Businesses, governments, nongovernmental organizations and international organizations need all the help they can get to achieve the ambitious objectives on the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda. What these organizations may not fully realize is the central importance that larger society -- in the form of billions of people inclined to volunteer -- can play in virtually every country worldwide. Gallup World Poll surveys in 142 countries in 2014 found that nearly 1.3 billion adults had donated money to charity in the past month, nearly 1 billion had given their time to an organization and more than 2 billion had helped a stranger in need.
Even if these organizations realize how invaluable a resource these potential volunteers are, many lack the ability to identify and quantify who and where these people are. The United Nations Volunteers program rightly notes the need to measure volunteering worldwide: "Volunteerism should be a part of a new measuring framework that goes beyond GDP and demonstrates progress in human well-being and sustainable human development."
For the past 10 years, Gallup has been monitoring people's civic engagement in more than 160 countries through a metric known as the Civic Engagement Index. The index assesses people's inclination to volunteer their money, time and assistance to others. It is a barometer of people's commitment to the communities they live in. This research can help governments, businesses and organizations better understand the population of potential volunteers, and it can be an essential tool for organizations to use to maximize volunteerism to support the SDGs in the areas of food security, health and economic prosperity.
The countries with the most civically engaged populations in the world are not necessarily the richest. While the top 10 list includes wealthy Western countries, such as the U.S., New Zealand and Canada, middle-income countries such as Sri Lanka and Malaysia are not far behind. In 2014, Myanmar ranked highest in the world on the Civic Engagement Index, besting the United States. Myanmar's strong Buddhist traditions, which stress donations to and volunteering at temples, reflect residents' positive responses to the civic engagement questions.
Despite the amount of volunteerism taking place worldwide, it is not happening to the same degree everywhere. Perhaps predictably, some of the countries where populations are the least civically inclined are places that have been economically devastated or ridden by internal conflict such as Greece and Yemen. Impoverished countries such as Burundi and Chad might also not be surprising -- people are probably focused on meeting their basic needs before thinking about volunteering. However, more surprising is the lack of reported civic engagement in China, which now has the largest economy in the world when adjusting for purchasing power. A country that has come so far in the past two decades in terms of economics might find that additional efforts in volunteerism would pay off in well-being improvements not just for the recipients of the volunteered time and money, but also for the volunteers themselves.
Leaders would be wise to encourage volunteerism in their own countries. In addition to the obvious benefits associated with volunteerism, such as helping people in need, it also improves the lives of the volunteers themselves. According to the 2014 Gallup-Healthways State of Global Well-Being report, people who volunteer tend to have higher well-being than those who do not.
Achieving the post-2015 SDGs will not be easy, but it can be done with the help of 1 billion volunteers. To help themselves attain the SDGs, global leaders need a better understanding of who these volunteers are, where they are and what motivates them. Knowing this will better position global leaders to develop targeted programming aimed at volunteerism to successfully meet the SDGs.
The article was originally published in the 2015 Global Action Report, an annual synthesis report produced by the Global Action Platform in collaboration with Diplomatic Courier. Republished with permission.