Why EVS matters?
|Photo: Nestlé (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0|
In its 20-year run the European Voluntary Service has amassed a formidable stack of evidence, advancing the programme as a well of creativity, channeled through myriad contributions to local communities and the environment on a global scale.
The key focus of EVS, however, are of course volunteers themselves. Targeting 17-to-30-year-olds and providing cross-cultural mobility, volunteering offers precious on-the-ground experience to young people in the very first stages of their careers. A path-finding mission for some or a means to break away from unemployment for others, EVS participations is a crash course in basic work skills, delivered largely non-formally and in a real-life setting. The underlying sense of fulfillment has an immense effect on boosting self-confidence, reducing career indecision and promoting continued commitment to community work later in life.
Why is making EVS more inclusive important?
EVS, as any meaningful agenda, is about values. It boils down to nurturing among European youth a culture of active citizenship, social activism and a sense of belonging to a greater cause. It is also an identity building effort, where mainstreaming civic values fosters a common ground among young Europeans living and working in different circumstances across the continent. An outlook making sense of who they are and where they stand in relation to the challenges facing Europe.
It follows that failing to provide adequate access to EVS for all Europeans irrespective of their socio-economic, educational and/or cultural background – a key setback of current EVS programming – carries significant costs. For one, it can undercut the Voluntary Service’s headway in value formation. EVS has the underpinnings to play an important role in reversing trends, such as youth absenteeism and radicalization, by encouraging young people to become part of the European “paradigm”. Barriers to EVS inclusion, therefore, can have the opposite effect – shutting another door in front of young people already feeling outside the establishment. Ultimately, a non-inclusive EVS can stifle community capacity to “respond to, and influence, change”.
Above all, barriers to volunteering impede harnessing Europe’s full potential. Younger people with fewer opportunities are among the programme recipients best suited to benefit from the offered learning opportunities. Participation in EVS is able to offset some of the negative consequences associated with lack of access to formal education and job market exclusion. Especially considering the programme’s unbiased efficiency: no major differences in the impact of volunteering placement have been identified among participants from different socio-economic backgrounds. Yet, social status is a critical barrier to EVS participation, rendering young people facing complex needs less likely to get involved in cross-border activism. The yearly economic cost of such barriers has been estimated at EUR 65 million.
What can be done to improve EVS’s impact: the EVS4ALL policy recommendations
In 2015-2017 a more inclusive EVS became the major ambition of a dedicated pan-European consortium, built around the European Voluntary Service for All (EVS4ALL) initiative. A 2-year project under Erasmus+ Key Action 2, initiated by Allianz Cultural Foundation and coordinated by IKAB-Bildungswerk, EVS4ALL has striven to address the practical and policy aspects of opening EVS to a wider pool of volunteers. The main goal – to answer how the programme can be made more responsive to complex necessities and what needs to be changed in current EVS structure and practices in order to push the agenda forward. The consortium’s experience, opinions, and advice regarding the envisaged changes crystallized in a set of policy recommendations, aptly titled “Towards a More Inclusive European Voluntary Service”, presented to EU policy-makers as part of the project’s final conference held last month (20-21 March 2017) in Berlin.
To comment on the EVS4ALL policy recommendations E&M contacted Piotr Sadowski, Volonteurope & Volunteering Matters, a long-standing expert in European volunteer programming, civil activist and author of the EVS4ALL policy document.
Piotr was involved in the EVS policy reform process early on, being among the coordinators on behalf of Volonteurope and Civil Society Alliance of the European Year of Volunteering in 2011. The initiative produced a study and a set of proposals addressing the need to “heavily” improve the existing volunteering infrastructure to ensure that “every young person no matter what walk of life they come from can get engaged in volunteering if they wish to”.
What triggered the EVS4ALL project, however, was the We are Europe! manifesto, a conceptual call by Ulrich Beck und Daniel Cohn-Bendit, envisaging bottom-up change in Europe as an offset to the effects of economic instability and loss of legitimacy. Another core rationale behind the projects was to
“bring together different stakeholders, including experienced EVS organizations, civil society foundation, but also European platforms or networks to produce a set of policy recommendations coming from the people directly engaged in volunteering – volunteers, mentors and sending/receiving organizations”.
