Since the 1990s, the West African region has been at the centre of civil wars and transborder conflicts and has struggled constantly with armed conflict and insecurity. Such conflicts not only cause a significant number of casualties and bring mental and physical pain and suffering to communities, they also destabilize Governments, weaken economies and destroy basic infrastructure. A series of protocols, strategy frameworks and policies have been established by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union, the United Nations and other entities to eliminate the negative impact of conflict and build the resilience and reconstruction capabilities of post-conflict countries. Nevertheless, some problems remain unresolved, including the lack of a resource mobilization network, the gap between well-developed policies and their effective implementation, and weaknesses in the delivery of basic social services, such as education and health.
Innovative and effective solutions are needed to achieve mutual and sustainable development among countries located in West Africa, solve this plight and consolidate peace and regional integration.
Towards a Solution
The first regional volunteer scheme, the ECOWAS Volunteer Programme (EVP), was launched on 26 March 2010 in Monrovia, Liberia. It was implemented by ECOWAS and the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme, with financial support from the African Development Bank. In 2018, the ECOWAS Commission further developed the programme with various partners. The overall aim of the EVP is to facilitate youth engagement and participation in peace and development initiatives through volunteerism. Young people from ECOWAS are united in their conviction that conflict prevention and reconciliation can be used to consolidate peace in their countries and in the subregion. The Programme mobilized volunteers in West Africa to promote ECOWAS ideals and strategies, which include union, peace, democracy, sustainable development and regional integration. Additionally, the EVP enhanced the expertise and professional skills of citizens in the community under the themes of solidarity, union, hopes and dreams.
The role of the EVP included strengthening the capacities of local organizations in the development and implementation of projects and programmes in which volunteers participated (Sustainable Development Goal [SDG] 17); promoting peace (SDG 16); enhancing gender equality (SDG 5); establishing and supporting partnerships between communities (SDG 17); networking and collaborating with other development countries (SDG 17); and providing expertise and technical support to host communities in education, health and gender equality initiatives (SDGs 3, 4 and 5).
The EVP provided opportunities for young professionals from the ECOWAS community to serve in neighbouring countries, supporting post-crisis initiatives. Since the launch of the EVP, around 200 volunteers have been deployed in three post-conflict countries in West Africa: Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. By sharing their expertise and providing technical assistance in 14 areas of specialization, EVP volunteers worked closely with local governments and communities in promoting national priority development areas. The EVP also provided an opportunity for young people to learn about and discover new cultures and strengthen the bonds between individuals from different countries. In addition, the Programme addressed the issue of intercommunity perception. In some countries affected by civil war, like Sierra Leone or Liberia, foreigners from other ECOWAS countries were not always well received. Volunteer engagement through the EVP has helped improve intercommunity relationships by changing host communities’ perceptions. During the evaluation of this programme, nearly 99 percent of ECOWAS volunteers believed that the EPV had an important added value to them.
During the programme, an EVP online platform was established to further expand the possibility of cooperation among countries in West Africa, mobilize additional volunteers and share information. Furthermore, an ECOWAS Volunteer Forum was also developed, involving Governments, civil society organizations and volunteer organizations. The Forum has been held every year since 2016 to enhance South-South cooperation on volunteering in West Africa and facilitate volunteer exchanges between countries. In 2018, for example, 54 participants from 14 countries took part in various consultations around the theme ‘The Place of Volunteering in the Fight against Youth Unemployment in ECOWAS’. In 2019, the theme of the annual Forum was ‘Volunteerism for Peace and Security’, and over 60 participants came from national agencies, Governments, international partners in the field of volunteering, as well as non-governmental organizations.
The success of the programme relied on improving the connection and coordination between stakeholders from the global South by raising public awareness of volunteering for SSC; fostering cross-national and regional networks; and building the capacities of volunteers, Governments, volunteer-involving organizations (VIOs) and academia to manage and engage volunteers in support of national and regional programmes.
ECOWAS is also interested in exploring options to increase South-South cooperation in order to expand the programme. Volunteers from different nationalities working together under one roof to improve life in one member State contributes to national integration. The strong commitment among Governments, volunteers, VIOs and other stakeholders helped to solve critical issues, which demonstrates that the EVP could be replicated by countries facing the same challenges. As a next step, ECOWAS plans to share these activities and good practices with countries in Central Africa and other regions of the world. The Community is also currently exploring partnerships with volunteer agencies in China.
During the programme, UNV has been identified as the “key to the success of the project”, and it “effectively contributed to the achievements of the targets of the project”. In the beginning, UNV supported the EVP in almost every aspect, from technical advice on policies and legislations to support in setting up volunteer management operations systems. In 2019, UNV and ECOWAS transitioned full management of the programme to ECOWAS to ensure ownership and sustainability. Since January 2020, ECOWAS has had complete control of the programme; the EVP is now fully autonomous.