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Implementing Agenda 21

The Eco-Volunteer Concept: An Alternative Approach to Sustainable Development

by Jan Karel Sorgedrager



The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio recognized that environmental concerns are linked in a very fundamental sense to development, and survival of present and future generations depends on the promotion of sustainable, environmentally sound development. While conventions, policies and regulations have contributed to large advances toward a global and national commitment to safeguarding the environment, sustainability can only be ensured if the commitment is internalized by communities linked to a sustainable support network. For the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) this recognition provided an opportunity to give substance to the mandate, given to it during a 1991 UNV meeting in Kathmandu to promote a cadre of environmental volunteers. Discussions between UNV and a number of NGOs resulted in a new grassroots programme called Eco-volunteers.

The programme was first implemented in March of 1993 and now operates in nine update? countries. The Environment Liaison Centre International (ELCI), a global network of more then 900 NGOs in 107 countries, has been coordinating projects in Canada, Costa Rica, India, Philippines, Poland, South Africa, Uganda, Uruguay and Zimbabwe. In each programme country an ELCI member organization was selected on the basis of their commitment to the Eco-volunteer concept and its proven capacity to support the programme in a positive way. In close collaboration with these member organizations, a national United Nations Volunteer was then selected to identify, manage, and support the Eco-volunteers that would be involved in the project. Depending on the socio-cultural situation in the different countries, the programme works with either individual Eco-volunteers or with community based organizations (CBOs).

The Eco-volunteer concept is based on the self-help principle. Whereas typical projects try to start a process of self-help in communities, the Eco-volunteer programme identifies, supports, analyzes and promotes existing initiatives developed by local men or women;Eco-volunteers;to solve the environmental problems facing their communities. The key strategy is to minimize external intervention at the local level while providing local communities with access to information and the resources they need, as well as the capacity to obtain these to support the work in which they are already engaged. In principle the resources include:

  • modest financial support for the ongoing activities of an individual eco-volunteer or a community organization;
  • provision of information about other organizations or communities working on similar issues or facing similar problems, which allows them to communicate and share experiences and ideas to strengthen their own local initiatives;
  • facilitating the inclusion of these local organizations in international activities and networks related to their work;
  • developing mechanisms to ensure that local level experience in particular issues informs the development of national and global policy and programme design on these issues; and
  • collective and participatory evaluation of the Eco-volunteer concept as a methodology for addressing the challenges of sustainable development.


Non-Dependent NGO-CBO Relations

An important feature of this approach is the way in which it aims to develop appropriate relationships between NGOs or projects and the local communities.

Many projects fail as a consequence of an uneven relation between the NGO or project and the community. This is due to the short-term expectations of donors, which pressure NGOs to deliver concrete results as fast as possible. This prevents many NGOs and projects from establishing a sound horizontal relationship with their target groups and results in different expectations and conflicting priorities. It also hinders the sharing of vital information, coordination, and in the end, the achievement of self-help within the community.

Poor relationships can also be traced back to social and cultural differences that often exist between the parties involved. The professional or volunteer aid worker who enters the community from the outside is perceived as a stranger with superior knowledge. He or she needs to invest a considerable amount of time before the community accepts him or her as a companion.

Another effect of unequal relationships is that communities begin to view NGOs as easy access to free resources, and NGOs have often done little to change this perception. With time this has only increased the dependence of the community on the development agent, which prevents the community from gaining control over the development process;instead of being actors, they turn into spectators.

The Eco-volunteer approach avoids the above problems by discouraging dependency-building in several ways. Financial input is minimal, and the most significant resource provided by the project is information and linkage to organizations and resources other than the NGO providing the service. This implies that once the formal project has ended, the local community organization has become part of a much broader network of people and resources. This new networking capacity requires no ongoing financial input: it should be capable of generating its own resources and be truly sustainable.

One of the major advantages of working with Eco-volunteers is that these men and women are rooted in and accepted by the community; they are the chosen leaders and thus legitimate representatives of the communities. Another advantage of local volunteers over the "traditional volunteer" is that the Eco-volunteer uses local knowledge, skills and wisdom that are in accordance with local customs and beliefs, and therefore easily accepted by the community.

Luis Mora Cordero from Costa Rica is a good example of an Eco-volunteer. As a community leader and farmer, he developed an indigenous watershed restoration system on his own farm. The success of his experiment was soon noticed by neighbouring farmers, who asked him for help. Don Luis began advising and guiding some 17 neighbouring communities in a large-scale effort to develop and preserve their water resources and regenerate native trees and plants. Today this successful experiment is being flaunted as a model process, not just in Costa Rica, but in adjoining countries as well.

