The Potential of the Sustainable Development Goals for Volunteers

In this chapter we will change the focus a little. We would like to explore the potential of integrating the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a topic with returning volunteers. Why and how are they relevant to our work with volunteers in our trainings? What can we contribute to the achievement of the goals, and how can they contribute to our work with volunteers? And how can we include the SDGs in a way that volunteers can critically engage with them rather than just take them as a panacea for development?
The SDGs are a set of 17 individual goals that seek to address a wide variety of development issues, and which UN member states are expected to use to frame their development agendas. The SDGs form a global framework with the aim of sustainably making the world a better place. Rather than being a development framework that is situated only in certain parts of the world, the goals acknowledge that there is a need to address problems in the global north as well as in the global south. The SDGs can therefore be a way for volunteers to act as multipliers for global justice beyond their participation in the overseas placement by identifying what actions need to happen locally in their own country.
The SDGs are complex and cover a wide spectrum of issues around the world and will require commitment and time to work towards achieving them. Using the SDGs might help volunteers to see how one development framework has attempted to include many of the big development issues of this time. It would be useful to know what development frameworks have gone before (e.g. Millennium Development Goals, Poverty Reduction Strategy, etc.) – including the limitations and successes of previous initiatives in order to get a more informed, contextualised and critical insight into this current framework.
Once we are not just taking the SDGs at face value but with a critical perspective, there is opportunity to explore the role that volunteers can play in working towards their achievement? When returnees arrive back home after their volunteer project work is finished, they are often motivated to make a change, to have an impact on how things work at home. It is important as a trainer to support the ideas that returnees come up with, to link them in with what is already happening that they could add value to at home. Adding value and bringing their experiences to an existing initiative can be worthwhile since there may already be an established structure that will help people to channel their energy and time effectively. This way, returnees do not have to start from scratch, but can work with others towards common goals, as well as exchanging experiences. Seeing a change or at least some small progress can help to keep people motivated, and bringing attention to good work already going on can bring some energy for further change making.
In terms of individual actions that can be taken in relation to the goals, identifying those issues we feel most drawn to can be a good way to get started in getting active and engaged. We can already begin working on some of the 17 goals from home, and this can be a stimulus for further engagement for returned volunteers. For example:
Goal 12 on ‘Responsible Consumption and Production’: we can ask questions such as “What do I wear? What do I eat?” or “Where are my jeans from? Where are my bananas from?” Tackling everyday issues can be an easy access point for volunteers to become engaged because they offer a common starting point for discussion with those volunteers who wish to have accessible entry points for ways to make change in their everyday lives. People are usually able to grasp issues better when the topic affects them personally.
‘Clean water’ (Goal 6) might not be regarded as an immediate problem in our European climate, but it is in many countries of the world. However, we are closely related to the issue of water scarcity and pollution with our consumption of virtual water, or the amount of water used in the production of our daily goods. For example, the production of a pair of jeans uses up 11,000 litres of water, most of it for growing cotton in very hot and dry areas where the water is pumped from deep wells, thereby depleting the natural water reserves. Additionally, textile factories pollute rivers with their chemically contaminated wastewater. It is a global problem that can only be solved if people in high-consuming countries dare to care.
Goal 7, ‘Affordable and Clean Energy’, and Goal 9 ‘Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure’, have huge, long lasting impacts on our environment. Making changes in our use of technologies (for example, regarding personal mobility, heating, and power) is an essential step. That the SDGs are well connected and dependent on one another is demonstrated by Goals 13, ‘Climate Action’, 14 ‘Life below Water’, and 15 ‘Life on Land’. While the global north has larger CO2 emissions, the global south feels the effects of rapid global warming to a much higher degree, as a result of more tropical storms and flooding, as well as more droughts. Raising awareness and informing people about climate change and making them understand that every single human being can influence the climate with their everyday decisions, is a very concrete step towards achieving SDG 13 that volunteers can take by organising their own educational actions or actions that promote environmental protection. ‘Sustainable Cities and Communities’, Goal 11, may invite returnees to be active in their localities to encourage, for example, shared economies, inclusive infrastructure for disabled and elderly citizens, urban gardens, more bike stands and paths, greening of open spaces and buildings.
These examples show how broad the field of activism for the SDGs might be. As trainers of returned volunteers, we can link the individual interests of volunteers to SDG topics and the existing efforts of organisations that are working on the very same goals. This can, in turn, increase the chance of our returned volunteers’ activism becoming sustainable active citizenship.

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