Monday, 21 November 2011

Interested in international experiences? The Youth in Action Programme gets you there

Have you ever heard about the wonderful opportunity to meet people from another country, travel and visit them abroad, discuss certain – for you – interesting topics over the course of several weeks? Or even to spend up to one year abroad, working in an organization, while not even being a student or an organization member – and all this with the financial support from the EU? If not, do not worry, you are in between two thirds of those unlucky people who have never heard about the Youth in Action programme offered by the European Commission. Stage Echoes is here to right that wrong, inform you about the programme and give you a chance to participate on it.

Find out more about Youth in Action possibilities here.

To gain a bigger overview on the programme, Lucia Mrazova interviewed Mr. Pascal Lejeune. He has been working for the European Commission since 1986 and currently, he is the head of the Unit in charge of Youth in Action that deals with the ambitious programme for all young people in Europe.  

Youth in Action has existed since 1989 and while it was initially a small programme, it has since expanded to manage a current budget of 180 million Euros. Have you ever participated in it? Why would you suggest others to take part?

Of course, when I was younger, this programme did not exist. Therefore I have no personal experience with it, but I have always been interested in what the current DG Education and culture proposes. I was particularly interested in this programme as it has an additional strong focus on citizenship, which is very original. Through non-formal learning activities we try to increase skills, knowledge and competences for young people. But beyond improving their future employability, the programme also offers the opportunity to meet and conversewith their peers from other countries, it helps young people to get involved in society (what we call active citizenship), it gives them a feeling of being European. Employability and participation are two raisons d'être of the non-formal learning opportunities offered by the Programme.

The most known activities under the hat of the Youth in Action programme are volunteering and youth exchanges. What is so special about them?

In some countries, volunteering schemes exist. But they mainly offer possibilities to volunteer in your own country, not abroad. On the contrary, the European Voluntary Service allows you to accomplish tasks of general interest in another country. Of course, spending up to one year abroad in such a scheme is a true learning experience with a strong impact from a personal, social and professional point of view; but let's not underestimate the "solidarity" dimension: for the hosting community, it constitutes a much appreciated support.

Similarly youth exchanges are a great opportunity to spend two-three weeks abroad, not as a tourist, but with a view to meeting other youngsters from different countries and exchanging with them on different topics, on Europe, on what matters for young people. It's all the more important that we pay a special attention to the inclusion of youngsters with fewer opportunities; we know that for many of them, participating in a youth exchange is a first opportunity to go abroad and therefore have a first contact with European realities: an unforgettable experience here again!

What about the participation in the programme? Does the Commission undertake surveys to assess the number of people involved?

On average, the Youth in Action programme has now approximately 150 thousand participants a year, either young people or youth workers - professionals working for youth organizations. Since its launch in 1989 when it was called Youth for Europe, more than 2 million people have benefited of it. Under the current Youth in Action programme, since 2007, close to 7 hundred thousand people have participated.

Last year we launched a survey among a representative sample of around 5 thousand beneficiaries of the programme, with a view to assessing the impact of the programme on the participants. Unsurprisingly, since it supports transnational learning activities, 91 per cent of them claimed a certain increase in their language and communication skills; furthermore, 82 per cent claimed an increase in their social and civic competences as well as in their cultural awareness. Further noticeable impact was noted relating to most of the key competences defined at European level.

Another interesting result of the survey was that we also asked these participants, whose projects had came to an end around Easter 2009, if they had participated in the 2009 elections for the European Parliament. And the result is impressive: 60 per cent of the youngsters of the sample declared that they had been participated in the elections, while the general turnout at the 2009 elections in Europe was 43 per cent, and only 29 per cent when it came to young people.

The Youth in Action programme targets young people between 13 to 30 years of age. But how many of those youngsters have heard about it? How does the Commission work to increase the programme's visibility?

If every year we reach let's say 150 thousand youngsters (aged between 13 and 30), as was the case in 2010, it means that we touch around two per cent of the overall young population of Europe, which is 100 million youngsters. Two per cent is not that much, but we see this program as being justified not only because we concretely support the initiatives of these 150 thousand people, but also because, beyond these direct beneficiaries, the programme has a much wider systemic impact. For example, we support activities for youth workers, who get possibilities to participate in seminars and trainings and will be implementing what they have learned even outside the projects supported by Youth in Action, through their activities with youth NGOs at regional or local level.

Furthermore, such a European programme can inspire countries or regions to develop their own programmes for young people by adding a transnational dimension that we have been testing. We even have the example of Belgium, where the authorities came to the conclusion that one way to improve the relations between the communities could be to help young people better know each other. So they developed a national scheme directly inspired by what the European Union does thanks to Youth in Action. And now, in Belgium, there is a voluntary scheme to enable, for example, a Flemish young girl, to volunteer in Wallonia, and youth exchanges organised between the three communities.

Some countries are exceptionally good at promoting the programme, for example Estonia. There, about six out of ten youngsters have heard about Youth in Action. It may be related to the fact that Estonia is relatively small country or to the fact that the National Agency, in charge of implementing the Youth in Action programme in this country, has signed an agreement with the body dealing with unemployed people, which helped reach youngsters in difficult situations.

The Youth in Action programme is about to end in 2013 and the Commission decided to put programmes of formal education (like Comenius or Erasmus) with a non-formal education (Youth in Action) programme under one roof, so called Erasmus for all. Recently, there have been many voices, web pages or social media groups launched, calling for revision of this idea, who are concerned of losing visibility for non-formal education available for all young people, no matter of their education. How does the Commission answer?

This choice has been made by the Commission, and it is justified by various reasons; for example, we have to face the fact that we live in times of budgetary constraints and any saving in the management of programmes is an asset. Surely, this is a challenge and I am aware of the fact that people do not like it. But as I said, it is a challenge for us to work in such a way that it will be beneficial for those whom we support. Youth exchanges will continue to exist, the European Voluntary Service will continue to exist, the current support for youth workers will continue as well. In the Commission's proposal, we can also see an increase of budget by 73 per cent for Erasmus for all. Indeed, this may mean an increased budget for Erasmus, but possibly also for actions related to non-formal education. I personally think that the track record of Youth in Action suggests that such non-formal learning opportunities deserve to be supported in the future, whatever the architecture of the programme.

If you had the opportunity to be part of any project under the Youth in Action, which would you choose?

Difficult to say; there are very interesting projects in the various strands of Youth in Action. But if I must chose, I think it would be volunteering. Because I imagine having the possibility to spend one year abroad… this must be something! Spending one year in Spain or in Greece, doing something interesting and formative, making friends, learning another language, why not? But youth exchanges are important also. We have many testimonies that spending two or three weeks with youngsters from another country also create long lasting effects and help to discover people coming from completely different environments. Bringing people closer! That's what Europe is about!

By Lucia Mrázová