AEGEE (Association des Etats Généraux des Etudiants de l’Europe/European Students’ Forum) is born in 1986 with the vision of creating a unified Europe, based on democracy and a respect for human rights, bringing together students with different cultural backgrounds. Today, AEGEE is Europe’s largest interdisciplinary youth organisation: 40 countries, 200 cities, 13 000 friends. This network provides the ideal platform for young volunteers to work together on cross-border activities such as international conferences, seminars, exchanges, training courses and case study trips. In line with the challenges young people are currently facing in Europe, AEGEE’s work is focused on three main areas: Youth Participation, Bridging Europe and Inclusion of Minorities.
As an relevant stakeholder on youth-related issues, AEGEE-Europe understands ‘youth participation’ as the commitment of young people to have an active role in the topics and decisions affecting their lives. AEGEE-Europe stress the conception of young people as agents for social change, who want to have a real effect in their communities, institutions and decisions related to them . There exist such a great number of expressions of youth participation that it would not be possible to reduce them to a couple of lines. These expressions go from young citizens dedicating time to make informed choices and/or assisting others in this task, to organised groups of young people with the objective of engaging into social and political activities.
A number of studies have already explored extensively the benefits that volunteering has for volunteers as well as for society . A recent survey conducted by AEGEE-Europe in 2013 shows that AEGEE members consider that, by volunteering, they have developed their soft skills. More concretely, 77% claim that volunteering has considerably increased their self-confidence and 91% consider they are more tolerant after having been involved in volunteering initiatives. 90% of the respondents believe that it has significantly affected their social skills and 80% think they are better leaders after their experience in the organization. The involvement in AEGEE has also increased the perception of its members as citizens of their society (62%) and has influenced considerably their future, as 56% affirm they have taken a new life direction thanks to AEGEE.
As a consequence of the positive influence that volunteering has had in the lives of our members, a great majority of them believe institutions should further promote these activities, so more people would be involved. 96% of respondents think that governments at any level should make more efforts to support volunteering activities. There is also a general perception that the place of development of most European INGYOs is the University. Indeed, 89% of AEGEE members answered that universities should promote volunteering at a greater extent.
AEGEE-Europe declares in its Statement of Principles its faith in a Europe standing for liberty and Democracy, and its will to cooperate with institutions that promote these concepts. Consequently, AEGEE-Europe and its members are active supporters of European actions fostering the involvement of young people in the social and political life.
AEGEE-Europe believes that democracy goes well beyond the mere act of voting. It also includes civic participation in the political life, citizens being informed and taking part in solving social problems, a continuous dialogue between governments and civil society, the inclusion of minority groups, and equal protection of civic liberties and human rights for all persons. Consequently, the active participation of all groups in society is crucial to maintain the democratic life. In this case, as a recent research on youth participation made by the London School of Economics proves, AEGEE-Europe understands that “young people are stakeholders in the European democratic system. They express ideas and preferences, and defend diverse interests. This is true even before they reach voting age. Young people articulate preferences and interests, and some of them are even more active than a majority of adults, notably through volunteering. Moreover, a clear majority of young people ask for more – and not less – opportunities to have a say in the way their political systems are governed.” As research has shown, political education is crucial for fostering political participation and identification with one’s community . This should begin at early school years, initiating debates about simple topics, such as which food should be in the canteen, to finally engage in deeper debates about political and social issues when they grow.
Furthermore, AEGEE-Europe welcomes the initiative of the Structured Dialogue, developed by the European Commission and sees the need that other national and local institutions follow the same steps to further the involvement of young people in policy-making. AEGEE-Europe underlines the necessity to better support NGYOs and the recognition of the statute of volunteers as a way to encourage youth to actively participate in society.
