EU promotes volunteering as crisis-beater

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Next year's European Year of Volunteering has the potential to help the EU to emerge from the economic crisis, organisers claimed yesterday (2 December) at the official launch of the initiative in Brussels. But MEPs warned that volunteers should not replace people in paid jobs.  

The European Year of Volunteering 2011 should be viewed as "a low-investment, high-return strategy to boost European economic recovery," said Irish liberal MEP Marian Harkin at yesterday's launch.

Amid the economic crisis, "Europe must view volunteering not only as a social good, but as an efficient and sustainable growth strategy, given the value for money it demonstrably provides," said Harkin, who was instrumental in persuading the European Commission to designate 2011 as the European Year of Volunteering.

A Eurobarometer survey carried out in May 2010 found that three out of 10 Europeans claim to dedicate their time and expertise to voluntary activities of some sort.

The Commission estimates that volunteering contributes between 0.5-5% to EU GDP, while just under 100 million adults are involved in volunteering across the European Union. 

"Volunteering makes a remarkable contribution to the European economy. It innovates to deal with the emerging needs of society," said Belgian Secretary of State for Social Affairs Jean-Marc Delizée.

However, the popularity of volunteering varies widely from one country to another. Participation is described by the Commission as "very high" at 40% of the population in Austria, the Netherlands, Slovenia and the UK, but "very low" in Bulgaria, Greece, Italy and Latvia (less than 10% of the population).

Eleven countries – a majority – record "relatively low" levels of volunteering, at between 10 and 19%.

Job loss fears

Irish MEP Harkin cited studies estimating that for every one euro invested in volunteering, there is a return of five euros. "In this time of recession, such a cost-effective measure is worth its weight in gold. No financial institution will give you that kind of return," she said.

Volunteering helps people gain knowledge, exercise skills and extend their social networks, leading to new or better employment opportunities as well as personal and social development, the Commission said.

Replacing paid jobs with volunteering?

However, Harkin warned against the temptation to replace people in paid jobs with volunteers. "Given the employment pressures which will likely continue in many member states throughout 2011, we must be careful to ensure that voluntary effort does not replace existing jobs," she said.

Meanwhile, 12 member states have laws specifically related to volunteering, but in another 12 it is only dealt with by existing, more general legal frameworks. Three more are currently developing laws on volunteering. 

The Commission says the European Year will help lower obstacles to volunteering in the EU, empower volunteer organisations and improve the quality of volunteering, help reward and recognise voluntary activities and raise awareness of the value and importance of volunteering.

"Volunteers often work unrecognised and with their hands tied. We want to recognise them and unties their hands," said European Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding at yesterday’s launch.

The EU executive will seek to achieve its goals by encouraging best-practice exchange between national authorities and voluntary organisations, with a particular focus on training volunteers, accreditation and quality assurance.

It will also promote new EU-wide networks to encourage cross-border exchanges between voluntary organisations and businesses.

"We'll also speak to businesses during the year. Social engagement looks good on a CV and we want to highlight the value of volunteering to employers," said Reding.

Last month, Commission officials singled out sports as a key driver of citizens’ involvement in the European Year (EURACTIV 15/11/10).

"Sports and volunteering is a possible topic for the European Year. We're considering an event in Athens in October, but during the whole year we want to encourage more people to volunteer too," said Ylva Tiveus of the Commission's communications department, responsible for organising the European Year of Volunteering.

Indeed, another Eurobarometer conducted in 2010 found that sports or outdoor activities clubs attract the highest share of volunteers in Europe (34%), followed by education, arts, music or cultural associations (22%).

Lower proportions of volunteers support charity or social aid organisations (17%), religions or church associations (16%) or trade unions (13%).

Meanwhile, four conferences have already been pencilled in for 2011, including an 8 January event in Budapest and further conferences in summer, October and December. 

"I want to pay tribute to the millions of Europeans who take the time to make our world a better place," said European Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding, responsible for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship.

"Deep within all of us lies the ability to step up and care for those in need. Volunteering strengthens our core European values: solidarity and social cohesion. As we launch the European Year of Volunteering, I want to rally support for people who make a difference. Now is the time for us to share and to give something back [and] for us to focus on helping the helpers!" Reding added.

Belgian Secretary of State for Social Affairs Jean-Marc Delizée said "volunteers reflect the diversity of European society" in that they can be of any age, ethnicity or background.

Delizée expressed fear that the economic crisis had given rise to the notion that people could no longer afford to volunteer. "There can be no Europe without volunteers," he warned.

"We have an opportunity to recognise, praise and encourage the work of the 100m volunteers in Europe. Why not go from 100m to 200m?" said Irish liberal MEP Marian Harkin, expressing confidence that the Year would be sufficiently decentralised to reach volunteers on the ground.  

"As well as contributing in a practical way to improving the quality of life in their communities, volunteers also help to ensure economic and social cohesion – volunteering work has at its core the European ideal of solidarity," Harkin said.   

The European Commission proposed on 3 June 2009 that 2011 should be designated the 'European Year of Volunteering'. 

The Commission hopes the European Year will increase the popularity of volunteering and boost awareness of its societal value, and proposed a series of activities including conferences and seminars to boost best-practice exchange (EURACTIV 27/11/09). 

  • 2011: European Year of Volunteering.
  • 8 Jan. 2011: Budapest conference on recognition of volunteering.
  • May/June 2011: Conference on celebrating volunteers and their valuable contribution.
  • Oct.: Conference on empowering voluntary organisations.
  • Dec. 2011: Closing conference on future challenges. 

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