Brussels launches ‘EU peace corps’ pilot

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The European Commission has launched a pilot programme, the 'European Voluntary Humanitarian Aid Corps' (EVHAC), which will see just under 100 young people serve in various projects to help vulnerable and disaster-struck parts of the world. The experiences will help determine a formal EU proposal next year to create a permanent humanitarian volunteer programme.

The measure was announced by EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva at an event last week in Budapest (17 June).

The pilot projects, which come at a cost of €1,250,000 to the EU, will be implemented by three NGOs with long-standing experience in international aid: Red Cross France and the British branches of Save the Children and Voluntary Service Overseas.

Speaking to EURACTIV, Commissioner Georgieva highlighted similarities with the United States of America's famous Peace Corps, originally established by President John F. Kennedy, saying "both are programmes that provide motivated young people with the opportunity to engage and make a difference in places where their skills and motivation are needed".

However, she stressed that "the two are also different – the Peace Corps is long-established and has a very broad range of objectives – from teaching English, through humanitarian work to engineering. The European Voluntary Humanitarian Aid Corps is just starting, and will be targeted at humanitarian assistance programmes".

The European Union is eager to heighten its profile as the world's biggest humanitarian aid donor (see 'Background') and sees the programme as a way to "give a human face to EU action in humanitarian aid operations and increase our visibility in the world".

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton faced criticism last year for not visiting Haiti following the devastating earthquake there that killed between 40,000 and 300,000 people. During that crisis, while the EU provided over €330 million in aid, its efforts were largely overshadowed by images of American and other rescuers.

Learning experiences

The pilot projects, which are rather modest in scale, will try to provide experience and data that will shape the final version of the EVHAC. The Commission says it will propose such tools in early 2012.

A recently-published EU memo details the three approved projects, which aim to provide the Commission with diverse learning experiences: Red Cross France will train and deploy for six months 21 "qualified but inexperienced" young people, while Volunteer Overseas UK will take on 40 "expert volunteers". The latter, according to the memo, aims to "develop best practice standards" for the selection, management and training curricula of the volunteers.

Some possibilities for the European Volunteer Corps's future direction were defined in the Commission's official communication on the subject published last November.

These include everything from creating an "EU certification mechanism" to help NGOs identify and recruit qualified volunteers to "a fully-fledged volunteer scheme including training, matching and deployment of volunteers".

The communication stresses, however, that the latter "would need careful consideration […] though its operational implementation would not present insurmountable obstacles".

As is common practice, the Commission is officially consulting NGOs and other stakeholders throughout the policymaking process. However, in line with the spirit of the times, Georgieva also announced in a blog post that she would be on Facebook tomorrow (22 June) to discuss the fledgling Volunteer Corps, which she called "one of our most exciting projects at the Commission".

The idea of a European 'peace corps' has been discussed for some time, being initially put forward by the Greek Presidency of the EU in 2003 and promoted by former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown last year.

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 EVHAC highlights the importance of having a large number of experienced stand-by volunteers to enable a "surge capacity" for post-disaster relief. It says the need for this was "demonstrated quite impressively through experiences in Haiti and Pakistan".

Indeed, the need for humanitarian aid may be increasing as rising commodity and food prices, climate change and rapidly growing populations (notably in Africa and South Asia) make more people across the world vulnerable to natural disasters.

The EU and its member states are collectively the biggest humanitarian aid donor in the world. In 2010, the Commission itself gave €1.1 billion in aid. It does not usually administer this itself, but subcontracts the distribution to organisations such as United Nations relief agencies, the Red Cross and other NGOs.

The EU already oversees the European Voluntary Service, a scheme which allows young Europeans to do educational development and other work with an NGO in another European country. According to EU figures some 130,000 participated in the scheme last year.

  • 2011: Implementation of first wave of pilot projects and impact assessment. Continued public consultation with NGOs and stakeholders.
  • 2012: Second call for proposals for pilot programmes.
  • First semester 2012: Legislative proposal for final version of European Voluntary Aid Corps.

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