What is international youth work?
Children, adolescents or young adults getting get together for an activity involving peers from other countries, receiving educational guidance throughout and learning from that experience – that’s international youth work.
Every year tens of thousands of young people go abroad to get to know strangers and their everyday lives, to do something together or to work with others in charitable projects. About the same number come from abroad with the same goal in return. They do this voluntarily, without remuneration, in their free time and mostly outside school or vocational training. In various formats, such as youth meetings, work camps or voluntary services, they acquire important skills, develop personality and self-confidence, practice tolerance and get involved with others. A sense of responsibility and participation in society are promoted and help young people to shape the reality of their lives, which is shaped by global influences.
The spectrum of such stays abroad is wide. Teenagers and young adults can participate either as individuals or in a group. During a youth exchange in Poland they learn to understand how our neighbours live; during a voluntary service in Brazil they might help in a retirement home or in a nature conservation project and feel how they change during their stay; while working together on a monument they learn about history and contribute to the preservation of our common cultural heritage.
Providers of such experiences abroad can be youth organisations, institutions for children and youth work, specialised organisations, churches or cities and municipalities. The activities are financed by the European Union, the Federal Government, the Länder, local authorities, bilateral youth organisations and coordination offices, foundations and by participant contributions and donations.
International youth work, part of the field of child and youth services, has its legal basis in Book 8 of Germany’s Social Code (also known as the Child and Youth Services Act). It is a field of activity in its own right, in which full-time and volunteer staff work to provide services for all young people regardless of their social or educational background. International youth work activities are responsive to the interests and needs of young people.
The programmes are designed by education experts who also guide participants throughout the activities, which promote participants’ personal development and their capacity for social participation and civic engagement. Children, adolescents and young adults are invited to contribute to the activities themselves and to bring their own interests and strengths to the table. Through this, they learn to deal with unfamiliar situations and take responsibility.
In the wake of two World Wars, the idea arose that international dialogue and exchange between young people could encourage reconciliation and understanding and help create a positive image of post-war Germany. Accordingly, international youth work seeks to promote respect for other cultures, enable insights into how people in and outside Europe live, and encourage reconciliation with individuals in countries whose populations suffered under the atrocities committed during World War II.
These aims and objectives are clearly reflected in the funding regulations and the involved organisations. Various bilateral cultural agreements have identified youth exchanges as a valuable foreign policy instrument. In addition, a Franco-German Youth Office, a German-Polish Youth Office and a German-Greek Youth Office have been established, alongside a number of bilateral coordination offices for youth exchanges with Israel, the Czech Republic and Russia. These organisations serve to promote exchanges between young Germans and young people in countries that used to be at war with Germany. The German-Israeli coordination centre ConAct exists to promote contacts between young Germans and Israelis.
The principle of reciprocity plays an important role in this regard. A youth exchange always consists of a visit by Germans abroad and a return visit by the foreign group in Germany. That said, international youth work is not limited to exchanges between just two countries. There are also a number of multilateral programmes under which young people or experts from three or more countries come together.
In the late 1980s, the European Union began to promote youth exchanges more systematically. In 1988, the then Council of the European Communities launched “Youth for Europe”, its first action programme for youth exchanges. Its significance increased in the programme generations that followed in the 1990s. Today, over 250,000 experts and young people every year take part in an EU exchange through the EU programmes Erasmus+ Youth and the European Solidarity Corps.
International youth work is also about intercultural learning and dealing with diversity in society. As globalisation continues, more people migrate and the political and philosophical significance of the European Union changes, it is becoming more and more important to aid young citizens of Europe and an ever-smaller world in shaping this environment and taking responsibility. They need to learn to question prejudices, understand alternative social systems, cultures and religions, and develop an informed opinion on their own political, cultural and religious backgrounds. In doing so, they learn about global interdependencies, such as the relationship between prosperous and poorer countries, sustainable economies, and the origin of food and valuable resources and the circumstances under which they are produced. Young people have to learn to navigate their way through a society characterised by diversity and internationality. They need international skills as they develop as individuals, participate in society and build a career.
The issues on which international exchange programmes and activities focus vary widely, yet all correspond to the concerns and interests that young people have today. How can conflicts be resolved peacefully? How does politics work in the EU or in other countries? What traditions and ways of communication exist in other cultures? Why do some people interpret history differently from others? And how can we all work together to build a common future? Drama, sports, music, dance, video, photography, politics, history, ecology and participation are all ideal conduits for discussions, role-play, group projects, cultural activities or media work. Whatever the activity, they can and should be fun and offer plenty of potential for personal and collective experiences.
Most international youth work programmes are aimed at young people aged 12 to 30, and the relevant funding programmes are designed to meet their needs. However, activities for children are becoming more popular, especially in communities located close to a national border. As a rule, international youth work is open to all adolescents and young adults regardless of their origin and educational status.
In addition, international exchanges are also available for child and youth services experts. Typically, experts working in a certain area get together to discuss the circumstances of their work and the concepts and methods they work with. For instance, German homeless outreach workers may meet with their Finnish counterparts, or day-care centre workers may participate in an exchange with their peers in France. Municipal administrations, societies and federations are becoming more international, too, a form of organisational development that many believe to be of great benefit as Europe grows closer together and the world continues to globalise.
International youth work costs money. Thankfully, policymakers are convinced that international youth work works – and so there are a number of budgets from which international activities can be funded.
In Germany and Europe, there are generally three types of funding. “Public-sector funding “denotes public funding programmes or financial aid provided by the European Union, the German government, the Länder governments, local authorities or youth councils, as well as foundations under public law. “Private-sector funding” is provided by privately run foundations or by donors and sponsors. Finally, funding may also be available from the project organisers themselves in the shape of participants’ contributions or other revenue.
The most extensive of the permanent funding programmes for international youth work are the Child and Youth Plan of the Federal Republic of Germany, and the EU programme Erasmus+ Youth.