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Support to overcome access barriers
While volunteering offers opportunities to transform the situation of those who are most vulnerable, access to volunteering opportunities may be unequal for marginalized groups, meaning that their perspectives are missing as volunteer-led efforts are scaled up. Coordination and investment are vital to enable everyone to volunteer outside of their own cultural, ethnic, or socio-economic groups, or to undertake non-traditional roles – such as women and girls’ leadership roles in climate and citizen science in some societies. Appropriate support from the public sector, private companies, and civil society can create an environment in which volunteerism can challenge established roles and divisions and capacitate the vulnerable and most marginalized to become agents of change.
Participatory, cost-effective means of implementation
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development acknowledges volunteerism as an important means of implementation. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement both recognize that participatory approaches to data collection are important to evaluate progress, hold stakeholders to account, and fill urgent knowledge gaps to inform decision-making and raise awareness.
Estimates of the scale and scope of global volunteering are difficult to provide, but one study calculated a figure approaching one billion, though this is likely to underestimate informal volunteering (Salamon et al,
2011). Many of these volunteers are already involved in mapping and monitoring climate and environmental data (Theobald et al, 2015). This includes a long history of mass involvement in wildlife conservation as well as a recent proliferation of new volunteer-led efforts to map and monitor other climate change-related environmental risks such as air, soil, and water quality. These new efforts have been triggered by growing awareness and often enabled by powerful and cheap new mobile and open technologies.
Mobilizing volunteers to map and monitor environmental data is a cost-effective, large- scale approach to managing risks that impact communities (De Coning, 2016). But this is not the only added value that volunteerism brings. Volunteering provides people with opportunities to determine their own priorities and to move from being passive recipients to active agents of their own development. Voluntary action can be holistic and transformational, and can lead to more effective, inclusive, locally-owned approaches to climate mitigation and adaption.
However, there are challenges to tackle before the full potential can be realized. Volunteers remain under-resourced and under-capacitated leading to low levels of trust in the data that they generate (Cohn, 2008). Systems and coordination mechanisms need to be put in place to ensure that data can be used effectively. Access to volunteering opportunities, including associated skills, training and support is currently not available or accessible to all types of people (UNV, 2015). Most alarmingly, across the world volunteers are being persecuted as civic space shrinks and environmental defenders are killed in record numbers (Global Witness, 2017).
Volunteering for locally-owned climate action
Involvement in mapping and monitoring climate change at the local level helps communities to develop a sense of opportunity from challenges and ownership of the solutions. Community volunteers know the local context best and are highly motivated because the issues they are monitoring directly impact themselves. Grassroots volunteer initiatives build on local networks, solidarity, and expressions of volunteerism (UNV, 2015). These initiatives make communities more robust by reducing dependency on outside support and creating layers of ‘redundancies’ (Arnold et al, 2014). For example, in the 2008-2013 UN joint programme on community-based adaptation,
UNV mobilized a wide range of community volunteers, utilizing indigenous knowledge to foster voluntary action and local ownership of development goals (UNDP, 2012).
At the same time, by tackling global climate challenges, volunteers can also link up with wider initiatives to give their communities access to new networks and resources. Since climate change crosses national boundaries, voluntary mapping and monitoring can also create opportunities for new intra- and inter-community cooperation.
Monitoring drought collectively in Sudan
Climate change is increasing the frequency of drought in the Horn of Africa. In Sudan, the Wadi El Ku Management Project initiated by the UN Environmental Agency (UNEP) and funded by the European Union (EU) works with communities surrounding the most important water source in arid North Darfur. By involving farmers, pastoralists, and women, it has worked with strong cultural norms of volunteerism, mutual aid and self-help in Darfur communities to use volunteers to assess water levels, provide basic services, and advocate for a holistic approach to managing the local environment. These volunteers play invaluable ‘connective’, ‘collaborative’ and ‘inclusive’ roles – linking communities with government institutions and improving relations between communities that share resources (Unpublished UNV field research for SWVR 2018).
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Multi-stakeholder engagement to improve reliability
Community-level volunteerism is a great resource but requires support and integration to be used effectively to support wider initiatives. As well as sometimes producing unreliable data, local volunteers may be disconnected from coordinated efforts, sometimes leading them to get in the way (Hahn and Nykvist, 2017). Multiple sectors and stakeholders – including local authorities, as well as the scientific, technology, and business communities – must work together with local.
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