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Volunteering in humanitarian contexts.

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“The European Union is bucking the trend and organising a €147million volunteering in humanitarian aid initiative which has the lofty target of deploying 4000 ‘EU Aid Volunteers’ (EUAVI) between 2015 and 2020. ” writes Kate O Donnell

EUAV visual identity_CMYK

This form of volunteering  goes against the grain, in which volunteers are normally sent to areas of the world which are perceived to be less intense and where people are not in immediate need of support.

I would understand your scepticism about such a scheme which aims to unite European citizens in solidarity with people experiencing crisis as a result of human or naturally made disasters. Meanwhile, we as a continent cannot muster up a united response to the multifaceted economic crisis that hit Europe in 2008, or perhaps even more alarmingly, as we are failing catastrophically to respond to one of the biggest humanitarian disasters of the last decade right here on our doorstep: the thousands of refugees who are fleeing poverty, conflict and fear and who are seeking support and humanity in Europe.

So why then, in this context,  is the European Union spending time, energy and money on a volunteering project? Is it simply a publicity stunt to improve the flailing image of the European Union? Or is it a way of showing recognition that volunteering and all it encompasses is a powerful tool to empower people to create real change? I don’t have the definitive answer to this.

But it is what we as ‘european citizens’ make of this opportunity that will determine whether it can achieve tangible changes and inspire a new generation of activists, humanitarian workers and global citizens who recognise the need for global solidarity.

Comhlámh are involved in two consortia within this project. Both focus on improving the capacity of both sending and hosting organisations and, consequently, we are experiencing the internal workings of this macro European project. We have found it be a very open and honest effort to improve practices and standards across our network of sending and hosting agencies.

The EUAVI project aims to deploy volunteers in areas to improve disaster preparedness and post-disaster rebuilding. Therefore, no volunteers will be sent to areas that are in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. Another important aspect of this initiative is the financial commitment put forward by the European Union. This enables people to volunteer without the need to personally pay and therefore makes it more egalitarian and accessible than most volunteer programmes.

The world is currently awash with humanitarian crises. Climate change is a growing challenge for all communities. In many societies inequality is growing, alongside the escalating power of corporations.  Consequently,  we need to take action, whether that be through local activism, volunteering or political movements. Perhaps EUAVI could be an opportunity to empower people to act against injustice and suffering; but, as with all things, if we the citizens, the sending and hosting agencies and the volunteers do not take ownership of how it is organised and rolled out it could be a bureaucratic PR initiative run by Brussels.

So far, I have been inspired by the two consortia we are involved in because it is a real act of solidarity in its truest sense; these are open fora to exchange ideas, practices, shortcomings and frustrations. This can allow  participating organisations to improve and, most importantly, enhance the outcomes of their projects in contributing to reducing inequality and creating real partnerships across communities and countries.

Kate is working in Comhlámh as a civic service volunteer and she is sharing ideas, challenges and good practice across the network of organisations involved in the Volunteering in Humanitarian Aid consortium. This is part of the European Union Aid Volunteers Initiative capacity building programme.


  1. This sounds like something we would like to get our teeth into. We have been saying for a long time now about the problems / gaps and lack of properly trained volunteers and staff for these more interesting and more volatile countries.

  2. I have experience of coordinating volunteers in disaster response situations, and it is something to be both very supportive and very nervous of. In the US, volunteer organisations are part of the disaster response mechanism, to the point that Americorps, that national service programme, will place their teams within these organisations to tackle tornados, floods etc.

    When in an international disaster context, depending on where you are, there are tons of international volunteers. They are already there, living there, visiting, tourists etc. And they can be a massive challenge. Part of our challenge in Nepal, for example, was actually trying to discourage volunteers from flying in, and diverting those who already happened to be there into useful activities that were too overwhelming for the local communities, such as clearing rubble and digging trenches and latrines. We work within the humanitarian response system, so were able to direct volunteers to organisations that might need them. We then had a database of skilled and experienced responders who we would allow to come, depending the nature of the work. Part of the story for Nepal was the very strong Nepali led volunteer response, which set the tone for other international volunteers, and there was a lot of unskilled work needed to be done within critical time frames due to oncoming monsoon. But we definitely had to weed out some idealistic “selfie with the poor kids” types.

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