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European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response
The lessons learned and ways forward for EU Aid Volunteers
EU Aid Volunteers Conference, Brussels
Brussels, 16 September 2013
Vice-Minister Kriščiūnas, Member of Parliament Ms Striffler,
And last but certainly not least: Dear Volunteers!
It's been almost exactly one year ago that I had the pleasure of meeting two from your ranks here in Brussels: Maaike and Colm. It was the 19 September 2012 when I presented to the public our proposal for setting up the EU Aid Volunteers. I outlined how we thought this new initiative would make a real difference: giving the humanitarian community a much needed reinforcement of a highly motivated and well- trained workforce at a time when, because of climate change and more complex conflicts, needs are growing; and giving Europeans a new platform to show their solidarity with those who need it the most.
The story of the Ugly Duckling…
When I came into office back in 2010 and first heard about this planned programme it looked like a no brainer: Of course this is what we should do – where does EU action become more concrete and meaningful if not in humanitarian aid? And what makes more sense than creating within humanitarian action additional opportunities, a "melting pot", where enthusiasm, skill and focus on compelling humanitarian needs can galvanize to save lives?
And after all: 88% of Europeans told us in a Eurobarometer survey that they would like to see such a programme becoming a reality.
Well – I soon learned that it was not that self-evident after all. What I experienced ever since reading the article in the Lisbon Treaty for the setting up of humanitarian aid corps reminds me one of my grand-daughter's favorite fairy tales. It is the tale of the Ugly Duckling. Do you know that one? It is about this poor little thing that was born into a family of ducks; was looked at strangely; 'dissed', as youngsters would probably call that nowadays.
When the idea of the EU Aid Volunteers came up first we faced very similar reactions:
Who is this little thing that came to the world here?
What does it have to contribute to the family of humanitarian aid?
Is it really needed and does it not duplicate existing programmes?
Let's be honest: Very few positive voices were also heard about this new initiative – and many of the skeptical questions were well-founded and came with good intentions. But my team and I made it our task to challenge and change the skepticism - and you, the volunteers in this room and those many others who are not present, made it possible.
- possible to create ownership in the sector, its family, for the process developing the initiative.
- possible to test different models about how this programme could work with pilot projects.
- possible to discuss and debate our ideas with what we call the 'co-legislators' from the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers,
And we now have not just the conviction, but also the evidence that this initiative has all it takes to contribute to strengthening the EU's capacity to provide needs-based humanitarian aid aimed at preserving life, preventing and alleviating human suffering and maintaining human dignity.
In the fairy tale, the Ugly Duckling after many weeks and months of self-doubts and difficult start into life becomes one of the most beautiful and majestic birds: a white swan.
Our programme, admittedly, still has a couple of grey feathers. But no worries, we are about to see it taking off.
You as the pioneers
I am grateful that you have agreed to come here and talk to us about your experience as a 'sample' of the 120 other volunteers who we could not invite. I was really impressed when I visited this morning your exhibition and when I learned about all the different projects you have been involved in:
- collecting and sharing humanitarian information using and spreading open source and open data technology in Burundi, Central African Republic, Cameroon and Chad
- developing cash-for-work initiatives and protection for famers in Palestine
- empowering women's groups in Ethiopia
- pioneering the EU Aid Volunteers involvement in civil protection capacity building activities in Paraguay, Colombia, Costa Rica and Kosovo
- coordinating voluntary resettlement in flood prone villages in Togo
- 'mainstreaming' the concepts of Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience with local organisations in Uganda and Bangladesh - developing a toolkit for "Management of Volunteers in Emergencies" and disseminating to different organisations working with volunteers in Trinidad and Tobago and elsewhere.
And many, many more exciting initiatives that would not have taken place without you, your enthusiasm and passion,.
I know this was not always easy for you. But when in history has it been easy to be a pioneer? You need to pave the way where there is none. You need to fight obstacles that the ones following will not dream that they ever existed. You need to show resilience and grit where others would just have given up…
Yet, you have embodied the slogan of our initiative:
WE CARE – WE ACT !
And I would like to thank you on all our behalf for this.
Lessons learned so far
Of course we have not sat here to wait until you are back to continue our learning about the opportunities this new programme offers. We have organised several visits with the coordinators of the different projects – many of whom are also here today.
I have also had the pleasure to welcome a group from the first year's pilot project run by the French Red Cross last year here in Brussels.
And we have had a constant stream of conversation with the actors involved. The list of lessons learned is long – I just want to share some of the most striking ones for me.
