Social Education 58(7), 1994, pp. 424-426
National Council for the Social Studies

The United Nations From the Field: The Work of Volunteers

Joanne Dufour and Billie Day
A New Yorker gives immunizations in Zaire. A Somali monitors food distribution in drought-stricken Malawi.
A Norwegian explains the electoral process to Cambodians choosing their first freely elected government. A retired English farmer shows Mongolian small land holders how to enter the free-market farm economy. Since the establishment of the Peace Corps by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, the concept of voluntary service as a means of promoting development and laying the foundations of peace has continued to grow.
The Peace Corps has its roots in private volunteer programs, such as the American Friends Service Committee, which send motivated individuals to serve in the poorest regions of the world. Since its founding, more than 140,000 persons from the United States have served in the Peace Corps. In addition, the concept of national volunteer service has spread to many other countries, including some of the former recipient countries that now have their own volunteer services.

How has that happened? In October 1962, the United States hosted a conference at which the International Secretariat for Volunteer Services (ISVS) was established. Its purpose was to promote the establishment of long-term export volunteer programs in developed countries and domestic volunteer programs in less developed countries as well as national youth service programs for less educated youth modeled on the U.S. Job Corps. Most Western European countries as well as Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, and Thailand joined the Secretariat. In Latin America, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Venezuela started domestic programs similar to the U.S. VISTA program. Ethiopia started a domestic volunteer program at the Haile Selassie University.

ISVS promoted these efforts with regional conferences in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, culminating in a World Conference in March 1967 in New Delhi, India. In the early 1970s, ISVS joined the UN family of organizations.

United Nations Volunteers
In 1971, the UN began its own UN volunteer program with thirty-five volunteers. More than 2,000 UN volunteers now serve in approximately 160 less developed nations under the direction of the UN Development Program from its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

Hawa Abubakar recently completed service in Malawi as a UN volunteer. She is Somali, but left her home in Mogadishu in 1983. "I miss Somalia very much. It is my favorite spot in the world, (but) I don't want to die in a city war like that," she said for an article in World View magazine (Fall 1993).

Her UN assignment was to monitor food aid for drought relief in Malawi. The relief effort was a success, and her job ended in August 1993. "Everybody was fed. No deaths to famine were reported. After the rains came, there was no reason for us to stay." She enjoyed the work so much that she wants to be a UN volunteer again: "You have to deal with people and empathize with them. I was able to give them knowledge and I felt I was helping."

The major increase in UN volunteers to 2,000 has come over the last few years with the creation of the Humanitarian and Emergency Relief Unit. The program was created to meet the immediate but temporary needs of victims of famine, drought, floods, and earthquakes. Most UN volunteers serve for two years, but those serving in the Humanitarian and Emergency Relief Unit frequently work in stressful circumstances and under difficult living conditions. Therefore, they are asked for only a six-month commitment. Abubakar worked under such circumstances during the height of the southern African drought for six months and asked to stay longer. She left because by mid-summer of 1993 the crisis of the drought had ended. Malawi's farmers were harvesting their crops once again.

The UN program recruits skilled professionals from all over the world. Most have advanced degrees or at least ten years of experience in their fields. Three-fourths of them come from less developed countries where many held mid-level civil service positions in their governments. Abubakar is a typical UN volunteer: she is from a less developed nation, and she didn't want to leave the country where she was sent to work. She is atypical in that only 20 percent of UN volunteers are female.

UN volunteers work for UN agencies, administering the local programs such as food distribution or refugee relief.

Reflections of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers
U.S. Peace Corps Volunteers through their work in host countries have had direct or indirect experience with UN agencies and/or have observed their work. Several of their reports follow.

Note to teachers: As they read about these experiences, students can make a chart identifying (1) the country, (2) UN agency, (3) type of project, and (4) results. Their findings can be compared in writing and in large- or small-group discussion. Researching additional information is recommended.

