intense activity and multiple initiative on the five continents to enhance the value of voluntary work and encourage the solidarity of millions of persons around the planet. A timely occasion to evaluate the outcome of the Year, according to the young Swiss sociologist Viola Krebs, coordinator of the organizing committee of the International Symposium which will take place in Geneva, Switzerland, from 18 to 21 November.

"Our aim is to avoid the theme of volunteering falling into oblivion once the IYV2001 is over. Our planet needs more and more people animated by a sense of solidarity expressed in day to day life and wanting to act with and for others" says Viola Krebs in opening this exclusive dialogue.

Viola Krebs

President of the Organizing Committee of the International Symposium on Volunteering (ISV 2001)

Q: What is the sense and objective of an international symposium on volunteering in November, given that a meeting on the same theme has already taken place in the Netherlands last January?

The International Year of Volunteers has provided a platform for the creation of national organizations and committees around the world, such as in Switzerland. 123 of these national committees, plus six committees representing large cities like New York, Rio de Janeiro and Singapore have put in a considerable amount of work to implement the four objectives of the Year: promotion, networking, facilitation and recognition of volunteering. Up until now, however, the actors of these significant achievements have never had the opportunity to meet. Everything worked in a more or less virtual manner. The Geneva Symposium will allow delegates from this network to actually meet to assess the outcome of the Year and to plan future actions.


Volunteering and activism

Q: Anticipating on the debate and the reflection that will take place in November, can you, as organizer of the Symposium, give us an indication of the global achievements during 2001?

One concrete and very important result is the reinforcement of networking. We are currently living a moment of the history of our planet in which we can communicate through electronic means such as Internet. The website of the IYV2001(  already includes over fourteen thousand addresses of organizations interested in volunteering and/or working directly with volunteers (universities, UN Agencies, NGO's, private sector, research centers, etc.). These networks simply did not exist only two years ago.

Other key aspects to be discussed at the November Symposium include the relations between volunteering and the Press. The Press is indeed an important key. In spite of the fact that abundant information on the theme of volunteering has been published throughout the year, we fear that once this special moment is over, the millions of actions based on voluntary work fall into oblivion. We want to avoid this.

The question of relations with the private sector is equally important. A large number of volunteers depend on the support of commercial entities. Many projects of high social and human value could not be pursued without the help of the private sector.

Finally, no society can exist and function without the element of solidarity in voluntary work. Statistics published in Switzerland, for example, indicate that one person out of four is active in this field. The impact of this work within our societies is not easily measurable, but its growth is of vital importance. Hence the theme of the Symposium: "Act together, locally and globally".

Q: By seeking the support of the private sector, is there not a risk of distorting the very nature of volunteering? A risk to cross an ethical boundary?

This is a theme that cannot be ignored and a risk that needs to be analyzed. There is much talk, for example, of corporate volunteering. If a company grants working time to its management and employees to allow them to engage in voluntary work, can we or must we accept it? I think we should remain open minded. Limitations and possibilities must be given careful thought.

Q: I am surprised to see in the program of the Symposium a representative of the World Bank who will speak on economy and volunteering. Is there not a risk of a negative reaction from certain associative sectors in the voluntary sector?

This must be debated. As I was saying, there are statistics that show that volunteering is and important element present in all human societies. Its social dimension is a fundamental aspect, but it seems equally important to explore questions related to its economic aspect. In certain countries, public services rely heavily on benevolent help. We therefore need to question the strengths and limitations of such social and state-controlled systems.

Q: Given the global prevalence of the concept of profitability, which certainly does not encourage solidarity, how would you define the current state of volunteering: in crisis, expanding, stagnating?

I think we need to evaluate two aspects. On one hand, it is true that the very nature of the system entails a risk of progressive individualism. But the other aspect, no less important, is the potential of worldwide communication available today through new technologies. More abundant information is transmitted extremely rapidly. We also need to consider the various types of volunteering. It is a known fact that North-South cooperation through the exchange of persons is in full expansion due to the interest, especially from younger people, to gain working and learning experience in other parts of the world. Other sectors, perhaps, encounter more difficulties in recruiting new volunteers...

One last important question that needs to be analyzed is the relation between volunteering and activism. Hundreds of organizations perform, for example in the field of Human Rights, in the associative and solidarity context, etc., tasks rendered possible solely through the benevolent involvement of their members. As an example I would like to quote Amnesty International... Is there a real border between volunteering and activism, or are these simply related and complementary? The mobilization of citizens that has taken place in the last few years, like for example the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, but also the recent solidarity of thousands of volunteers who helped the victims of the New York tragedy, prompt us to reflect in common.

Q: Could the Geneva Symposium be a platform to start this common reflection, this debate on volunteering-activism? Has some thought be given, for example, to invite a key participant in the Porto Alegre event to convey the voice of this particular associative world?

I think this is a very interesting proposal. Our Symposium could no doubt signal the start of this debate. With transparence and scope, dialogue, without violence or prejudice...



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