Volunteering for the UN: everything you need to know

Aitana Robey

If you are someone who would like to collaborate with the UN but do not know how to do it, this article may interest you. Have you ever considered volunteering for the UN? The United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme contributes to peace and development through volunteerism around the world. In 2018, for example, 7,201 UN Volunteers were deployed around the world, of which 81% came from countries in the South.

Volunteering is a great way for students and professionals to get involved in critical issues, while cultivating global citizenship, developing useful skills and gaining professional experience with the UN. With their knowledge and passion, UN Volunteers help advance UN mandates and principles, and foster multilateralism and sustainability through practical and tangible tasks.

What you should know

There are two basic types of volunteering opportunities: volunteering abroad and volunteering in your own country. The minimum age for international assignments is 25, and for national assignments, 22. Basic requirements include a university degree or higher technical diploma (a master’s degree may be required depending on the nature of the job), two years of relevant work experience and a good knowledge of at least one of UNV’s three working languages ​​(English, French and Spanish).

In addition, UNV also runs a special online volunteering program for those who want to contribute to the work of the UN from their own home, using their desktop or laptop computers. This program enables more than 12,000 people to volunteer remotely each year, using their skills to carry out research, graphic design, proofreading, translation and other work for a wide range of United Nations entities, as well as non-governmental organizations.

Finally, there is also the United Nations Youth Volunteers program, geared towards motivated and talented young people between the ages of 18 and 29. The educational background and experience required varies depending on the assignment, but generally, it is not required to have more than two years’ work experience.

How do I do it?

Those interested in becoming a UN Volunteer must first register on the UNV Web Volunteer Management Application and complete their profile to be included in the Global Talent Pool. There are two ways to be selected: UNV can search for profiles according to the needs of the assignment and contact them; or the person interested can apply directly to a special call, which typically requires faster onboarding of volunteers.

The candidates shortlisted by the UNV together with the specific UN organism, undergo an evaluation that normally consists of a written and an oral phase. The written exam is not required, but when there is one, it is taken online and consists of fundamental technical questions related to the assignment. However, the most critical part of the assessment process is the competency-based interview, which can last from 30 minutes to 1 hour, with a panel of interviewers made up of staff from UNV and the host agency. Both the written test and the interview are conducted in at least two languages.

Once selected, volunteers receive digital and on-site training from UNV and the agency in question. UN Volunteers have privileges and immunities similar to those of UN officials as necessary for the performance of their duties and are directly managed and supervised on a day-to-day basis by the host agency.

Paz Ramírez: “I learned how much you can help someone with something so basic as listening to them”

Paz Ramírez is a young Spanish law graduate who writes about human rights and migration in various media. Her dream is to one day work for the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), and she has done two online volunteering for the World Food Programme (WFP) together with UN Peru.

In her case, the selection process was not the usual one. It consisted of a call made by UN Peru through LinkedIn and no prerequisite was needed. “It just required you to attend the training sessions before volunteering and to be available to make the calls,” she says.

The volunteer work in which Paz has participated consisted of providing telephone assistance –in one of them through text messages in a web page, and the other through phone calls– to Venezuelan refugees settled in Peru, to inform them about certain procedures, advise them , etc.

“My group was assigned to make calls to inform them about how to have a healthy and balanced diet in pregnant women and children, in order to avoid diseases such as anemia, which is one of the common diseases among the population”

To do this, she previously received online training on nutritional advice and how to deal with refugees over the phone. Additionally, each group had a coordinator to solve possible doubts and problems the volunteers may encounter.

Paz faced some inconveniences, such as difficulties in communication due to differences in accent and vocabulary and the time difference, among others. “In some calls they asked me for medical advice for their babies –since my topic was nutrition and disease prevention in children and pregnant women–,” (laughs) “but that helped me learn new things!”.

“The volunteering was structured to call for 2 hours and a half a day, but I always dedicated more time because you had to reach a minimum of effective calls at the end of the week, and because not reaching that minimum meant that there were families who were left without their call”, she explains.

However, for Paz it was an experience that “was totally worth it”: “You feel a lot of gratification with each call, since most of the calls are not limited to just giving them the information and that’s it, but rather they unburden themselves to you, and you are impressed by the harshness of their testimonies…”.

“I would totally recommend it, because from my experience I learned how much you can help someone with something so basic as listening to them. It sounds cliché, but knowing that many of them had left their families in Venezuela to go to work in Peru and send them money helped me to enjoy more the time I spend with my family. I think that any voluntary work you do makes you grow personally”, concludes Paz.

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