Jan Weisman served in Thailand from 1982-1985, directly associated with the UN in an Integrated Nutrition Project, part of a larger Maternal and Child Care Program run by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

The Integrated Nutrition Project began in 1982 in thirty-seven Thai provinces judged "poverty-stricken" by official Thai government standards with the goal of improving the nutritional status of pre-school children in particular and all villagers in general. Four Thai Government Ministries were involved: Public Health, Agriculture, Education, and Community Development. Almost half of all Thai children aged 5 or less were judged to be suffering from malnutrition, vitamin A, B, and C deficiencies, and iron deficiency anemia. More nutritious foods were available, but these were either too expensive or were foods villagers traditionally did not eat.

"UNICEF provided extensive assistance to this project. In addition to training government workers, village volunteers and model farmers, UNICEF gave each participant educational posters and brochures written in simple language to distribute to villages in their local districts. Many government workers made their rounds on UNICEF-provided motorcycles.

"An important aspect of the project was growth-monitoring-weighing all children aged birth to five years monthly to ensure normal growth and detect possible malnutrition at its earliest stage (i.e., when a child failed to gain weight in any particular month). UNICEF provided each project village with a scale, a large chart on which to plot the nutritional status of all the village's children, and individual growth charts for parents.

"Since diarrhea was a major cause of malnutrition in children, UNICEF provided workers and volunteers packets or oral rehydration salts to treat diarrhea and explanatory brochures about preparing and administering a home-made solution using clean water, sugar, salt, and fruit juice.

"To prevent childhood killer diseases, health workers received vaccines and immunization equipment, including ice chests to keep vaccines cold and fresh for travel to distant villages.

"In coordination with the Ministry of Agriculture project, UNICEF provided dietary enrichments to grow or raise such as vegetable seeds, seedlings of fast maturing fruit trees (e.g., papaya, an excellent source of vitamin A), ducks or chickens (nine females and one male) for eggs (protein), and fingerlings to stock village fish ponds (protein).

"Village schools received educational materials, and their teachers were trained in how to integrate health and nutrition lessons into the curriculum. Children learned the basics of health, nutrition, hygiene, first aid, and how to care for younger siblings.

"A number of other UN agencies maintain their Southeast Asia regional offices in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has been very active with refugees from neighboring countries. The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has been preserving Thai historical monuments. The World Health Organiza-tion (WHO) is involved with AIDS education. The UN Environment Program is active in forestry."

Charlotte Anderson served in a small rural health clinic in Katche, Niger, from 1991-93.

"The World Health Organization supplied the vaccines the clinic nurses gave to mothers and children. In Katche, they vaccinated approximately 100 children and twenty-five mothers a week against polio, yellow fever, meningitis, measles, and tuberculosis. Twenty smaller villages were within twenty-five kilometers, but very few of their women came to the clinic. Charlotte worked in four of the surrounding villages and with the head nurse decided to conduct on-site vaccinations there. After conducting preliminary education on the importance of vaccinations with the villagers, they packed the vaccines in blue ice packs in a cooler and strapped it with bungee cords to the back of a motorcycle.

"Careening through five kilometers of sandy trails, we'd pull up and ask for the village chief. The nurse and I would begin to arrange a space. Once we were set up, women engulfed us. I'd ask the pertinent information for their health cards: What's your father's name? What's your husband's name? What is the baby's age in months and days? Difficult questions for people without calendars and fears of saying family names aloud.

"The vaccinations would run out quickly, within two hours. After fifty to sixty women and children received their shots and walked away with their health cards, we'd pack up and say good-bye. In the early dusk, we rode back to the village. We managed to visit four nearby villages in four months. In some ways it was a frustrating experience. But in a thousand ways, it was an exciting and worthwhile venture. I'm glad I got the chance to help 250 women and children get vaccinated."

From 1984-86, Josh Fliegel worked on health education in the Philippines.

