A plan to deploy European volunteers to respond to global humanitarian and natural disasters became a victim itself when EU leaders slashed funding for the foreign aid corps, but Lithuania wants to press ahead with a programme it sees as a priority of its EU presidency.
The European Voluntary Humanitarian Aid Corps, proposed by the Commission in September 2012, is still waiting full legislative approval and the proposal has already been hit by a 40% budget cut, leaving some €147 million set aside for the new programme in the next seven-year budget.
“We consider that this piece of legislation is one of the most important within the sphere of humanitarian aid,” Rolandas Kriš?i?nas, Lithuania’s vice minister of foreign affairs, told the European Parliament’s development committee on 9 July.
He said the corps would supplement the EU’s overseas humanitarian and development assistance at a time of austerity within the Union.
“Human needs are growing and budgets are shrinking,” Kriš?i?nas said, adding that the European Commission and its 28 states need to do a better job of coordinating aid projects to improve their effectiveness in an era of austerity.
The 2009 Lisbon Treaty calls for creating the corps as part of the reforms aimed at bulking up the EU’s foreign policy muscle. Some €1.2 million was set aside to fund pilot projects this year and the Commission plan calls for training some 10,000 volunteers through 2020 to help in global operations.
The project landed on the chopping block when EU leaders capped spending at €960 billion in the 2014-2020 budget cycle, down from the current €1 trillion. The Commission had requested €239.1 million for the corps of which €137 million was to fund overseas deployments for thousands of volunteers.
Europe’s ‘Peace Corps’
Although EU officials have shied away from saying the aid programme was copied from the US Peace Corps, inspired by then-Senator John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech challenging university graduates to serve their country by helping needy people overseas, it would share the goal of projecting goodwill to areas in need.
The gradual aim is to provide training and support for volunteers who would serve several months to a year responding to needs in developing and emerging nations. They would help provide support for health, nutrition, hygiene and education – some of the EU’s top development goals.
Among those involved in the test run of how the corps would work is Save the Children UK, which has worked with other non-governmental organisations like Caritas Czech Republic, France’s Bioforce and the International Medial Corps to train and deploy volunteers.
Novice volunteers undergo several weeks of training on how to work in disaster situations before they are matched with organisations already working in the field. Save the Children and its partners have sent volunteers to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Mozambique and several other countries using EU financing.
“The pilots have enabled Save the Children to expand the number of individuals that we are able to recruit, both EU volunteers and national staff from our country programmes, into our capacity-building and learning initiatives,” said Heather Drury, Save the Children’s manager for humanitarian capacity building.
“We believe with the correct focus that the EU volunteers’ initiative can make a significant contribution to meeting the capacity challenges and professionalisation of the humanitarian sector,” she said in a telephone interview from London.
The pilot projects have involved some 200 people, including citizens from several African countries who have participated in training along with EU nationals, according to the European Commission.
In addition to training, European volunteers receive health cover and immunisations, accommodation and a living stipend.
The regulation creating the corps was approved by the Parliament’s development committee in April and is still awaiting an initial plenary vote.
Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva said in announcing the volunteer corps proposal on 19 September 2012: “We have here a unique possibility to send a positive signal in these times of crisis: through their actions in the field and on the ground, EU Aid Volunteers will demonstrate our European solidarity by helping those most in need. And they will at the same time learn invaluable skills. Saving lives is a life-changing experience that they will never forget. Volunteering has the overwhelming support of all our citizens throughout all our member states.”
A European 'Peace Corps' has been discussed for years. The Lisbon Treaty, which serves as the EU's basic law, mandates such action, stating that in order to encourage "contributions from young Europeans to the humanitarian aid operations of the Union, a European Voluntary Humanitarian Aid Corps shall be set-up".
The EU's official communication on the volunteer corps highlights the importance of having a large number of experienced stand-by volunteers for post-disaster relief.
The EU and its member states are collectively the biggest donors of humanitarian and development aid.
The EU already oversees the European Voluntary Service, a scheme that allows young Europeans to do educational development and other work with an NGO in another European country.
- 2014: Target for implementing the European Voluntary Humanitarian Aid Corps
- European Commission: Establishing the European Voluntary Humanitarian Aid Corps
- European Commission: EU Aid Volunteers vacancy announcements