Dancing with Speeches #47 Amnesty International’s Salil Shetty

Earlier this month the International Association of Volunteer Effort held its World conference in Mexico City. One of the keynote speakers was Salil Shetty Amnesty International’s Secretary General. He began his speech with the words: The world is spinning out of its axis. He talked about the role of volunteers in holding the spaces where institutions had failed or were compromising better futures for populations.  You can read his speech here. This week I am remembering speeches and submissions I wrote in my role a decade and more ago as CEO of Volunteering SA & NT and how my words have stood the test of time and perhaps need to be refreshed and re-stated in these times. It is not a dance with nostalgia, it is the stomp, a dance for solidarity to hold and gain ground.

It is eight years since I spoke publicly on the value of volunteers. In these times when the world is spinning out of its axis as Amnesty International’s Secretary General Salil Shetty said (addressing the 24th IAVE World Volunteer Conference in Mexico City on 10 November 2016), we need to make a correction and get the world spinning once again on its true north axis and balanced so we don’t all fall off this little blue dot.

All across the world conflicts are getting worse with deliberate and often desperate, attacks on citizens unarmed, unprepared and unable to face the military force or terrorist activities of repeated and unprovoked attacks. The arming and re-arming of criminal, radical, fanatic as well as organised war makers are in conflict zones in on all continents Africa, Latin America, Asia, Central Europe. Human tragedy and loss in the faces and lives of little children and their families risking all to escape from the worst places and trekking the globe for safe haven. Human rights violations abound where children are not able to get to school, are forced into labour and held hostage as sex slaves, donning uniforms and brainwashed to take up guns. Borders are held up as real boundaries and barriers to safe passage and walls, fences and legislative gymnastics are put up as the barriers to safe passage. Internal conflicts and divisions are deeper than ever from the recent results of the US elections to those moving against their own people such as President of the Philippines, Duterte who has killed over 2000 lives in a span of a few months in his war on drugs. At an international level the efforts to come to agreement on climate change such as the most recent meeting by COP in Marrakech coming to almost a standstill when the results of the US election came through where the candidate from the winning party was known and that party full of candidates and nominees who are climate deniers.

Poverty, fear, human rights abuses, gender and race inequity all mount up and can lead some of our species to paralysis and if that happens to too many of us our species won’t be much longer on this planet. But I am not one of those people and I know that we live in a world where there are those willing to get up, stand up and turn up to build the future we want for our children and grandchildren and generations to come.

When I was CEO of Volunteering SA & NT I regularly said that while we get to vote every three or four years, every time we volunteer by planting a tree, helping someone learn to read, delivering a meal, counting frogs, recording the weather … we are voting with our hearts and minds for the kind of community and world we want to live in. We don’t have to wait for the ballot box to build the world we want. Volunteers are peacemakers, healers, custodians of hope, antidotes to fear, architects of trust, bringers of good news. The rising movement of millenials who are opting to put their values into action by opting out of traditional systems and putting their energies in sharing economies, collaborative enterprises and community mobilising on line and in real time are creating new eco-systems and opening up new spaces for change. Technologies that didn’t exist a decade ago are being deployed. For example GIS mapping tools are helping with emergencies and natural disasters 24 hours a day and from all over the world ( see http://www.maps-group.org/ and www.openstreetmap.org ). An example from Amnesty International (AI), before the 2016 Olympics, they developed a network of organizations in Rio’s most violent favelas offering an app called Fogo Cruzado (Cross Fire) to report gun violence in their communities. According to AI the app got more than 50,000 downloads and reported over a thousand violent incidents in one month, giving more visibility to the problem and urging authorities to take action. Coders of the world regularly unite and one example was for Decode Dafur where 16,000 volunteered to do a task that would have taken months if not years of paid labour to map the most remote and vulnerable villages of Dafur (see https://decoders.amnesty.org/projects/decode-darfur ).

