Wednesday, 14 September 2011

European Charter on the Rights and Responsibilities of Volunteers

Guest contributor Lewis Smith has written a helpful summary of his recent participation in a youth convention on volunteering held in Brussels between 7 and 11 September 2011.  Organised by the European Youth Forum, this event saw further work being undertaken towards a European Charter on the Rights and Responsibilities of Volunteers.

Lewis was an important member of the Volunteer Rights Inquiry bringing considerable experience and insight as a volunteer and as volunteer at York CAB in 2008 when an issue of volunteer rights hit the headlines in the sector press.

Here is Lewis' report from the event.

To explain the venue – for those who haven't visited – the European Parliament in Brussels is an extensive
array of buildings along and adjacent to an esplanade. From one main entrance it is possible to access on
several floors a vast range of debating chambers, meeting rooms, and offices – not to mention restaurants and shops. Much time is spent finding where one is meant to be, and the conference I attended had a team of helpers just for this guiding purpose. Several major activities can co-exist: while I was there, for example, I noticed conferences on “The Forest sector contribution to bio-economy” and on “Patient reported outcomes on clinical trials of cancer”.

The youth convention was apparently the largest. I don't yet have the full list, but 27 European Countries
were represented, together with a parallel event involving 100 Chinese for whom 2011 is the “EU/China Year of Youth”. 2011 is, of course the European Year of Volunteering (and incidentally of Forests, and probably much else).

The event, organised by the European Youth Alliance, lasted five days. It was partly celebratory, with a
range of speeches from EU and Council of Europe officers, a representative from the United Nations and so
on. There was a range of workshops. It was also an advertisement for what youth volunteers undertake, with talks from those who organise international volunteering opportunities, and with a range of marquees on the esplanade showcasing volunteer activities.

Central, however, was the more political element of a two-day stakeholder conference on "A Rights-based
Approach to Volunteering" which, as the result of our membership of the Volunteer Rights Inquiry, Caroline
Aldiss and I were invited to attend. Unfortunately, Caroline was not well enough to go, so it fell to this
elderly youth to make a sole UK contribution to discussion. (The only other UK participants I came across
were three from CSV Preston, and one from CSV Lewisham. Unlike members from other countries, they did not seem to be exactly representing their organisation: was this a reflection of the UK's ambivalence towards Europe, I wonder?)

The president of the Europe Economic and Social Committee sees the EESC as being at the centre of
European policy on volunteering. They have been considering the question of a legal framework for
volunteers. Meanwhile, the European Youth Forum (organisers of this convention) have over many months
been developing a draft European Charter on the Rights and Responsibilities of Volunteers. As this had been
agreed by the Youth Forum's constituent bodies, it was not up for discussion. Rather the aim of the
conference was to produce an agreed declaration on the need for a rights-based approach to volunteering. To this end, the discussion was tightly structured so that all countries had their say and could accept the
statement as being applicable to their situation. Whether the charter itself eventually becomes a European
Charter is presumably in the hands of the EESC.

I do not yet have the final wording of the Declaration emanating from this conference.  It does, of course, have to aim at harmonization while recognising the notion of subsidiarity, and cannot be too specific or prescriptive. However, it, and the subsequent charter, could become a useful reference point for future action, especially in areas such as:

1. getting a common agreed definition of volunteering

2. improving administrative structures and regulation

3. overcoming obstacles to volunteering

4. improving research into volunteering and its social and economic effect

5. developing an appropriate legal framework.

Lewis Smith. Sep 2011

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