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Vice-President of the European Commission, EU Justice Commissioner
Philanthropy and Volunteering – Promoting Tolerance and Inclusion
Forum of Civilizations – Echternach Days – closing remarks at the Conference: Role and Function of Philanthropic Organisations in State and Society – a Cross-Cultural Comparison
Echternach, 20 May 2011
I feel honoured having been invited to give the closing remarks at this truly important meeting. I feel a particular commitment, not only to the Forum and to the Echternach Days, but also to the subject you have been discussing since this morning.
Saying this is a truly important meeting is not just courtesy: I do believe much of our future depends on how we approach, expand and employ philanthropy and volunteering. It is not only our states and our societies that depend on it. Our minds depend on it as well.
We are all part of the same civilization, and that civilization will not prosper unless we all feel responsibility, inclusion and purpose. It will not prosper unless we raise our heads and look beyond the borders of differences and prejudice. It will not prosper unless we all give something back to society and to citizens.
And that is the inner core of philanthropy and volunteering: giving something back. The sense of both belonging and bestowing. It is good hearts doing good deeds. And that leaves no room for intolerance or extremism.
In this way we have also described the broader reason and goal for philanthropy and volunteering – and for your discussions here today: promoting tolerance and inclusion for the good of citizens and societies.
From history we recognise the word philanthropy as meaning "the love of humanity", in the sense of "what it is to be human". But our common use of the word today is perhaps best described by the Oxford dictionary: "the desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money to good causes."
"The love of humanity", "welfare of others" and "good causes"; Our responsibility in politics, in business and in society is to inspire and to facilitate that. And we should do it by actions more than words. It is much like Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai has expressed it: "Until you dig a hole, plant a tree, water it and make it survive, you haven't done a thing. You are just talking."
So my first assertion is that philanthropy and volunteering are actually not goals in themselves. They both serve a higher purpose and of course have many welcome side effects. But the driving force is the purpose – and the journey is as important as any ending it may have.
Before I elaborate on this purpose, these side effects and what we can do to facilitate them, I want to be clear about one thing: I see philanthropy and volunteering as two sides of the same coin. They are just variations on the theme "good hearts doing good deeds". Either you contribute with money, or with efforts. Or why not both?
And philanthropic organisations and volunteering organisations all play on the same but sometimes quite uneven playing field. They occasionally run in to the same brick wall of obstacles. I want to address some of those obstacles as well, and what we can do to bring down that wall, brick by brick.
If I should give a broad description of my continent, my home and my devotion – Europe – then it would be this: actions and solutions based on values and the rule of law, in Europe and on the world stage.
What started out as a necessary peace project between 6 countries over 50 years ago has grown into a family of 27 countries with a common purpose built on shared values.
"The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail."
This is not me describing to you the European Union in my own words. These are the opening lines – Article 2 – of the Lisbon Treaty. What is striking is that it is also a suitable summary of some of the core values of philanthropy and volunteering. We strive to be a just and equitable society – a society with an honest ethos.
I believe we succeed in that. But it is perhaps more interesting to see how others look upon us, from the outside. Many see Europe as a vehicle for change. Many see our ethos and our actions as inspiring and enabling. Not to copy, but to create and build something own.
With recent events in northern Africa and the Middle East, I can not avoid giving you an example from that region. It comes from my own back yard; communication and journalism.
Most of you are familiar with the European news broadcaster Euronews. In July 2008 they launched their Arabic news service, which is fully Commission funded. A spinoff effect of that work was very well described by the head of news at Egyptian TV, Abd al-Latif al-Minawi.
He considered co-operation between Euronews and its Egyptian partners fruitful because it reinforces mutual understanding of the culture of journalism on both sides of the Mediterranean. Something which has been tremendously important over the last few months.
I am not saying this is philanthropy. I am saying this shows that by having – and acting on – an honest ethos, societies and organisations do make a difference. They set a standard of compassion. They act as beacons. And they show the interdependence between individual efforts and societal change.
