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Germany plans massive volunteer abroad program
15 January 2007
by Mathis Winkler

Bonn, Germany: Hoping to increase awareness for development issues, Germany plans to introduce a new volunteer service for young people in 2008. Most experts welcomed the idea in principle, but expressed concerns about logistics.

When German Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul recently announced her plan for a new voluntary service abroad program, she said she was simply reacting to an unmet demand.

"Every day, we are hearing from young people who want to do something," the Social Democrat told the Süddeutsche Zeitung daily. "We want to respond to this desire to do something."

Wieczorek-Zeul's response is aimed at people between the ages of 18 and 28, who have a high school diploma or equivalent certificate and want to work in a developing country for three to 24 months.  

The ministry offers to pay 580 euros ($752) per month to cover living costs. In total, Wieczorek-Zeul plans to earmark 70 million euros for 10,000 participants. The money will not come from existing programs, but new funds, according to a ministry spokesman. 

Providing the means to volunteer

Those working in the field generally welcomed the idea"We think it's a positive thing that the ministry is getting involved," said Jan Gildemeister, the executive director of Action Committee Service for Peace (ACSP), an umbrella organization for Christian groups that offer voluntary service programs abroad.

"They want to increase awareness of development aid issues among young people and we welcome that," he added. "It's the program itself that we're concerned about."

Protecting quality

Gildemeister said that it was important to work closely with non-governmental organizations in developing countries to make sure that they had the necessary resources to deal with volunteers. 

Carefully selecting candidates was another issue to consider, he said, counting a certain level of independence and language skills as essentials for people interested in volunteering in developing countries.

"You can't send an 18-year-old to Tanzania who's lacking those skills," he said, adding that he was looking forward to discussing these and other issues during a meeting with ministry officials on Thursday.

Who benefits?

Christof Hartmann, a professor for development policy at the University of Duisburg-Essen, also questioned the usefulness of sending unskilled Germans to developing countries as aid workers.

"There are enough qualified people in these countries," he said. "If there's a need for people, it's for experts in selected areas, not someone who'll help out at the hospital or can fill in Excel spreadsheets." Hartmann added that young people in Germany could certainly benefit from exposure to development issues.
"But the question is whether we want to view this as part of our development aid policy," he said.

New experiences

"It cannot be that only youngsters get something out of it," she said. "But generally speaking, it's the volunteers who benefit most from these kinds of trips. It's good to give young people the opportunity to get a taste of the world, but they shouldn't expect to change it within the course of three months."