- First lesson: the demand is there. Demand from the humanitarian organisations, more and more of which apply. And demand from Europeans who want to volunteer. We saw the numbers of interested candidates go up to 100 for 1 available position.
This is of course great news – it shows we are developing something that meets an existing demand. It also represents challenges, though: we need to devise a just and fair system of selection, so that volunteers from all European countries can apply and stand a fair chance. 21 European nationalities have already been involved in the pilot phase, which is a great success. But yes, it is true: some countries are under- or not represented. And we need to make effort so that volunteers from countries that do not have a long history of humanitarian aid can also participate.
- But there is also a second dimension that is very important in this respect: The selection process is about 'expectation management' - the expectations of volunteers, but also the expectations and the needs of the organisations sending and hosting volunteers. We are thrilled by the high number of candidates, but volunteers need to be selected on the basis of thorough assessment of what is exactly needed in terms of skills and profiles in the field. This may disappoint some – but is the only recipe that all those involved get the best out of it.
- A third lesson is of course safety and security. Humanitarian operations do happen very often in areas that are considered 'of risk'. And even if we limit our programme to "low-risk" areas, there is no such thing as a 0% risk deployment of an EU Aid Volunteer. This is an area where we have learned already a lot – fortunately not the 'hard way', meaning that none of our volunteers suffered any serious threats – and those who did not come back did so for very good reasons: They were hired directly on the ground (another success story of our programme!). This is certainly a key area where we want to hear from you and your experience. What is it that made your stay safe and secure? When and where you faced any risks, how did your sending and hosting organisation deal with it? What would you expect such a programme to propose so that each volunteer can make the best out of his or her deployment? And what are the different legal hurdles that you, coming from different EU member states and beyond, had to overcome to be able to participate? As you know, we will develop in the coming months stringent standards for both sending and hosting organisations to ensure that duty of care is at the heart of the EU Aid Volunteers. Your input is extremely valuable so we get this right.
- Finally, a point that is particularly close to my heart: the name of our programme. You may remember our online forum to find a great brand for it where we launched a competition with hundreds of proposals and inspiring discussions. We opted for 'EU Aid Volunteers'. But of course it takes more than a name for a programme to develop an identity. It takes life experience.
And this is what you contribute and will continue to do. I am often asked: What is the nature of this beast? Is it for young Europeans? Will you focus on short or longer term? Is it geared towards experts? How does it link to local organisations?
What do you actually think is the medium age of our present two cohorts of volunteers? Any guesses? It is actually 32. Our youngest local volunteer involved was 21 years old. Our most senior volunteer 70. And this is again precisely what we have set out to: To provide opportunities for young professionals – but also for experts and senior citizens who have so much to give to our sector.
As for the rest, let me refer to a volunteer's quote who has answered some of these questions in the context of an evaluation of one of the pilot projects:
“I believe in volunteering, but in a very professional role. I want to emphasize how important local partners are. I am very happy to realise goals with my local partner. Professional partnership is the key for success. I would advocate focusing on partnership selection and carry this out very carefully!”
What we do need to ensure is that there is a clear feeling of belonging. We want our volunteers, and Europe at large, to feel proud to be part of this. Being an EU Aid Volunteer will become a distinct label of excellence in the sector and we will work hard to achieve this. The work on the Network of EU Aid Volunteers will be crucial here. And this is why I am so glad to have gathered so many of you today to kick start the debate on this Network and what it takes to be successful - to become a community of volunteers – who care – and act!
Now what's in the pipeline? You will hear more about this during the afternoon panel which I do not want to pre-empt here. But allow me to through some figures in:
Once Parliament and Council have adopted the Regulation, we will swiftly move to implementation. 2014 will probably still be a year of transition and preparing all the different elements for the programme such as the training programme, the standards for sending and hosting organisations and the operational set-up, not the least of our central web platform where everything from publication of vacancies and applications will be managed.
We will rely on a budget of 147.9 million for 2014-2020, which would allow us to
- deploy some 4,000 volunteers over the whole period phasing in during the first years
- accredit some 180 sending and hosting organisations
- provide opportunities for capacity building for some 4,400 multiplicators in local hosting organisations worldwide.
- and, certainly not least, offer some 10,000 online volunteering assignments that will benefit hosting organisations of EU Aid Volunteers.
Ambitious – but realistic goals. And I am sure when we meet next time and the times thereafter, we will be proud of our white swan, we will be proud of what we have built together.