My second assertion is therefore that indifference is the biggest barrier – an honest ethos breeds philanthropy and volunteering. But that is not enough.
The important thing is this: it is up to decision and opinion makers to act as catalysts and to dig that hole, so that anyone can plant that tree, water it and make it survive.
* * *
Even without indifference and with a large portion of honest ethos there are quite a few concrete obstacles, as I already mentioned. Regardless of country or continent, sometimes volunteers and philanthropists hit a brick wall of bureaucracy, of red tape, or simply of indifference or inequity. People with influence have a duty to try to change that, regardless of whether we are in politics, business or civil society.
As Vice-President of the European Commission I have tried to put focus and make change through the European Year of Volunteering 2011. During the first months of this year I have seen so many good things – so much hope and vision. But I have also seen too many obstacles and far too much inequality to make our continent a truly level playing field.
In at least six Member States the lack of a clear legal and regulatory framework and clear rules is considered a key challenge for the development of volunteering.
The current legislation is sometimes fragmented and leaves key questions unanswered, causing contradictory interpretations.
This needs to change.
There are also situations where unemployed people or those on early retirement are severely restricted in the hours they can devote to voluntary work. Whilst these people have time and experience on their hands, restrictive laws make it very difficult for them to volunteer.
This needs to change as well.
If change is our desire, then action is the obligation for all of us gathered here today. "Not being able to do everything is no excuse for not doing everything you can", to quote author and cartoonist Ashleigh Brilliant. That goes for philanthropists and volunteers, but it most certainly goes for decision and opinion makers as well. We all need to lead by example.
My ambition with the European Year of Volunteering is to promote, recognise, facilitate, and support volunteers and their organisations, be it philanthropic organisations or NGOs. I think we can all agree on how important this work is.
We are all part of the same civilisation, and we have to generate responsibility, inclusion and purpose. We all need to give something back to society and to citizens.
This leads me to my final assertion. Society has an important function in giving a good reason for people to give something back. I am not only thinking about basic societal functions and infrastructures; more of the honest ethos that I mentioned before: fighting indifference with inspiration.
But even more importantly decision makers must ensure there is a level playing field. Everyone should have the same possibilities, regardless of country or conviction; of assignments or actions. Rules and regulations should be both just and equal.
* * *
One of the founding fathers of the United States, Alexander Hamilton, said over 200 years ago that "those who stand for nothing fall for anything".
Two centuries later his words still ring true. In today's diverse and complex world we unfortunately see proof of Alexander Hamilton's old acumen. Recession breeds despondency: prejudice leading to xenophobia; unfairness leading to racism; narrow-mindedness leading to inequality. Because those who stand for nothing fall even for pettiest of politics, the dumbest of dogmas, the most obscure of opinions.
But in a sensible society founded on rights and values, freedom, solidarity and security, there will always be people and organisations that instead really stand up for something and for someone. People and organisations who very concretely demonstrate tolerance, fairness and open-mindedness. People and organisations who we may not hear because of what they say, but that we certainly see because of what they do and what they achieve. – "the love of humanity", "welfare of others" and "good causes".
From Henry Jones in the 1840's, via Reinhard Mohn and İhsan Doğramacı in the mid 1900's, to Steve and Jean Case or Sir Paul Judge more recently – they have inspired and improved with millions for millions. We owe them our deepest gratitude and respect.
Those of us who are either politicians or can bring about change in other ways, have a duty to bring down the remaining bricks in that wall of obstacles. We have a duty to make all our efforts to foster responsibility, inclusion and purpose, because without such duty our civilisation will cease to prosper. We have a duty to act.
By making philanthropic and voluntary work easier, we make life easier for so many more – and we promote tolerance and inclusion for the good of citizens and societies. What could be more important?
We need to speak to the hearts and minds of societies and citizens. Because in the end it all comes down to how Winston Churchill once described it: "Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference."