In 1973, for one of the first times in the modern history of Bangladesh, our Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman took the courageous initiative of involving state volunteers in the Cyclone Preparedness Programme (CPP) for war-ravaged Bangladesh.
This laid a firm base for institutionalizing the engagement of volunteers in development processes. Bangladesh has always been a pioneer country in fighting disasters. Once again, this is visible in this global COVID-19 pandemic, during which volunteers have done a tremendous job of stepping up and raising awareness of handwashing and personal hygiene to protect the most vulnerable.
Traditionally, volunteerism is deeply rooted in Bangladesh. Over the years, volunteers have played an important role in the socio economic and political context of the country. Volunteerism is increasingly seen as an essential ingredient in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Fostering volunteerism is very important in Bangladesh for increasing civic engagement and citizen participation, and for ensuring the attainment of SDGs and government long-term development goals including Vision 2041 and the Delta Plan 2100. Volunteers are very important partners for our Ministry, especially at the local levels. We view them very much as an extension of the municipalities as they ensure trust, accountability and respect from the communities. As such, the Ministry engaged 171 UN Community Volunteers in 20 city corporations/municipalities across the country through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). They are an active part of the Livelihoods Improvement of Urban Poor Communities (LIUPC) Project, which is being implemented under the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives. As the urban centres and populations to benefit from employment opportunities grow, this project aims to improve overall economic growth, income equality, employment and poverty.
In 2020, despite the challenging COVID-19 pandemic, project milestones included the establishment and strengthening of existing local service delivery mechanisms, enhancement of linkages to the communities, and the capacity development of concerned local officials working at the local level. Volunteers have made a significant part of these results possible, since the project has put special emphasis on community empowerment and better urban local service deliveries. Volunteers were drivers of community-based actions, mobilizing communities to actively engage in participatory poverty mapping or community development committees while also being committed to and raising the capacities of the urban poor on these matters. In this way, they are ensuring that the voices of the poor are louder and that the process is more inclusive.
During the pandemic, UN Community Volunteers are directly coordinating safety and awareness-raising activities on the front line. Through regular counselling, they motivate their communities to get vaccinated. They are also actively raising awareness on safety measures and hygiene practices, and providing support to slum-dwellers and other urban poor people to protect themselves from COVID-19. This has been invaluable: the volunteers belong to these communities and they are able to understand the local realities, create a bond and form new relationships.
To give you a better picture of what our UN Community Volunteers are busy with, here are just a few examples. They mobilize community-based organizations and work alongside the community development committees to prepare, for example, the Community Action Plans by prioritizing improvements to community infrastructure, keeping in mind climate-resilience factors and the need to address socio-economic challenges in line with the local requirements. Volunteers also organize and facilitate assessment, monitoring and evaluation with the urban poor at the city level. All this demonstrates their robust nature and capacity to mobilize resources and staff at the local level. This in turn has helped achieve well coordinated and effective response activities, in coordination with the local government and development agencies.
My Ministry is advanced in terms of partnering with volunteers. In 2020, the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives, WaterAid and UN Volunteers (UNV) Bangladesh jointly launched the countrywide Bangladesh Volunteer Award initiative, which recognized the country’s most dedicated and hardworking volunteers. The launch was widely covered by national media. Following this unique initiative, I am now seeing that other government bodies are being encouraged to initiate several volunteer recognition programmes.
The ongoing crisis stemming from the pandemic also forced us to rethink our engagement of volunteers using traditional governance models. Therefore, giving volunteers the appropriate skills to be an auxiliary workforce that can engage in development activities is of the utmost importance for us. For a number of months now, together with volunteers and volunteer involving organizations as well as whole-of-government ministries, we are collectively co-creating a first-of-its-kind National Volunteer Policy, since we all realize the need for the well organized and effective coordination, management and maintenance of volunteerism in Bangladesh. The policy will help embed volunteerism within our national development policies, significantly strengthening local government institutions. It also mainly centres on core themes of promoting and mainstreaming volunteerism in national development, narrowing the rural urban divide, attaining SDG targets, and undertaking human resource development with a broad-based inclusiveness strategy. In my view, the formulation of the National Volunteer Policy will help bring the voluntary activities of individuals and groups, as well as the private sector and development partners, into the mainstream and give government recognition to volunteerism. We have organized consultations at the national and subnational levels in order to provide a space for volunteers and other stakeholders to express their views, listen and be heard as we
design the policy.
I strongly believe that locally based planning solutions and the participation of direct beneficiaries of local government initiatives can be significantly strengthened by the creativity, innovation and local wisdom of volunteers.