Europe draws inspiration from U.S. Peace Corps

January 26, 2010
Carla Bruni, wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, talks to a Haitian orphan

Carla Bruni, wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, talks to a Haitian orphan

Much criticism has been heaped on the European Union — the vast majority of it by its own member states — for not being seen to do enough to help Haiti after the Caribbean state’s earthquake. 

Never mind the fact EU states and the European Commission have promised a combined 400 million euros  ($575 million) in aid and long-term reconstruction. In public relations terms, the sums have all but been eclipsed by images, beamed around the world, of  volunteer U.S. firemen pulling victims from the rubble, and emergency aid workers from the likes of Israel and Brazil running much-needed field hospitals.

But an interesting new proposal from Greece promises to change the way the European Union operates and is perceived in the world’s most-needy countries, especially at times of crisis.

Drawing a leaf from the U.S. Peace Corps programme, the overseas volunteer organisation established by President Kennedy in 1961, Greece wants to create a European Volunteer Corps that would send thousands of young Europeans abroad to do humanitarian work for a couple of years.

“We need to provide European citizens, and particularly our younger generation, with a framework to actively participate in projects related to  humanitarian and development aid, civil protection and emergency relief assistance,” Greece said in a document circulated in Brussels this week to promote the idea.

Such a corps would channel young people’s energy “into activities that serve the common interest and reinforce their sense of belonging to a common European family of values, but of action as well”.

U.S. soldiers helping in Haiti

U.S. soldiers helping in Haiti

For countries such as Greece, with high and rising joblessness and an often restive youth, it might also provide an opportunity to keep young and active minds busy in the frequently restless years between formal education and long-term employment.

Greece’s idea might seem pie-in-the-sky, but it is actually something the Lisbon treaty — the EU reform document that came into force last month — calls for: the creation of a humanitarian aid corps. In that respect, Greece believes the EU is obliged to implement it, and is calling on its 26 fellow member states to get the corps up and running by 2011.

The U.S. Peace Corps has sent nearly 200,000 Americans around the world over the past 50 years, largely — though not always — producing positive results for the image of America abroad. With a budget of around $350 million a year it might seem costly, but that’s less than the EU has already committed to Haiti this year alone.

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