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Agents of Change: The EU Aid Volunteers Initiative

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5 December 2013

Today is International Volunteer Day, and this year’s theme “Young Global Active” celebrates young people around the world who are effecting change through volunteering. In order to mark this day, Claus Sørensen, the Director General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection at the European Commission explains the importance of the new EU Aid Volunteers initiative, which will launch in 2014.


This new initiative will offer 4,000 European citizens the possibility to assist with humanitarian operations around the world through volunteer placements lasting from as little as 4 weeks, up to 2 years. Although the European Commission will manage and fund the process, volunteers will be placed in other humanitarian organisations working in the field, for example VSO or Save the Children.

The idea of creating a European Volunteer scheme “originates in a decision made by heads of state and government in the final stages of the Lisbon Treaty negotiations,” explains Mr Sørensen. “It was decided to give it a humanitarian focus, also to give it a focus outside of Europe, and thirdly not only to make it accessible to very young people, but actually to allow people of all ages to benefit from the scheme.” Created at the onset of the financial crisis, the EU Aid Volunteers initiative also provides a new avenue for people looking for something meaningful to do – provided they are given the skills necessary to take up a humanitarian challenge. 


"In order to establish a framework for joint contributions from young Europeans to the humanitarian aid operations of the Union, a European Voluntary Humanitarian Aid Corps shall be set up. The European Parliament and the Council, acting by means of regulations in accordance with the ordinary legislative procedure, shall determine the rules and procedures for the operation of the Corps.”

- Article 214.5 of the Lisbon Treaty


“We need a recruitment basis for a lot of our NGOs when they do their work overseas. It is important that we nurture a minimum of people that have some qualifications that can do that,” continued Mr Sørensen. While the scheme will be open to different types of volunteers – young and old, senior experts or young professionals as first time volunteers – certain standards will need to be met. “[Volunteers] have actually to go through some training, they have to be sent out and framed in organisations that have an experience that can guide them so that we are sure that not only do they try to do good, but they are actually able to do good.”



On a practical level this means that organisations looking for volunteers to assist with their humanitarian operations should seek certification to participate in the EU Aid Volunteers initiative. Thereafter they can apply to receive an EU grant. If approved, the placement will be listed on the EU Aid Volunteers webpage*, however, recruitment will be managed by the organisation offering the placement. Selected volunteers will then undergo a rigorous European training programme according to European Commission (EC) standards. For example, in order to prepare them for what they might face, volunteers may undergo one-month training in a remote area with no access to computers nor mobile phones. 

The EC ‘Budget for Europe 2020’, has foreseen an allocation of €150 million in order to deploy the volunteers between 2014 and 2020, with €60 million being spent on deployment, €59 million on training, and €22.8 million on developing the capacity of disaster hit communities. While volunteers will not earn any money during their placements, all their travel and living costs will be covered, which explains why deployment takes the bulk of the funding. By counting the total number of volunteers, beneficiaries from capacity development and the online volunteering programme attached to the initiative, some 20,000 people will directly benefit from this initiative.

Mr Sørensen also shared his opinion on the benefits of volunteering: “I actually believe that a society is more healthy and resilient and a nicer place to be in if you have volunteers, because people do something not because of personal gain, they invest personal engagement.” Touching on the principle of do no harm, he elaborated: “You should not improvise. Humanitarianism is a profession. But there are very many situations where volunteers with some training and a lot of good will can actually make a difference and come in and give some help and assistance.”

Speaking about where volunteers will be sent Mr Sørensen clarified that volunteers should not be deployed to “very complex conflict zones.” Instead they should be sent to “support operations that take place in fairly predictable environments. That could be famine situations that could be natural disasters, where you don’t have a guerrilla war going on at the same time.”

Mr Sørensen also explained another interesting feature of the initiative: developing the capacity of local communities. “We would want to allocate part of our money to building up local networks of NGOs and build up capacity in Africa and Asia to intervene more forcefully and more effectively in humanitarian disasters and to contribute to strengthening local volunteering in these areas.”

Between 2011 and present day, there have been 12 EU Aid Volunteer pilot projects carried out in three rounds. The first two phases placed over 200 volunteers across more than 40 countries, mostly in Africa and Asia. VSO has taken part in the pilot projects.

Marg Mayne, Chief Executive of VSO, recently attended the European Development Days 2013 to speak on the Volunteering for Development panel organised by VSO. Other members of the panel included Mr Sørensen and Norbert Bonyi, a national volunteer in Kenya.

“VSO is an international development NGO that works through volunteers. We have been going for 55 years and we work in over 30 countries around the world,” explained Ms Mayne. “Our mission is to fight poverty, it’s about building a fairer and more equal society.”

Through the EU Aid pilot project, VSO volunteers have been developing the capacity of local partners in South Sudan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Plans are now in place for VSO volunteers to work with local partners in the Philippines and India in the new year. “These are volunteers going into quite challenging situations and they really need to be well prepared, well trained and well qualified. In effect they’re mid-career professionals who know what they’re doing and are prepared to step forward and make a difference in the global community for the greater good.”



Ms Mayne went on to note the advantages that working with an organisation as experienced as VSO can bring. She indicated that for a placement to be successful, it should have: 

  1. a strong relationship with the local partners on the ground, where the placement is part of a well thought through development programme, planned to bring about real change in the lives of poor people;
  2. well prepared volunteers with the right skills and the right approach to volunteering – that this is about partnership;
  3. good quality monitoring and evaluation so that we can learn what worked and what didn’t work, improve projects and demonstrate the value that volunteers bring to the programmes.

Speaking about the benefits of volunteering for capacity development, Ms Mayne explained “the way we work at VSO is always working with a local partnership. The idea is that by building capacity within that partnership it means that when the volunteer has left there is something ongoing and sustainable afterwards.” 

Norbert Bonyi is a 23-year-old Kenyan national, who volunteered through VSO in his home country as part of a team of UK and Kenyan volunteers with the International Citizen Service (ICS). He believes that volunteering is important as “volunteers are agents of change. They bring something new to the society, they change the mindset that you need money, you need some economic power you need some financial empowerment to create change.”

You can hear Norbert’s first-hand experience of volunteering in this video interview. 



For more information on the EU Aid Volunteers scheme, please visit the website. It also contains an overview of the pilot projects including factsheets, a video and other documents.

For more information on VSO please visit their website

Read the Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council for Establishing the European Voluntary Humanitarian Aid Corps.

* At the time of publication, the vacancies for the EU Aid Volunteers can be found here. This will change once the final initiative is launched.

This collaborative piece was drafted with input from Claus Sørensen, Marg Mayne, Norbert Bonyi, Katie Dalsgaard and Markus Held, with support from the Coordination Team.


DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.

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