"As a Peace Corps Volunteer working at the health center on a small remote island of Concepci—n, my co-workers and I located effective health education materials for our family vaccination program from the World Health Organization regional office in Manila. WHO posters and brochures used photographs of children with preventable diseases such as polio, tuberculosis, and measles so that even people who couldn't read could learn about the importance of vaccinations. WHO also supplied insulated containers to keep the vaccines cold in the two- to four-hour walk under the hot sun to the different barrios (poor villages) on the island."

Josh went on to work as a project coordinator in disaster relief for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

"The Philippines is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. During my work with USAID, three major disasters struck: (1) The Mount Pinatubo Volcanic Eruption, (2) a major flash flood, and (3) a super-typhoon. These disasters killed thousands of people and left even more homeless.

"The UN Disaster Relief Office (UNDRO) provided tarps for shelter and emergency food rations to the Philippine government during these disasters. UNDRO officials also helped foreign donors coordinate their responses so that efforts would not be duplicated.

"The UN Development Program (UNDP) provided technical assistance to the government and helped implement a program which designed and provided typhoon-resistant houses built out of local material to low income families. The UN was able to make important contributions to the health and welfare of the Filipino people."

David Sacco served in Gabon from 1986-88. He did not work for a UN project but saw one in operation.

"About 100 km east of Franceville was a small village which hosted a technical training session for the school construction program. I was the logistics coordinator and cook. Just outside the village was an experimental farm of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, managed by a Dutch gentleman and staffed by village men. The farm raised tomatoes, lettuce, and peppers in addition to traditional Gabonese produce such as l'osseille (sorrel) and manioc. Since I had hungry Americans and Gabonese to feed on a daily basis, I became a regular customer. The tomatoes were heavenly, and the newly arrived trainees appreciated the wealth of good, fresh food after six weeks of dormitory life in the city.

"Unfortunately, none of the village men at the farm seemed to apply any of their experience to their own plantations. The Gabonese diet is traditionally heavy on game or fish, starches such as manioc or plantains, and indigenous greens. The village folk showed no interest in either the experimental farm foods such as tomatoes that could be cultivated or in the improved hybrids of their indigenous plants that were available to them. This was particularly sad in this village, which had malnourished children."

Senegal and Cameroon
Charlotte Utting served twice as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa and lends the perspective of time to her comments. Her first assignment was in Senegal in 1980-82 where she was in a community development project.

"I was aware that the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) had funded a national program to create written forms of the five or six major indigenous languages. (Wolof had already been transcribed independently, but the others had not until the UNESCO program was instituted. In my subsequent trips to Senegal, I have noticed more printed materials in these indigenous languages-for example, pamphlets on the prevention of AIDS. The seeds that were planted in the 1980s have taken hold."

Her second assignment was in a bush clinic in Cameroon from 1989-90 where she also worked with childhood immunizations provided by UNICEF.

"If these had not been donated, I doubt very much that the extremely poor rural families that brought their children to be vaccinated would have been able to pay the cost. WHO prepared the Road to Health charts we used to monitor infant and child growth. UNICEF oral rehydration salts were at the clinic although we also encouraged and used homemade solutions."

Christine Frothingham worked in Zaire from 1988 to 1990.

"Small children suffered from problems of diarrhea and the subsequent dehydration in my area. Many of the village women thought that one could cure diarrhea simply by not giving any more liquid to the sick child. This practice caused the dehydration.

"I taught lessons on health including one on the rehydration drink, a preparation of clean water, salt, sugar, and fruit juice used to heal/treat diarrhea. It is an inexpensive and effective way to treat this problem which UNICEF promotes extensively.

"The idea behind this drink is really important. The women responded well to these lessons. However, the actual implementation of the lessons step by step is difficult. Women need to boil the water to keep it clean. This takes more and more wood (in short supply). They rarely used clean (sterile) utensils. Where I was living, sugar and salt were scarce, precious items, and the oranges were both green and sour.

"Diarrhea dehydration continues to be one of the major child killers in this part of the world. We are all trying to change that."

Joanne Dufour is NCSS Non-Governmental Representative to the UN and co-editor of this issue of Social Education. Billie Day is a social studies teacher at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, DC.