Volunteers for a Better World

The UN's technically skilled consultants provide valuable know-how to developing countries. UNITED NATIONS DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM

ON the small island of St. Lucia, five urban planners from five countries are finishing a job they are unlikely to encounter again in their careers. By participating in the United Nations Volunteer (UNV) Program, a Yugoslav, a Pakistani, a Bangladeshi, a Ghanaian, and an Englishman have come together to produce a development master plan for a 238-square-mile island nation. They range in age from 32 to 57; one is single, the others are married, and some have children. Yet their common profession and desire to contribute to international development brought them to St. Lucia.

``You couldn't imagine a more diverse group,'' says Augustus Ashdown, the planner from Britain. ``We're all different ages, marital statuses, and have different work backgrounds. But we do our best to get along. That's what the UN is all about.''

Developing countries cannot always afford high-paid consultants. But thanks to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), they can use volunteer experts instead.

What makes the UNVs unique is that they do not represent their governments, but rather the international community, so they cannot be criticized for being part of a foreign-policy strategy. Many countries do send volunteers on a bilateral basis, such as the United States Peace Corps. And although those programs are beneficial, their volunteers are not always as highly skilled as those of the UN.

Mr. Ashdown is enthusiastic about his job.

``I got the opportunity here to devise a master plan all on my own, from top to bottom, an experience a planner wouldn't find anywhere else,'' he says.

Ede Madjar of Yugoslavia emphasizes the value of working with the St. Lucians as fellow employees.

``By working with them in the office and at their pace, our ideas leaked into the local staff,'' he says. ``I cannot think of a better school than that. It is difficult to see the results, but you feel good about leaving your mark, about being able to leave some influence on people.''

Riitta Pirttijarvi left her native Finland after earning a degree in public administration and working seven years to be a UNV in charge of 26 other UNVs in the eastern Caribbean.

``I'm like a mother to the volunteers,'' she explains in her office in Barbados. ``They can call me collect on business, but sometimes they invent reasons because they are lonely.''

When asked why she and her colleagues would leave their jobs and countries for an assignment with a salary that just makes ends meet, she says, ``UNVs are idealistic people. They think this is a great, beautiful idea to be a volunteer.''

Goodwill by itself or a technical skill alone will not make an effective UNV - the combination of the two is a must. A university degree or a higher technical diploma, plus two years' professional experience, is required. For skilled trades, five years' experience is necessary in addition to a diploma. Most volunteers are between the ages of 25 and 35, but anyone between 21 and 70 is eligible. Round-trip air fare, housing, and medical and life insurance are provided, as well as a monthly salary ranging from $395 to $755, depending on the country. When the volunteer finishes, he or she receives a resettlement allowance of $75 for every month served.

Where do they come from and where do they go? They come from some 80 countries, three-quarters of which are developing countries, particularly Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, and Ghana.

``For them it's more than being a volunteer; it's employment,'' says Ms. Pirttijarvi, who explains that university graduates from those countries seek work experience that will help their careers when they return.

The 2,000 UNVs now working around the world are in 100 developing countries. Some, like Peru, may have only one UNV, whereas other UNDP offices employ several dozen, as in the eastern Caribbean.

The program was started in 1970 with support from UN Secretary-General U Thant, after a recommendation from the Economic and Social Council.

Forty volunteers were put into the field in 1971, and by the program's 10th anniversary, 1,000 were spread throughout the world. Since then the number has doubled. They may be agronomists, construction engineers, nurses, nutritionists, or whatever profession that is needed by a developing country.

Why the UN puts an age limit on volunteers perplexes one couple that has gotten around the restriction. Erling Helland, a 72-year-old urban planner, and his wife, Thordis, a 73-year-old medical social worker, had just finished a three-year assignment with the Peace Corps in the Philippines when the government of the British Virgin Islands (BVI) was eagerly awaiting their arrival as UN volunteers. But at the last minute someone noticed that they exceeded the age cutoff. With their house up for sale and their bags packed, they received a shocking phone call in Tulsa, Okla.

``We were extremely disappointed,'' Thordis remembers. ``But thanks to the UNDP resident representative in Barbados, we are here working in the BVI.''

Because the government was so confident that the Hellands were the perfect candidates for its Planning and Social Development Departments, it agreed to hire them at the same cost of UNVs, using funds from the UNDP budget for the British Virgin Islands.

The Hellands are avid promoters of older volunteers, explaining that they are more available, more experienced, and more mature. And they are proving their point by busily contributing to the development process of this small country of 12,000 people. Erling is designing land-use maps and statements of development policy for seven communities on the three islands, as well as an update for a part of the capital city of Road Town. With the rapid development of the islands, Erling's work will assist the government in controlling the effects on the environment.

Thordis works in the country's only home for senior citizens, which also includes handicapped residents who cannot care for themselves. She tries to connect the home to local resources that will help to improve the residents' daily routine, which is limited to sleeping, meals, television, and a weekly craft lesson.

``I try to find something interesting in each patient,'' she says. ``Some can sing, others can tell stories. I like to make people feel good, and I'd like to do more of that here.''

Sometimes UNDP finds a volunteer candidate already at work. Maria Th'er`esa Mendieta-Th'eodor, a Belgian nurse, had worked for free in a slum on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, for a year, attending to malnourished children, some of whom arrived from the countryside where they had been traumatized by guerrilla warfare. She worked with UNDP consultants who have a project in the community, and through them, applied to be a UNV. Now she is receiving a small salary.

UNDP's project there is the establishment of an industrial park for small-scale entrepreneurs who live in the area. Miss Mendieta and an Italian physician make up the consulting team that will design a plan for a safe work environment. Despite the long hours this position will entail, she does not intend to give up her five-hour evening shift in the local health clinic. She rationalizes that if her patients can withstand the difficult challenge of living in a marginal neighborhood, she can withstand the challenge of helping them.

``The people are incredible,'' she says. ``They have a courage that keeps them struggling.''

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