Volunteerism is not a new concept in Sri Lanka. It is a trait that is deeply ingrained in the religious and social cultures of the country with children being taught from an early age to look out for those around them and provide a helping hand to those in need.
The rich volunteer culture in Sri Lanka is showcased by the country’s ranking in the World Giving Index in 2013 and in 2016 which looks at time spent for volunteer activities. The report ‘Sri Lankan Youth: Volunteering to Make a Difference’ states that the initial forms of volunteerism in Sri Lanka were in the forms of collectives of individuals involved in activities of the local temples (Dayaka Sabha) and village dwellers engaged in agricultural activities (Wewa Sabha). The Asian Development Report (Asian Development Bank; 1999) stated, “The Wewa Sabha are the historical roots of collective action, participatory decision-making, and sustainable development in Sri Lanka”. The Institute for Participatory Interaction in Development (IPID, 2001: 8) mentions that volunteering in Sri Lanka is, to a great extent, based on religious beliefs. The establishment of organizations such as the Youth Men’s Christian Association, Young Men’s Buddhist Association, and the Ceylon Young Men’s Muslim Association facilitated the engagement of young people in faith-based community initiatives.
While many of these traditional volunteer opportunities are still available in Sri Lankan society, there has been a shift in the approach and pattern of engaging in volunteer activities. Volunteer initiatives are more formalized with a clear demarcation of activities undertaken, and with members being better informed on project management that lead volunteers to design interventions focused on solving problems. Many of these volunteer organizations have now been set up as charities, associations and corporate structures that focus on achieving development in a sustainable fashion as opposed to solely engaging in charity work.
During the consultations led by the United Nations Development Group (UNDG) on the post-2015 development agenda, vibrant and inspiring conversations took place with volunteers through the “My World” Survey. Out of the total number of voters, over 660,000 were from Sri Lanka. As stated by the Secretary-General in the Report “Integrating volunteering in the next decade”, the extent of participation in the MY World global survey was an unexpectedly powerful demonstration of people’s readiness to engage when avenues are available and accessible.
The wide volunteer participation in the MY World Survey does not come as a surprise in Sri Lanka, as the country has a long history and rich culture of volunteerism. The National Survey on Volunteerism, conducted in 2014 with the support of 1250 volunteer enumerators, also gives us a good understanding of the scope and inclusiveness of volunteerism in Sri Lanka. Given the total population of 15.1 million individuals aged 15 years or above, the survey estimated that approximately 8.6 million people volunteer in Sri Lanka at least once a year (with youth accounting for 40%). Furthermore, only 16.9% of volunteers belonged to the urban sector, whereas 81.2% belonged to the rural sector and 1.9% to the estate sector. Moreover, 8.2% of all volunteers are found to be suffering from a disability or a chronic illness, emphasizing that a challenging health condition is not a barrier to volunteering.
The United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme contributes to peace and development through volunteerism worldwide. We work with partners to integrate qualified, highly motivated and well supported UN Volunteers into development programming and promote the value and global recognition of volunteerism. UNV is active in around 130 countries every year. With Field Presences in over 80 countries, UNV is represented worldwide. UNV is administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and reports to the UNDP Executive Board.
UNV embraces volunteerism as universal and inclusive; and recognizes volunteerism in its diversity as well as the values that sustain it: free will, commitment, engagement and solidarity.
UNV has been active in Sri Lanka since 1974, UNV works to enable stakeholders to be agents of change in their communities through volunteerism. After the 2004 tsunami, UNV supported the Government of Sri Lanka by mobilizing 104 UN Volunteers who played a crucial role in coordinating emergency relief and reconstruction initiatives. Recently, UNV, in cooperation with the Ministry of Social Services, established the first National Volunteering Secretariat and, together with the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Skills Development, produced a research report to document the contribution of youth volunteers in the country.
UNV advocates for volunteerism and supports policy development and legislation recognizing volunteer work in Sri Lanka. Working in close cooperation with state institutions and national development fora, it aims at developing nationally-owned and sustainable volunteer structures, as well as supporting the documentation of volunteer contributions to peace and development.
UNV will continue its efforts towards social inclusion through networks and programs responding to specific needs, with focus on marginalized groups like women and youth, while partnering with governmental and non-governmental organizations as well as academic and private institutions through volunteerism.
V-Force, an initiative of UNV Sri Lanka, was established in August 2011 to mark the 10th anniversary of the International Year of Volunteerism. The overall goal of V-Force is to leverage on the country’s rich volunteerism culture (40% of the population engages in volunteerism activities) and to provide opportunities for young people to strengthen skills. V-Force provides a nationwide platform for volunteers to network, collaborate and promote volunteerism.
V-Force brings together people with a passion for volunteerism and a willingness to give back to society. V-Force makes way especially for the youth in Sri Lanka to initiate change and express their ideals while also ensuring youth participation in the development of the country.
Since its inception, V-Force has been involved in projects with different UN agencies such as UNDP, WHO, UNICEF, among others in the fields of sustainable development, peace and reconciliation, environmental sustainability and more.