What hasn’t changed in ten years though is the willingness of people to gift their time, talents and energy and in doing so offer an antidote and help keep the world spinning on its axis for good. Every day people, not heroes or celebrities, your neighbours, friends, mates at work, come together around a common cause. The cause can be coaching an under 10 football team, growing a forest, saving a species, offering hospitality to the lonely, medical support to civilians in a war zone, counselling those at risk of suicide … the list goes on … generosity in abundance.

Amnesty International’s contribution through its volunteers have used the power of the pen to bring world attention to prisoners of conscience. In its annual campaign Write for Rights in 2015 3.7 million letters, messages, emails ad tweets were sent to governments. These are acts of solidarity. Here is a sample reported by AI’s Secretary General at the global International Association for Volunteer Effort this year:

Albert Woodfox in the USA was freed in February 2016 after 200,000 people took action for him; student activist Phyoe Phyoe Aung was freed from jail in Myanmar in April 2016 after almost 400,000 letters, emails & tweets in support of her; and Yecenia Armenta Graciano was released in June after being arbitrarily detained in northern Mexico, when she was beaten, near-asphyxiated and raped during 15 hours of torture until she was forced to “confess” to her husband’s murder. She had received 8,000 letters of support from around the world. Through our urgent action network,10 year old Syrian girl Ghina Ahmad Wadi, who was shot by a government sniper in Madaya was evacuated after mass pressure, and has since recovered from surgery.

Back in 2006 the Australian Bureau of Statistics Voluntary Work Survey indicated that 5.2 million adult Australians (34%) volunteer annually, contributing an annual total of just over 713 million volunteer hours valued at more than $40 billion. This grew in 2010 Survey to 36% of adults and in 2014 it had fallen to 31%. I am predicting it will grow over the next two years when the next ABS survey will be done – in these tough times people get out and get involved, this is solidarity. But we can’t just hope that will happen – it needs to be planned, intentional and supported policies and strategies. I was very proud of my efforts to keep volunteering and its role in supporting social cohesion, addressing climate change and building equity in my time in the role – mobilising and motivating – I had the job of chief cheer leader to all volunteers and saw this role as a vital piece of democracy.

At that time I advocated for volunteers and the voluntary sector effort need to be included in the nation’s balance sheet which would reflect the value of this unpaid and often unrecognised workforce.

Volunteers are an essential part of our national response to environment issues, in times of disaster and are key to all the major strategies such as awareness, education, fundraising and environmental management. Why not count that effort and big heartedness?

A well trained and skilled volunteer force can ensure that skills and knowledge flow freely through society. Voluntary activities are pathways into communities providing opportunities for education, employment, personal growth, social interaction and the sharing, broadening and development of skills. Volunteers drive the dollar further – they value add – they green Australia – they unite communities – they build trust and are the linchpin of democracy.

Volunteers are vital to the future of our country. Voluntary activities and associations need the investment of the time, talents and energy of volunteers and resources from the public purse and business to continue being the glue that binds Australia together. And binds our world and planet together.

By offering an alternative narrative to the pessimism and anxiety fear brings to our world, volunteering provides both inoculation and healing and as I have said before in this speech – solidarity.   Volunteers don’t fight back they fight forward – contesting the values and attitudes in what they spend their time doing – they address illiteracy by teaching someone to read; they address hunger by making soup and serving meals; they address fear and isolation by singing up a storm in a community choir; they address disability by coaching sports; they address an ugly landscape by hosting community clean ups and making public art; they address poverty by fundraising and advocating for justice; they are change-makers and their aggregated efforts turn back time by cleaning up rivers, liberating prisoners and saving endangered species. Division, extinction, exclusion and inequity are all countered by the acts of millions of men, women, boys and girls throughout the world who stand in solidarity, open their hearts, minds, wallets and share in the biggest collaborative economy we have – volunteering.

On December 5 it is the International Day of Volunteering – let’s make this a decade of solidarity volunteering and keep the earth spinning on its axis.

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