AEGEE-Europe strongly recommends staff and management of educational centres to establish a peer-to-peer and continuous dialogue with NGYOs present in their respective facilities to find ways of improving the reach of NGYOs to young people, as well as bettering the support given to them by adapting it to their specific reality. By involving NGYOs in the decisions taken by the board and looking for their expertise, educational centres will establish a win-win situation in which students would be able to support these study centres with their experiences and volunteer organisations would see their activities valorised. Mentioned this, AEGEE-Europe would like to present on this position paper a number recommendation that will definitely have a positive impact in the engagement of students into volunteer activities.
First, NGYOs need the appropriated infrastructure to function. AEGEE-Europe believes that Universities and high schools should provide NGYOs with a location to develop their activities and manage the functioning of the organization. These spaces should be centrally located and properly advertised to allow the interaction between the students and the organizations, so they can become an information point of their activities and the volunteering opportunities they provide.
Second, educational centres should encourage students to apply for volunteer programmes under their areas of interest. For doing so, we highly encourage these institutions to organise association fairs, where NGYOs will have a platform to promote their activities.
Finally, AEGEE-Europe highly appreciates the initiative taken already years ago by many European universities, such as the ones in the Netherlands, to reward with ECTS credits and/or tuition waivers the involvement of students in NGYOs. AEGEE-Europe encourages educational institutions to follow these steps in order to further recognise volunteer activities and associationism.
AEGEE-Europe believes that policy-makers at European, national and local level play a crucial role in the recognition and promotion of volunteering. As in the case of educational institutions, a smooth communication between NGYOs and policy-makers is crucial for this objective.
Local governments should facilitate the communication between young people and NGYOs by creating a database of associations present in the town, where every person interested can find the kind of organization that is focused on the field of interest of that specific person. Moreover, local governments should also support the communication among different NGYOs in order to foster cooperation among them. Providing local organizations with a common place to develop their activities and establish their headquarters is a good step in that direction. Local governments should also appoint a person responsible to coordinate and promote the activities of NGYOs, as well as for giving them logistic support and information. Another vital point of involvement of local institutions is the one of promotion of best practices and examples to increase the recognition of volunteering among society.
AEGEE-Europe urges national governments firstly to recognise the figure of volunteer by valorising volunteer activities as a real and valuable experience, which can be presented by young people in their future steps of their career. In addition to this, the European Union should also recognise the figure of the volunteer by providing a European volunteer card that will facilitate the mobility of volunteers trough discounts in transports and other benefits that will facilitate taking volunteer initiatives to the European level. Also, AEGEE-Europe welcomes the initiative from the European Commission aiming at the facilitation visa requirements for non-EU volunteers and urges European and national institutions to implement these measures, in order to further encourage international cooperation.
Secondly, national governments should increase their support to the national youth councils, in order to allow a space for discussion, development of new initiatives and coordination of joint activities. This action must also come hand in hand with stable financial support to assure the independence from both the private and public sector and the economic viability of this platform. AEGEE-Europe strongly condemns the actions taken by the governments of several Member States that will end up in the elimination of these bodies or the weakening of its independence and structure.
AEGEE-Europe appreciated the efforts of the German and Austrian governments with the promotion of a “Voluntary Social Year” in which any young person can receive financial support from the state in order to dedicate one year to be involved in volunteering initiatives, and encourages other member states to follow the same example.
Finally, stakeholders at every level should simplify the administrative tasks for NGYOs. The registration of these organizations should be further simplified, as well as grant applications. For this, European, national and local governments should work on the elimination of bureaucratic requirements and implement a tutoring system in order to support organizations with the application process and the posterior management of the projects.
AEGEE/ European Students’ Forum was born in 1986 with the vision of creating a unified Europe, based on democracy and respect for human rights, bringing together students with different cultural backgrounds. Today, AEGEE is Europe’s largest interdisciplinary youth organisation: 40 countries, 200 cities, 13 000 friends.
This network provides the ideal platform for young volunteers to work together on cross-border activities such as international conferences, seminars, exchanges, training courses, and case study trips. In line with the challenges young people are currently facing in Europe, AEGEE’s work in the period 2011-14 is focused on three main areas: promotion of youth participation, development of European relations with its neighbours, and inclusion of minorities.