A significant part of the EVS4ALL recommendations deals with overcoming the barriers to EVS recruitment and bringing EVS opportunities closer to applicants with complex needs. The potential solution is seen as a mixture of relaxing EVS application procedures and active promotion based on a multi-level dissemination approach. The latter includes popularization through the school system, but also reaching youngsters outside formal education in places, such as local community and youth centers, where EVS opportunities can be accessed and experienced first-hand. In any case, as observed by Piotr Sadowski,
“just providing access to EVS on its own is not enough, particularly in situations where upbringing and family dynamics are likely to prevent the formation of community-oriented culture of involvement. What’s missing is the promotion of EVS so that young people who do not necessarily have these positive role models in their domestic situation can actually discover that volunteering is ultimately a fulfilling experience, that giving your time for others can change lives but also can change oneself for the better”.
As important as visibility is to the programme’s outreach, it steps on the efforts of all actors involved in disseminating the opportunities and achievements provided by the programme.
“When dissemination is considered the question of funding comes up too often, to a point where some people get tired of it. It seems to me, however, that it is also about more clever use of new resources, such as those provided by social media. As in many other things it is a question of adaptation and speaking to young people in a language they can understand. Bigger organizations also have a role to play, not just by providing information available to them, but by not acting as gatekeepers to the programme”
An important part of a more inclusive EVS is also removing bureaucratic obstacles, simplifying administrative procedures and allocating targeted funding for capacity building of small grassroots organizations. Due to their scope and limited ability to accommodate complex administrative requirements, such organizations often find themselves in the role of excluded parties.
“It is usually organizations at the grassroots level that work best with young people with fewer opportunities”, comments Piotr Sadowski, “for them, it is actually easier to reach the target group. But in order to be able to play that role such organizations need to have the relevant capacity, which is a question of specific financial support by national agencies. A budget line covering staff costs, for example, will be of great help to smaller NGOs.”
Photo: Bernhard Ludewig - Piotr Sadowski at EVS' final conference in Berlin
Another critical area is removing the bureaucratic burden of EVS programming through unification of rules across different jurisdictions, ensuring flexibility and simplification of procedures. “The need to keep a certain level of bureaucracy in order to ensure the sustainability and quality of the programme is acknowledged by everybody. However, what we need is a much better balance between the level of bureaucracy, the level of funding and the achieved outcomes”, argues Piotr Sadowski. “Some of the recommendations we put forward are about making the accreditation and application process easier, enabling organizations to focus on the outcomes. For bigger, more experienced organizations as Volonteurope the EVS applications are not that big of a headache, it is more a question of the time burden necessary to complete them. For smaller organizations, however, looking at the heavy application forms and the amount of information needed can be off-putting. Accreditation can also be simplified by avoiding the repetition of facts regarding organizations that have already achieved some success in acquiring funding”.
Finally, a key accent of the policy recommendations is the envisaged “one-stop shop” to the EVS programme, a single point of entry to the different resources, networks, best practices and communication tools, accumulated in the process of proving placement to volunteers. Piotr Sadowski sheds light over the proposal:
“The idea behind this, for want of a better word, port of call for the EVS programme is all actors involved in the volunteering process to be able to engage in a peer-to-peer sharing experience. EVS alumni can interact with potential new participants, mentors can discuss approaches to learning with one another, and accredited organizations can share know-how on overcoming particular issues and ways of managing problems. It is highly likely that many of the issues faced by organizations on a daily basis have been addressed before by their peers. It is a question, therefore, of where to store and access those best practices, a platform endorsed by the EVS partners. A key aspect also concerns the development of a network of EVS mentors that can use the platform to share experience and seek advice.”
The way ahead
Achieving a more inclusive EVS is a complex process, as it touches upon most of the Voluntary Service’s core aspects. The beginning however has been set with the created policy recommendations, which clearly identify the existing barriers and offer concrete solutions. Those have already been put on the table and presented to EU level decision-makers. From here on, as shared by Piotr Sadowski, it is all about keeping the EVS4ALL consortium alive while pushing further the agenda through the efforts of partners and pressure groups.
The discussion of the EVS4ALL recommendations in Berlin brought forward many issues and ambitions regarding the future of EVS. Among the issues were establishing a meaningful link between formal education and informal learning necessary to ensure the eventual recognition of the volunteer status and the acquired skills. Another question was the complementarity of EVS with other volunteering initiatives of the European Union, such as the recently introduced European Solidarity Corps. Substantial transformations and potential merging of the two programming streams are not excluded, which can create a momentum for pushing the EVS4ALL agenda.
Of the ambitions, however, one in particular sticks to the mind – EVS becoming part of European citizenship, being introduced in class and recognized as a fundamental right of every young person in Europe. Our sincere hope is that this is the future of EVS we are facing.
E&M will keep an eye on the topic, so stay tuned.