Looking at several years of Eco-volunteer programmes in nine different countries reveals that the programme has undergone some considerable changes. In the original concept, ongoing community activities were identified, in order to be analyzed and replicated in other countries. This concept proved limited because although most societies know some form of voluntarism, the concept of voluntarism is very heterogeneous. The social, cultural and economic background of a society determine to a large extent the interpretation of this concept and the subsequent implementation strategy for the programme. So in spite of the fact that the programme has adapted itself to the local socio-cultural and economic situation in each country, all have a number of issues in common that are considered essential to the further development of the programme. The most important of these common issues is communication and information sharing.


Communication and Information Exchange

One of the main means of support the programme offers the Eco-volunteers is to link them to the thematic networks in which ELCI is involved. Therefore, a major objective of the programme is to support Eco-volunteers working on these thematic issues at the local level, so that ELCI can use these experiences to make a strong input into policy making. At present many of the local community activities are relevant to one or more of ELCI's thematic areas. The programme is developing communication mechanisms for the effective exchange of information to and from the communities. In this context the member organizations and national coordinators are the brokers of information and other resources.

For the Eco-volunteer programme, communication and exchange of information takes place at three different levels. One of the main challenges is to develop effective mechanisms to address people's information needs in a way that they can understand, while translating their experiences into a form suitable for use at other levels. Hence it is important to establish which types of information are relevant to the different levels, and how to best exchange the information.

The first communication level is the local one, where the different groups can share experiences and discuss their activities. Effective tools for facilitating communication at this level are community exchange visits, workshops, and local and national meetings. A good example can be taken from the programme in Uganda. Of the ten Eco-volunteer communities involved in the programme, three are involved in fish-farming. One of the groups reported very disappointing results from its fish pond, while the others reported good to excellent results. The coordinator of the Ugandan programme decided to organize an exchange visit between the different groups and have them discuss their experiences. After only a short while, the combined group had identified the reasons behind the disappointing results. They discovered that the Tilapia provided by the government extension worker belonged to the wrong species. Also, the pond was operational all year round, but it had no permanent water source, which contributed to the failure of the initiative. Based on the exchange visit, the group decided to acquire new stock and operate the pond on a seasonal basis only. Since then results have improved dramatically.

The second level of communication and information exchange is at the national level. Here the responsibility for managing communication lies mainly with the national United Nations Volunteer and the member organization (MO). They are responsible for assessing the information needs of the communities, finding the information, and offering it in the appropriate format and at the appropriate times to the communities. For their part, the volunteer and member organizations are responsible for informing national policy and decision makers about the Eco-volunteer programme and advising on the impact of the programme in national policy development for sustainable resource use and environment. It is therefore a prerequisite for the MO to have access to the various information resources in the country. This requires good knowledge of national development issues and good contacts with the various organizations involved.

In Uruguay, India, Poland and the Philippines, on several occasions Eco-volunteers have successfully organized campaigns against activities that where either unsustainable or harmful to public health. In the Philippines a logging ban was put in place, while in Uruguay the planned construction of a high-tension power line over a densely populated and poor area of Montevideo was averted. An Eco-volunteer from India managed to mobilize the community and establish a dialogue with forest officials who where denying people access to the forests with which they had been living in harmony for centuries. A successful campaign against illegal mining resulted in saving a national park from being destroyed. In Poland the promotion of sustainable transport systems led to the opening of the first bicycle path in the town of Krakow. This successful project led to the development of a national campaign on sustainable transport systems.

The third level of communication is the international one, in which the ELCI secretariat plays a critical role in coordinating and channelling the different types of information coming from, and going to, the countries involved.


Future development and implications

The Eco-volunteer programme is proving to be a significant learning process for all parties involved. There is considerable information available on the type of activities and the physical achievements of the various grassroots projects. However there is not enough qualitative information on experiences to draw conclusions and determine the possible implications these could have on policy development. Therefore an overall evaluation of the programme is planned before the end of 1995. Update. It is important to realize that, besides the fact that the Eco-volunteer concept differs from country to country, each group or person has its own objectives, expectations and activities.

The results of the evaluation will be available by May 1996 and it is expected that the results will show how the programme has strengthened local leadership as well as local organizations and indicate the possible impact it can have on the design of future community-based programmes concerning sustainable use of natural resources and environment.


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