How might psychologists commemorate United Nations’ International Volunteer Day?

This column highlights the importance of psychologist participation in volunteer projects and suggests ways that psychologists can take part in the U.N.'s International Volunteer Day.

By Juneau Gary and Neal S. Rubin, Column Co-Editors

"We must harness volunteer spirit in service of [our] planet." This profound statement was made by United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at a UN-sponsored conference in September 2011 (Harness volunteer spirit, 2011). His comments are consistent with the mission of the office of United Nations Volunteers (UNV), a UN organization that promotes peace and development by advocating for global volunteerism. UNV's website asserts that "volunteerism is a powerful means of engaging people in tackling development challenges, and it can transform the pace and nature of development...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" (UN volunteers, n.d.).

In 1985, the UN General Assembly (Resolution A/RES/40/212) adopted December 5 as its annual International Volunteer Day (IVD). This celebration is designed to (1) heighten awareness about the important contributions of volunteers, (2) promote their safety in dangerous locales and (3) encourage people to offer their services as volunteers. Researchers in the UN Volunteers Office report that approximately 140 million volunteers operate around the world in 130 countries and would comprise the 9th largest country in the world, if aggregated (Volunteering matters, n.d.; UN volunteers, n.d.).

Many UNV projects use a partner-based initiative model, involving government agencies, volunteer organizations, the UN system, the business/private sector, foundations, sporting teams, academic institutions, faith-based organizations, media outlets, nonprofit organizations, community groups and celebrities. UNICEF Goodwill ambassadors such as Angelina Jolie, Danny Glover, Roger Moore and Serena Williams, lend their celebrity status to highlight various plights in some of the world's poorest countries. They travel to refugee camps, hospitals and orphanages, among other places, and meet with refugee and political asylum families, child soldiers, orphans and victims of rape, as well as support local rescue worker volunteers.

Psychologist volunteers: Local and international projects

Psychologists have a long tradition of volunteerism. Our colleagues have extended the impact of psychology beyond the classroom, laboratory, private practice and clinic through pro bono activities. In this way, psychologists have impacted local, national and international settings in demonstration of our profession's commitment to social responsibility. Our Ethical Principles and Code of Conduct state, "Psychologists strive to contribute a portion of their professional time for little or no compensation or personal advantage" for Principle B (Fidelity and Responsibility) (APA Ethical Principles, 2010).

Leaders in the field of international psychology, supported by the ethics of our profession, emphasize that our ethical principles are applicable in all settings. As a result, psychologists have become increasingly involved in responding to emergencies nationally and globally. New guidelines have been crafted outlining ethical principles and expectations for competence in traditional and nontraditional settings. These documents provide additional specificity to APA's Ethical Principles. For example, following numerous reports of problems in the field as psychologists engaged in unfamiliar settings and cultures around the world, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee's (IASC) Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings (IASC, 2007) address expectations and ethical conduct for psychologists volunteering in national and international settings. APA supports IASC's Guidelines and has published guidance for the roles and responsibilities psychologists might perform in national and international settings (APA, 2008). An additional contribution endorsed by international psychology bodies is the Universal Declaration of Ethics Principles for Psychologists (Universal Declaration, 2008), first adopted at the International Congress in Berlin, Germany. This document outlines principles for the ethical expectations of psychologists worldwide with a view to the development of complementary regional and national codes of conduct.

International psychologists who volunteer their services are often connected to projects that respond to conditions such as the following:

  • Disasters. Projects involving psychologists increase residents”„ resiliency to war/local conflict and weather-related disasters through crisis intervention programs, the teaching of coping skills and train the trainer programs.
  • Illiteracy. Projects involving psychologists in primary and secondary schools empower children to break the illiteracy-early child bearing cycle that tends to perpetuate poverty.
  • Health care. Projects involving psychologists reduce the psychosocial impact of malnutrition, HIV/AIDS and other health-related conditions.
  • Poverty reduction. Projects involving psychologists improve residents' self-esteem and self-sufficiency through initiatives such as economic development and literacy.

Therefore, in keeping with psychology's expectations of social responsibility, we ask, how might psychologists broaden an awareness of opportunities for international and global volunteerism that has the "power to change lives, build social cohesion, enhance civic participation, mitigate conflict and contribute to a society's well-being." (Volunteering Matters, n.d.) Volunteer activities might be completed state-side or abroad. We offer 12 concrete suggestions:

  1. Review UNV's website for volunteer openings worldwide. In addition to UNVes opportunities, other volunteer organizations seek the volunteer services of psychologists (e.g., Red Cross/Red Crescent, Peace Corps, SalusWorld, Health Volunteers Overseas).
  2. Financially support a school in the developing world. A village may need a new school, expansion of an existing school and/or educational supplies.
  3. Advocate for gender equity in its enrollment.
  4. Volunteer for and financially support organizations working to stop human trafficking.
  5. Financially support UN organizations, such as UNICEF. For instance, proceeds from the sale of gifts and cards support UNICEF's global programs, which improve the lives of vulnerable children.
  6. If licensed and properly trained, offer pro bono services or a sliding scale fee to refugee families, political asylum families or victims of trafficking residing in the U.S., in order to facilitate their psychosocial adjustment.
  7. Encourage members of your state or county psychological association to do the same.
  8. Spend time in a developing country and teach requisite skills to improve students' chances of competing in a global economy.
  9. In retirement, seek a short-term or long-term volunteer project abroad. Volunteer to become an online tutor or mentor for at-risk children. The geographic locations of either party are irrelevant in cyberspace.
  10. Encourage undergraduate and graduate students to volunteer their skills through structured service programs.
  11. Donate and/or coordinate the donation of used psychology textbooks and journals to high schools and institutions of higher education in developing countries.
  12. Look at APA's Division 52 (International Psychology) newsletter for short term and long term volunteer and employment opportunities abroad, and If you live in the greater New York City area, apply for a position on APA's UN Team as a psychologist or as a graduate psychology student-intern (APA at the United Nations, n.d.).

We ask you to embrace the spirit of international volunteerism. Angelique Kidjo is a Grammy Award winner who has been called "Africa's Diva" by TIME Magazine. She fled Benin, West Africa due to her political views and today, is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. She speaks from experience when she says, "People might not remember your name as a volunteer, but they will remember how you have helped them to take the lead in their own life" (Volunteering matters, n.d.).


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