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UN and WHO SL celebrate International Volunteer Day 2020 with landmark online event

By Naveed Rozais

International Volunteer Day (IVD), is an international observance that was mandated by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 1985 and is celebrated on 5 December each year.

It’s an opportunity to celebrate volunteerism and encourage governments to support volunteer efforts and recognise volunteer contributions.
For IVD 2020, United Nations Volunteers (UNV) Sri Lanka and World Health Organisation (WHO) Sri Lanka, with partners, hosted a live event to thank volunteers and celebrate their efforts despite all the challenges at hand. This was the first time that IVD had been commemorated virtually.

The live event was hosted by Vraie Cally Balthazaar. The live event featured messages of appreciation from speakers including UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Minister of Health Pavithra Wanniarachchi, UN Sri Lanka Resident Co-ordinator Hanaa Singer, WHO Sri Lanka Representative Dr. Razia Pendse, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Sri Lanka Resident Representative Robert Jukham, UNV Sri Lanka Country Co-ordinator Sharmalee Jayasinghe, Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement President Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne, former Sri Lankan Cricketer and International Cricket Council (ICC) Match Referee Deshabandu Roshan Mahanama, and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) Asia Pacific Region Volunteering Officer Jaryll Ong. 
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres commented on volunteering in a global context, sharing that volunteering is the backbone of our society and deserve our heartfelt thanks, adding that IVD is an opportunity to support the efforts and contributions of these tireless volunteers the world over. 
IFRC Asia Pacific Region Volunteering Officer Jaryll Ong shared that IVD 2020 was celebrating one billion volunteers around the world who are affecting change through moral influence, hope, and compassion in the face of one of the biggest emergencies the world has known. Ong also shared that volunteerism creates social connections that sustain humanity regardless of age, geography, ability, and gender, expressing his heartfelt appreciation to Sri Lankan volunteers making a difference in these uncertain times.
UN Sri Lanka Resident Co-ordinator Hanaa Singer spoke on the importance of volunteering, explaining that volunteering is a powerful tool to drive sustainable development, encouraging people to take action and contribute to volunteering efforts in any way they can, be it out in the field or from behind their screens.
UNDP Sri Lanka Resident Representative Robert Jukham shared his own experiences as a volunteer, noting that the current situation in the world, being a crisis, brings out the best in people, with adversity bringing out human empathy, compassion, and solidarity, and that the increase in volunteerism seen this year may have something to do with being faced with a challenge.
Minister of Health Pavithra Wanniarachchi spoke about how volunteerism is an integral part of Sri Lankan culture and tradition, always evident in times of crisis. Wanniarachchi also shared that it is an important part of the national agenda to create change in mindsets by championing behavioural change and that volunteerism is a very powerful way to achieve this. 

Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement President Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne also spoke about Sri Lankan resilience, sharing that when Covid-19 was first reported in March, traditional forms of response were not possible because of the very nature of the situation, although this didn’t stop volunteers from finding a way. Dr. Ariyaratne noted that going forward in the new normal, we will definitely need to come up with new strategies, reorient ourselves, and bring a new meaning to volunteerism, even if these are as simple as working one metre apart in open environments for the time being. 
Former Sri Lankan Cricketer and ICC Match Referee Deshabandu Roshan Mahanama spoke about his own experiences volunteering, offering words of encouragement to those who are considering volunteering, explaining that you don’t need to have money to volunteer and that there are many ways to support a cause, be it through time, energy, knowledge, or networking.
WHO Sri Lanka Representative Dr. Razia Pendse and UNV Sri Lanka Country Co-ordinator Sharmalee Jayasinghe spoke about volunteering amidst the backdrop of a pandemic.
Dr. Pendse shared that WHO had declared 2021 the year of the healthcare workers, sharing that the heroes of the pandemic were the frontline functionaries, healthcare workers, and security personnel who rose above the call of their duties to keep people safe. Dr. Pendse also noted that the pandemic had brought out inspiring levels or solidarity, community engagement, and service to others – the core principles of volunteerism.She added that volunteers have made tremendous positive impact, from supporting with the creation of strategic response plans to enabling, empowering, and engaging their communities.  
Jayasinghe shared that the role of volunteering came into play with people getting together in solidarity to support vulnerable communities. Jayasinghe also noted that while the impacts of volunteers can sometimes be small, the impacts these volunteers have on the communities around them are long lasting, adding that the impacts of volunteerism are often hard to capture because of the spontaneous nature of volunteering.
The IVD 2020 also highlighted local inspiring volunteer stories from all around the island, honouring both volunteer organisations and individual volunteers who have gone above and beyond this year in various fields to support and empower their communities and those around them.
The IVD 2020 live event can be viewed in its entirety on the UN Volunteers – Sri Lanka Facebook page.