Thousands of people, especially the young, go abroad each year on solidarity initiatives. Their motivation, roles and status vary.
There are many ways of taking part in international solidarity, from ‘fair travel’ for tourists to missions lasting several years by highly qualified experts. Many are called ‘volunteering’.
This term, common in Anglo-Saxon cultures, is associated with particular aspirations and values: commitment, sharing, a taste for discovery and otherness. It often goes with a belief in a globalised society that encourages curiosity, meetings between cultures and travel, and with a new geopolitical discourse that reflects our multi-polar world and the changing balance between North and South.
Volunteering can mean many different things. In France, its definition is narrow: it has a precise legal status, which grants certain social rights and financial allowances for clearly defined missions of finite duration.
Volunteering as understood in France is neither charity work, nor paid employment: it is a hybrid that combines the commitment and giving of the former with the efficiency and professionalism of the latter.
One can volunteer to take part in international solidarity under a number of different schemes. The most popular is Volontariat de SolidaritŽ Internationale (VSI), part of France’s official development assistance and run by the ministry of foreign affairs. Around 2,500 French citizens a year volunteer under VSI. Their profile is fairly homogenous: they are often female, highly qualified, established professionals, with experience of working abroad.
This national scheme may soon be complemented by EU Aid Volunteers (possibly inspired by the US Peace Corps), a body of 10,000 volunteers to be available for deployment to crisis areas from 2014. One of its aims is to increase the visibility of humanitarian aid from Brussels: not many people know that half the monetary aid to poor countries comes from the EU and its member states.
The European Commission’s plan for 2014-2020 includes a 239.1m budget for training, deployment, building up the capacities of people in areas hit by natural disasters and support activities. EU Aid Volunteers will recruit recent graduates as well as more experienced people. Other volunteering schemes, such as Service Civique and European Voluntary Service, also have some international missions.
There are formal schemes for unpaid charity work, too, such as Chantiers Internationaux (International Building Sites) and programmes run by Jeunesse SolidaritŽ Internationale (International Youth Solidarity) targeting young working-class people whose educational and professional experience is more varied than that of the volunteers. Many are related to public youth policies run by local (particularly regional) government.
One can also ‘sign up’ for charity work under schemes that encourage retirees and employees; ‘international solidarity leave’ allows employees to take part in a humanitarian mission for up to six months without pay, and guarantees they will be able to return to their job afterwards.
There is also a great deal of less formally organised charity work – harder to quantify but reportedly spreading. The charity work scene is more varied and complex than may seem at first glance – and on closer inspection is fraught with tensions.
Development aid and youth policies seem increasingly to overlap. The growing role of local government authorities is a factor, since they tend to link decentralised cooperation and youth mobility within their territory.
This has blurred dividing lines to some extent: decentralised cooperation is becoming a way to develop twinnings, local projects that are to some degree sheltered from geopolitical issues and the power relationships between states. But there is also a risk of instrumentalisation in this context, where international solidarity consists (sometimes primarily) of support for the education, training and international mobility of young people.
There has also been an increase in the number of levels of implementation and a diversification of forms of cofinancing. Finally, initiatives organised outside conventional frameworks seem to be developing, giving rise to a host of often informal, local projects, both individual and collective. These developments are mainly seen as positive in associative circles.
From the profiles and missions of those involved, it seems the dividing line between volunteering and employment is particularly vague. The position of paid employees has been weakened and that of young volunteers can verge on underemployment. The problem is acute right across the non-profit sector, because many workers are unpaid and the beneficiaries are destitute.
This body of highly professional volunteers has faced the same criticisms in recent years as international solidarity. Setting up a body of EU volunteers will only exacerbate the problem. Many question the relevance of this unwieldy, expensive scheme, out of touch with the priorities of a sector that is struggling, with insufficient funding, to manage ever more complex situations. There are also questions about the need for yet another new scheme.
The development of other schemes backed by public youth policies feels like a breath of fresh air as it ‘deprofessionalises’ and ‘democratises’ participation in international solidarity for many of those involved.