The EU has a variety of volunteering programmes, but they are not valued or oversubscribed. Is it time for the EU to set up one single, unified peace-corps, like they have in the US?
Many American graduates eager to discover the world and broaden their horizons can apply for the Peace Corps, a paid volunteer service which helps promote American interests abroad. Yet, at the dawn of a new European area, with 27 countries and an educated and dynamic youth, the EU is still lacking anything of this breadth and vision. It is surprising that no EU institution offers such a programme and therefore loses a valuable opportunity to voice European interests throughout the development world. The EYIA, profiled in an earlier issue of Next Europe is not up to the task.
Set up in 1961, the US Peace Corps was created by President John F. Kennedy to help counter the stereotypes surrounding American imperialism at the time. It was an intelligent and efficient response to the global political environment of the era, tumultuous with newly independent and de-colonised nations mushrooming across the planet. These countries needed technical knowledge and willing hands to help build their nations. An idealistic and educated youth appeared, at the time, to be the appropriate way to staff these, with the added benefit of extending American influence abroad. The undertones of such political discourse were easily recognisable as a scarcely veiled reaction to Communism taking over developing nations. Today’s discourse has changed and Peace Corps alumni can be found staffing everything from the US Foreign Service and Washington institutions to major US multinationals.
Ten years later, the United Nations set up the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) with similar aims but on an international and non-aligned level. The movement is open to all people above the age of 25 and with relevant professional experience. Again, UN volunteers are paid through a living allowance and are provided with housing. The presence of UN volunteers in conflict zones and their preparedness to crisis response bespeaks eloquently of the success of the programme.
Despite both these models, the only option available to European citizens is some rather less appealing member state programmes (e.g. Volontariat International en Entreprise in France) and the very meek European Voluntary Service (EVS). This service provides neither living allowance nor even pays for relocation of its volunteers. Furthermore, like its member state sister programmes, the EVS acts more as an EU-wide recruitment centre for NGOs and companies to obtain starry-eyed volunteers who will work for free.
The virtues of creating such an EU volunteer service are numerous. For one, the EU has a vastly untapped potential of multilingual and educated youths who are not able to enter the world of development through lack of financial means to support the arduous process most of us know it takes. Secondly, if one considers the EU as a vision of values (peace, open-borders, solidarity, discovery,…), then it needs to become better at selling itself better abroad in the future. Something which it has so far been dismally bad at doing, most notably through conflicting political messages coming from member state leaders and the primacy of national interests over EU ones. With these values in mind, what better to represent them abroad as youths with the future ahead and a hunger for learning?
The EU has the cash to set up such a project, and partnering with national or international aid organisations and companies would bring in further capital and impetus for the projects on the ground. An idea would be to offer such a programme through the already famous Erasmus programme. Offering six months worth of university credits towards a diploma for alleviating world hunger would be an attractive alternative for many to the inter-European Dionysian festivities that the former already offers.
For too long, people staffing the EU Institutions have known little else besides the corridors of Brussels and their respective member state capitals. Creating an organisation representative of the EU would help inject fresh blood and experiences into an ever more globalised world. Like the US, the corridors of power should be staffed with people returning from such experiences irrespective of their financial means. This alone would define the EU and its values to the eyes of the world.