Could the European Solidarity Corps promote a more healthy society?

12 April 2017
European Solidarity Corps © European Union, 2016

The recently launched European Solidarity Corps will create opportunities for young people aged between 17 and 30 to support communities and people in need through work or volunteering either at home or abroad. It is a new response to Europe’s changing social and political landscape, and has the potential to improve health and well-being. Whilst opportunities exist, the implementation of the scheme needs to be carefully managed to ensure it is sustainable and gives tangible benefits.

Against a backdrop of political and social turmoil, EC president Juncker has said ‘we must choose between isolation, inequality and national egoism on the one hand, and openness, social equality and solidarity on the other’. This is a make-or-break year, and all efforts to integrate social justice and health equity into the European project are important.

The promotion of health and health equity is inextricably linked to the notion of solidarity. It requires collaboration with those currently unable to reach good levels of health and wellbeing, and it requires partnership with young people as a good start to working life has positive, long-term health benefits.

With youth unemployment at 19% in the EU and reaching peaks of 40% in some countries, the need to protect and support this generation is clear. Young people need to be empowered to shape a strong and productive Europe, and the European Solidarity Corps can contribute to this.

A special role for Health in the Solidarity Corps.

The Solidarity Corps should provide opportunities for more young people to work in health and related sectors which promote health equity.

Health and social work are fields in which young people, with a wide range of backgrounds and skills, can provide valuable support in both care and prevention; not all roles in the health sector require specific medical training. This type of work not only develops solidarity with those in need, but will equip young people with skills which will help them into employment.

Young people already have many skills that should be appreciated and utilised in the Corps. Their capacities for self-learning and information gathering are great. They are usually creative, use initiative, are good at adapting to new environments, and are often highly IT-literate. However, care must be taken that equal opportunities exist for those young people who need a little encouragement to participate.

A special role for health promotion

There are many areas in which members of the Corps can make a lasting difference to their lives and those of others. For example:

The health of migrants often lags behind that of the host population as they face legal, administrative, linguistic and cultural barriers in accessing health services. Young people can have a role to play in building cultural bridges and disseminating information

Poor mental health in children effects school performance and the ability to form social bonds, problems which can continue to manifest in adulthood. Support programmes delivered by young people could cover bullying, mindfulness, or sports activities.

The use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs, engaging in gaming, gambling and sexual behaviour- these are all challenges teenagers and young people learn to face, and support given by peers can be effective.

Active young people can offer support in parenting programmes, which may give them an extra skill set when they themselves become parents. They can also play a caring role to help un- or under-employed parents into work.

Loneliness and isolation is a growing issue faced by an ageing population. Facilitating social contacts between generations can help alleviate some of the difficulties experienced by older people, and build solidarity between generations.

Making the Solidarity Corps a success

The Corps must be inclusive. For real solidarity, people with a wide range of skills, knowledge, and ability should be involved meaning that a wide range of opportunities should be available. The inclusion of the most disadvantaged will require special attention.

The application and recruitment process should be clear, efficient, and fair to all parties. The launch needs to be accompanied by a strong communication strategy which targets potential candidates as well as hosts.

Members of the Corps must be protected, with social security and insurance measures put in place. The programme’s funding needs to be well thought through; if funds for existing, well-functioning programmes are syphoned off, this could negatively affect the existing and future opportunities that support the professional development of young people. The Corps should not lead to over- or underemployment of young people.

Safeguards to make sure the experience is positive for participants should be put in place, and consideration given to those participants who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and may not have a strong support network. This could come in the form of extra mentoring, counselling, or a helpline.  Centralised training packages would ensure consistency in the quality of treatment of participants and support the development of transferable skills.

The Solidarity Corps may grant new and exciting opportunities to young people, and could help to alleviate the suffering of many Europeans. It cannot, however, replace work or allow organisations to offer low-quality working and living conditions, nor should it be perceived to be doing so by those already facing financial and work insecurity.