Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 52

It is a bright day and the weather forecast is really good, but in all likelihood I will spend this one sunny day entirely inside.

It is not difficult to get into the building of the European Commission. Often the security is quite a nuisance, but since we are invited and were asked to give the organiser all our personal details beforehand, our badge is enough to let us pass. There are several people I know in the meeting which is nice. Some of them I haven’t seen for quite a while.

The programme looks interesting although a bit overloaded: 16 speakers in one day.

The first speakers tell us what is already known about volunteers on the basis of research. It is interesting that different research projects have very different outcomes, where numbers of volunteers are concerned. I guess they have different definitions of who is a volunteer.

In most rankings the Scandinavian countries and The Netherlands are in top positions.

Most researchers agree about the beneficial effects of being a volunteer: it is good for the physical and mental health of older persons. Older people who are volunteers are less likely to become depressed. Not only the volunteers themselves, but also society will benefit from the contribution made by volunteers. In fact, their involvement is very necessary now that the baby boom generation is beginning to retire and there may not be enough younger people to do all the work.

A Swedish speaker wonders why older people always do unpaid work. In his case he is still doing the same things he did before the age of 65 but for some of them he is now not paid. Someone else is afraid volunteers take away paid jobs. This argument is often heard, but one of the experts remarks that voluntary organisations employ quite a few paid workers as well, they also create paid employment.

During lunch break there is time for informal contacts. I hear from an Irish colleague, who has set up – very successfully - seniors’ helplines in several Irish communities that she has been invited to help set up three seniors’ helplines in New York: in the Bronx, in Yonkers and in Queens, Long Island and that she has provided the training. Good for her!

In the afternoon there are as many presentations as in the morning, too many to summarise here. It is good to hear the director of AGE, the European Older People’s Platform say appreciates that active ageing is no longer restricted to working longer in paid employment. It now also includes other activities such as volunteering and (informal) caring. The concepts need to be defined better, because obviously the definitions vary greatly. Volunteering brings benefits to the European Union. The year 2011 will be the European Year of Volunteers and the year 2012 the Year of Active Ageing and Solidarity between the Generations: two years in which the political level should be mobilised to support volunteers.

There should be more research about volunteers and more concrete ideas about what Europe can do for volunteers.

Towards the end of the meeting there is an intervention by Marian Harkin, Member of the European Parliament from Ireland. She herself comes from the voluntary sector and has been instrumental in bringing volunteering on to the political agenda in Europe. She has many suggestions about what can be done for the voluntary sector. One of them sounds like music in my ears.

One of the great obstacles for NGOs such as the one on (informal) carers , in which I am active, is that any grant by the European Commission must be matched by funds the organisation has raised itself, membership fees rather than commercial sponsorship. This is very hard, because European organisations are mostly umbrellas and their members are themselves organisations. In our case we have a limited membership, because in many countries there are no carers organisations yet; the co-funding required by the European Commission (EC) creates a huge problem. Marian Harkin suggests that the EC should give core funding to NGOs and that the time given to these organisations by volunteers should be considered as co-funding.

The meeting was supposed to be finished at 5.p.m.; after 4 o’clock people begin to leave. Many have to get a plane to get home. Well after 5.00 p.m. a new speaker takes the floor. I have to go back to the hotel and pick up my suitcase and go to the station where I want to take the 6.15 train home, so I leave before the end of the meeting. Not very polite, but on the other hand, the organisers ought to know that it is hard to retain people after 4.00 p.m. in an international conference.

The train from Brussels Central is rather full. I travel with one of my Dutch colleagues.

We dive into the first compartment where we see several free seats. That is to say, there are two persons in the compartment, a huge suitcase, a coat and another, smaller piece of luggage, which together occupy five seats. We make clear that we like to sit there. The younger of the two travellers asks us if we have reserved places. We answer that on this train there are no reserved places. The older person, a very well dressed older man with Asian features tries to move the suitcase, so that it takes up only one seat. My Dutch colleague and I can sit opposite to each other and we engage in a discussion about his professional past and the organisation where he works now. The conductor comes to check the tickets. The young man who asked us if we had a reservation turns out to have a second class ticket. He is sent away, he is not supposed to be in this first class compartment. After a while we start a conversation with the other passenger. He is originally from India but lives now in New York. He seems to be a successful business man. His trade is beer and he has businesses in Africa, Western Europe and North America and travels a lot between these places. He has a very optimistic view of life. He is not afraid of the economic crisis or the climate crisis. Nature will survive. Mankind will survive. It will always turn out for the better. Crises make us stronger and more resourceful. He has a healthy life style and begins every day by drinking four glasses of water, which is excellent for his health. We should try it too. He shakes hands with my colleague when he gets off the train. When I have to get off at the next stop he gets my suitcase for me and I believe he is tempted to kiss me goodbye.

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