A week in the Shoes of a volunteer coordinator

04 September 2004

For the first time, a meeting of the UNESCO National Commissions for the Europe and North America Region was held in Switzerland. Approximately 180 representatives from 60 countries attended the meeting (delegates came from European countries, Canada, the USA and Israel, and observers from Aruba, China, Iran, Libya, Mali, New Zeeland, Uzbekistan and Sudan). We spoke to Sabine Deirigner, a Ph.D. student of Anthropology at the University of London who spent three months with ICVolunteers doing an internship. She coordinated the volunteer team for the UNESCO Conference. 

The UNESCO meeting was organized by the Swiss National Commission for UNESCO in close cooperation with UNESCO's Headquarters and the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. It was structured into two parts: (1) Consultation of UNESCO's Director General's on the draft program and budget for 2006-2007. (2) The 14th statutory regional conference of the National Commissions. It was dedicated to the UN World Decade of Education for Sustainable Development 2004-2015 and made recommendations regarding the many possible contributions of the Commissions to Decade. 

Sabine Deirigner described her experience to us: "Coordinating the volunteer team of ten volunteers for the UNESCO meeting was the first 'big job' of my three-month internship with ICVolunteers. Armed with project-related documents, contact details of volunteers and ICV T-Shirts, I headed towards Zurich to meet representatives from the UNESCO conference secretariat on the evening before the first volunteers arrived. During the journey, I looked again at the names of the volunteers. I already knew two from my participation in the ICV volunteer program at the World Summit on Information Society in December 2003. Knowing that both of them have full-time jobs, I was amazed that they took the time to spend several days in a row volunteering for UNESCO. 

After managing not to be too impressed by neither the interior of the hotel and conference venue nor the fact that there was no room booked for me, I felt slightly intimidated by the Asian Buffet to which I was invited by the organizers. How much food was I supposed to put on my plate at anyone time? And was I supposed to eat the flabby lychee deep down in my glass with sparkling wine?... Yet, the conversation itself quickly brought me back to essentials. I was here to coordinate a team of ten volunteers responsible for the welcoming and registration of conference delegates, an information desk and logistical support of the conference secretariat. 

I met the other focal point for the volunteers, my fellow volunteer Cristina, a medical student from Romanian, currently studying in Bern. We got an introduction to the secretariat and started immediately welcoming other volunteers. I was amazed by their openness and preparedness to work right away. They were aged anywhere between twenty and sixty years old, from all sorts of backgrounds and each with his or her reasons to volunteer at such an event. 

What particularly impressed me was the availably of Ms. Viviani, Head of the Swiss National Commission for UNESCO. Even though she was the organizer of the entire event, she found the time to welcome all of us and to explain to us what we were supposed to do. She also asked each volunteer to address difficulties right away and to relate any question, doubt or awkwardness directly to her or her assistant. 

From the very beginning, I was amazed about the flexibility of both the volunteers and the organizers. Although we knew that we were there for the welcome desk, there were many other little things to be done before and during the conference. Nobody ever said to me 'I won't do this.' Furthermore, the volunteers were on time and effective in everything they did. In fact, Annalisa, from UNESCO, and myself had to urge them to take coffee breaks! My greatest fear had been to motivate people, and how to assign tasks to them without coming across bossy or controlling. I later realized that my fear had been unfounded. The volunteers oftentimes found appropriate tasks by themselves, and those who did not were extraordinary glad about receiving concrete instructions. One of the volunteers did not show up at all and I could not reach her. Later I learned that, even if rare, this does happen in the world of volunteering. 

My colleague, Cristina, provided continuous support. We all got tired of the surroundings, but also got more and more fond of each other and some of the delegates. It appears that serving and pleasing conference delegates is not always easy. Some of their requests seem a bit far-fetched, while others had wonderful conversations with the volunteers over dinner. 

Working side by side with the special rapporteur on the declaration to be passed on to the UNESCO secretariat in Paris by the representatives from Europe and North America was an amazing experience. While the volunteers worked between four and six hours each day, Cristina and myself were the first to come and the last to leave. After the event, I slept nearly for two days straight."


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