VSO Volunteer, Miriam Etter, helped establish a neonatal intensive care unit at Suhul Hospital in Shire, Ethiopia. Credit - VSO /Paul James Driscoll (Sept 2015)
It's been nearly a year since the UN launched seventeen Global Goals to eradicate poverty and make the world a fairer place. Since the moment of signing, we said that now the talking is over, the action must start. Delivering success on this ambitious agenda will depend on ordinary people. So as I look back on this first year of the Global Goals, how are volunteers making mission impossible, mission possible?
As VSO's latest Annual Report demonstrates, the scale and reach of what our volunteers have achieved is profound. In the last year, over 2 million people are leading better lives in 24 countries across Asia, Africa and the Pacific. This would not be possible without the amazing commitment of our dazzling diversity of international, national, corporate, parliamentary and youth volunteers who are making a difference in health, education and livelihoods.
As VSO's CEO, I had the privilege of meeting some of them at our recent 'Friends' event - an annual celebration of achievements and an opportunity to connect with volunteers who share life changing stories. 24 year old Hector is one of our 8,585 youth volunteers we mobilised last year. He volunteered in Kericho, Kenya for nine weeks with International Citizen Service, our development programme for 18 to 25 year olds funded by the UK government. His placement empowered budding entrepreneurs who were offered basic business training and an opportunity to pitch their business ideas 'Dragons' Den' style. Entrepreneurs with the strongest ideas had them turned into a reality when they were awarded business loans. A passion fruit nursery and a plastic recycling business amongst others, are now up and running as a result.
Then there was Mary who volunteered in Northern Uganda for nearly three years. Gulu - a city wrecked by war - has taken its toll on the people there, but what if you're recovering from conflict AND excluded from your community because you have a disability? Mary has been providing basic business training and life skills including counselling, to people living with disability. 26 year old Ajok experienced prejudice and trauma because of her leg disability, but after Mary's training, she found the confidence to set up her own hairdressing business and put her newly acquired counselling skills to good use, preventing other people living with disability from taking their own lives. Like Mary and Ajok, I'm passionate about integrating marginalised people into the mainstream.
In the last year, we've also made great progress in neonatal health in Ethiopia. The first 28 days of a baby's life can be a matter of life or death, but neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) have reduced new-born mortality rates by 40%. Since 2013, we've increased the number of NICUs in Ethiopia from 3 to 16. As a result of volunteer training and support, 33,231 babies, women and children have accessed better quality health care last year, compared to 23,461 in the previous year. Evidence suggests that the ripple effect of our neonatal emergency response has improved other areas of intensive care in hospitals.
We've also been developing an exciting technology accountability project in India. In 2014, in the Odisha State of India, VSO launched Samadhan - a system where marginalised communities could lodge grievances about the public services they're entitled to. Each complaint, either made via a free phone call, text message or online, is resolved through a web portal which has resulted in better delivery and accountability of government services. 66% of the 1,707 complaints filed last year have been addressed including the construction of a new primary school in Jamuli Village and access to electricity in Tentiliguda Village. VSO community volunteers have been publicising this project, ensuring that everyone has a right to be heard. This model successfully marries technology with great programming and volunteering - it's so impressive, we hope to roll it out around the world.
We've delivered ground-breaking work in education. Our volunteers trained over 66,000 teachers in 16 countries last year, which benefited more than 850,000 children. I believe every child deserves a decent education, regardless of disability or gender. Despite the tragic earthquake in Nepal last year, our flagship education programme Sisters for Sisters is still running. It continues to break down barriers, giving more girls access to education. Our response to the earthquake was phenomenal. Our Nepal Appeal raised over £700,000 which enabled our volunteers to not only immediately respond to the emergency, but provide longer term support in education. I'm very proud of what we've achieved in Nepal.
As for the future, I'm looking forward to expanding our livelihoods work like the Cocoa Life Project in Ghana, which is helping female cocoa farmers run more profitable businesses. By extension, they then volunteer to help other female farmers boost their income. This could work in other countries - there's increasing opportunity for VSO's Knowledge Exchange to join forces with the private sector to ensure that markets work for the poor. Our ground-breaking HIV & AIDS work in prisons in Southern Africa is another one to watch in the coming year. Giving prisoners access to the right treatment and reducing stigma around the disease is a real challenge that not many people want to take on, but VSO has the courage to tackle it.
Like our programmes, our volunteers are diverse and operating all around the world, but one thing unites them. Regardless of age, location, background or experience, all volunteers have a part to play in delivering the Global Goals. This mission would be impossible without them.