European volunteers celebrates IVD at the European Parliament
27 November 2003
Brussels: The European Volunteer Centre (CEV) network celebrated International Volunteer Day for Social and Economic Development in the European Parliament, Brussels on 25 November.
The event involved an all-day exhibition on volunteerism, a round-table discussion and closing reception, which aimed to raise awareness within the institutions of the European Union of the importance and incredible diversity of voluntary action, as well as the ways in which volunteerism can best be supported. These “action-points” for Euro-Parliamentarians are outlined within the “CEV Manifesto for Volunteering in Europe”, which served as a starting point for discussions during the day. Event host was Mr. Michael Cashman MEP, UK Labour.
During the round-table discussion, Dr. Olga Sozanská, Moderator and CEV Vice-President spoke of the challenges involved in rebuilding volunteerism within the Czech Republic, a legacy of the “compulsory” nature of voluntary work under the former communist regime. In this context, international contacts were of particular importance, she said. She then spoke of the CEV Manifesto for Volunteering in Europe, and argued that it shows MEPs what volunteerism is all about. She hoped that this event would demonstrate to the institutions of the European Union the importance of organised civil society and volunteers in the building of Europe. Finally, she expressed deep sadness at the recent loss of Sharon Capeling-Alakija, Executive Coordinator of United Nations Volunteers. Dr. Sozanská said that she would be deeply missed by all within the international volunteer community, and paid tribute to her work to put volunteerism firmly on the political agenda.
Mr. Richard Howitt MEP then spoke very positively of his own, personal experiences of being a volunteer, and reminded us of the very important contribution that informal volunteers make at local level, for example the helping out of family members and friends. This he said, should be nurtured and cherished, and we should not try to bureaucratise it. He spoke of his vigorous support for the campaign to guarantee structured civil dialogue between the institutions of the EU and civil society organisations, and that he was pleased that within EU Structural Funds, volunteer-time was now accepted as an equal and valuable contribution to match-funding. He said that volunteers have an enormous role to play in contributing to social cohesion, and reminded us that volunteers complement professional, paid employees. He ended by speaking about the importance of self-help and peer initiatives, and that volunteerism was not just about helping those less fortunate than ourselves.
Ms. Jenny Winter, Chief Executive of Barretstown, Ireland opened by saying that her organisation could not survive without volunteers. She explained that in the ten years that Barretstown has existed, the organisation has looked after over 7000 children with serious illnesses. At the same time, they have welcomed over 5000 volunteers from all over the world. She described the diversity of volunteer involvement: from volunteer doctors and nurses to interpreters and chaperones, activities organisers and corporate volunteers. She spoke of the importance of their employee volunteers and explained that employees’ diverse skills backgrounds are an enormous asset to Barretstown. She ended by saying that volunteers offer their hearts and souls to the children during the time they are at Barretstown, and that many had commented to her that the experience had been a life-changing one.
Ester Fonfría-Novella, Managing Director of the Foundation for Solidarity and Voluntary Work of the Valencian Community (FSVCV) described how the voluntary sector had grown in importance in Spain over the last 25 years. Just 2.5% of voluntary organisations in Spain had over 40 years experience. She explained that in 2000, Spain had over 1 million active volunteers, but that the majority were younger, highly educated women. She asked us to reflect on how we would like the third sector to look like in the future and mentioned the importance of the following: harmonisation of advocacy efforts; increased professionalisation of the sector; networking; strengthened financial autonomy and accountability. She said that volunteers are an important asset to the third sector and that we must reflect on ways to foster volunteer involvement. She mentioned the following as important considerations: carefully targeted awareness-raising campaigns; participation of volunteers in decision-making processes; training and flexibility of voluntary organisations.
Mr. William Andrianasolo, Chief of Research and Development United Nations Volunteers spoke of the importance in defining what exactly we are talking about. During the International Year of Volunteers, they had he said, tried to come up with an inclusive definition of the common denominators of voluntary action worldwide. These are: undertaken from free-will; spontaneously; in benefit of a third party. Increasingly however, we do talk of “two-way traffic” in volunteering, he said. He asked what volunteers bring to our societies in Europe, and said that estimates vary between 5 and 20% of the total population involved in volunteering in one way or another depending on the country. Moving on to the economic value of volunteering in Europe, he said that estimates vary between 1 and 6% of Gross National Product (GNP). This he argued showed the need for a more systematic evaluation of the contribution of volunteers. He ended by posing the question, “what would really help volunteerism prosper and flourish in Europe and beyond?”. There are three things that we must bear in mind, he said. 1/ the importance of increased awareness in society; 2/ how we motivate potential volunteers; 3/ support measures. In relation to the last point, he argued that what is needed is a conducive and supportive environment. A key element of this is enabling legislation. Legislation must be proofed to ensure that it is volunteer-friendly, he said.
Mr. Jens Mester of the European Commission DG Education and Culture spoke of how, since 1996 the European Voluntary Service Programme (EVS) of the European Commission has enabled thousands of young volunteers to go to another EU Member State and beyond to volunteer. He confessed that the programme was indeed small, but that it had an important multiplier effect. Young volunteers, on their return home, were more likely to volunteer locally. Young transnational volunteers also made important contributions to the host society and organisation during their time abroad. However he said that the EVS Programme was not just about providing services, the young person receives an important informal education and training experience. This must be more widely, and properly recognised, he said. Under the forthcoming Dutch Presidency of the European Union, the EU would adopt common policy objectives to foster youth voluntary activities, he continued. The draft EU Constitutional Treaty also provides for the creation of an “EU Humanitarian Aid Corps” to be composed of volunteers. This, he hoped would ensure that volunteerism remained on the EU political agenda. Indeed, Mr. Romani Prodi, President of the European Commission had recently expressed his support for, and the importance of active citizenship in Europe, he concluded.
Throughout the day, European Parliamentarians were urged to support volunteerism as citizenship in action, and were reminded that those that volunteer are more likely to vote. This is because volunteers are more likely to believe that they can make a difference and contribute to policy change. In the context of forthcoming European Parliamentary elections, this is of particular interest to candidates.
At the closing reception, event host Mr. Michael Cashman said that the event had indeed succeeded in raising awareness of volunteerism within the European Parliament. “Many deputies were talking about the day”, he said. We must now build on this by supporting International Volunteer Day again, and we must ensure that the CEV Manifesto for Volunteering in Europe and its action points remain on the political agenda.