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European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response
European Voluntary Humanitarian Aid Corps
Brussels, Charlemagne Building,Durieux Room
Brussels, 30 September 2010
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you for accepting our invitation to this Stakeholder Conference on the European Voluntary Humanitarian Aid Corps. I am happy to see that this topic seems to interest a lot of people from the humanitarian and civil protection community as well as volunteer networks.
This also confirms a view I have held for along time: volunteering is important, and volunteers are everywhere. Studies show that there are more than 90 million people involved in volunteering in the EU today, which implies that more than 20% of Europeans aged over 15 years are engaged in voluntary work. And volunteering contributes to between 5% and 14% of GDP in OECD countries. Citizens want to make a contribution other than giving money for charitable causes. There are opportunities for volunteering in the neighbourhood as well as in more distant places, where 80% of DG ECHO's implementing partners are using volunteer staff. Civil protection also relies heavily on volunteers: this is why one of the first projects financed by the European Commission’s Civil Protection Financial Instrument was to create a network between the voluntary civil protection organisations in Europe.
I have spoken for one minute, and I have already mentioned various voluntary services, which means that with so many actors and approaches involved in volunteering, coordination and coherence is paramount. The fact that the Lisbon Treaty foresees the setting up of a European Voluntary Humanitarian Aid Corps, means that we have to not only think about the content of this initiative, but also to reflect on how it will be connected with existing ones, and how it can be scaled up progressively.
This is why, in the last few months, we have been reviewing existing voluntary schemes, and in particular the European Voluntary Service run by my colleague of DG Education and Culture, Commissioner Vassiliou, and which for the last 14 years has given young Europeans the possibility to carry out voluntary activities within and outside Europe.
On the basis of the trends and gaps we have identified, we are looking at possible options for the Voluntary Corps. These have been discussed bilaterally with a range of organisations represented here today, and they will be debated further during the Conference today and in the coming months.
As I was not at the origin of this insertion in the Lisbon Treaty, I can tell you honestly that I look at the practical options without pre-conceived ideas. I therefore consider these consultations as a fundamental component of the preparatory work, and I can assure you that this stocktaking exercise will be reflected in a Commission Communication to be adopted before the end of the year.
We would like to continue the dialogue, including during the planned pilot phase which will be run in the framework of the 2011 European Year on Volunteering. Results of all this will be taken into account for the legislative proposal on the Voluntary Corps (due in 2012).
The options that will have to be tested relate to the three core objectives of the Voluntary scheme: 1) to identify and select the volunteers; 2) to train them; 3) to benefit from their training.
Regarding the identification and selection of volunteers, we will have to reach a fine balance between motivation, skills and experience. But talking to humanitarian aid practitioners, I realise that a vast majority of them has at some point started as volunteers, be it in NGOs, the Red Cross or in some voluntary fire service. Everybody has to start somewhere.
On training volunteers, we will have to consider all aspects of humanitarian aid: from on-the-spot needs assessment to financial management or website advocacy at the headquarters. We have to look at the skills to be acquired in a way that can be beneficial also within the EU, as people with training are needed in a lot of areas, including in the EU. We feel that that there is a need for different expertise modules that will contribute to more structured training, strengthening so the existing capacities in managing human resources in this field.
The possible assignments for volunteers will have to correspond to the reality of humanitarian assistance: they could contribute to an improved stand-by roster of experienced volunteers for rapid deployment in crisis context: a surge capacity.
We can have the best scenario planning for disasters in the world: in the end what counts is to have the right people in the right place at the right time. Younger or less experienced volunteers could be employed in the beginning in more support functions, so as to temporarily increase organisational capacities and release experienced staff to move closer to the field in times of crisis. We have also found that there are many possibilities of online volunteering, such as mapping and website management, and plan to look more in detail into these possibilities.
Equally, there is a lot of private sector involvement and potential. Some companies allow staff with specific expertise to volunteer in certain contexts, others are sponsoring certain operational activities or staff, and many would be interested to get more involved. This is obviously my World Bank experience speaking but I am convinced that – especially in times of shrinking national budgets – humanitarian actors have to be as effective and as innovative as possible.
As I see three core objectives for the European Voluntary Humanitarian Aid Corps, I would also like to stress three conditions for this scheme to bring a positive contribution to humanitarian aid operations.
First, we have to avoid duplication and look for solutions where we can plug in existing structures, at European or national levels. Duplication should be avoided with the existing European volunteering schemes, and with what local people do in relief operations. We see in all disasters how important the rapid creation of jobs for local population is. When I was in Haiti a couple of weeks after the earthquake I was extremely impressed by the masses of young Haitians working for humanitarian organisations cleaning away rubble – and being paid for it. This is important for the local economy, but it is equally important for the pride of people that have been hit by disaster.
Second, this scheme cannot be supply-driven. We cannot select, train and deploy all the people who would like to work in humanitarian aid as this could have counter-productive consequences. We want to avoid a volunteering overstretch, which means that we would use more resources for the volunteering scheme than what the latter would contribute to humanitarian aid. The last thing I want is to divert funding from my humanitarian budget: after Haiti, the Sahel and Pakistan, I have not one eurocent left, but still have three months to look at the news every morning, praying that no major disaster has happened overnight.
Third, security aspects are of paramount importance. I have said it many times already but I'll say it again: it would be utter madness to send young untrained people into a war zone, and I would never endorse a scheme that would propose such a thing.
Let me conclude by stressing that the European Voluntary Corps is bigger than humanitarian aid. It is about Europeans living their commitment to our values, working together as citizens of the European Union.
In the current financial crisis, when money is scarce, Volunteers give their time and at the same time build a European identity rooted in solidarity and understanding.
Let us work together to make this a reality.