Boosting Youth Work: A third Convention and a Bonn Process
For a long time, youth work in Europe remained very much on the periphery of the youth policy field. However, as youth unemployment across Europe skyrocketed in the first decade of the millennium, it was high time to take a critical look at the limitations of formal education systems and extend the horizon to include non-formal and informal settings. This led to rising expectations on, e.g., European youth exchanges and volunteering schemes, yet Europe’s stretched finances meant that youth work budgets and structures came under pressure. The youth work field lacked recognition and resources.
Against this backdrop, Belgium organised a European Youth Work Convention under its EU Council presidency in the second half of 2010. The Convention, a unique meeting of like-minded representatives of youth organisations, the youth work community, youth policy and youth (work) research, took place between 7 and 10 July 2010 in Ghent. 400 participants from 50 countries came together to discuss various forms of youth work in Europe as well as the general context, the requirements and the political perspectives. The final declaration of the Convention and the subsequent Resolution of the EU Council of Youth Ministers on youth work (adopted on 18-19 November 2010) are rightfully recognised as early milestones towards the recognition of and support for youth work in Europe. The participants called for more opportunities for exchange, more co-operation between youth workers and youth policymakers, better training and, where necessary, a legal framework in support of youth work.
Five years later, Belgium went a step further. Under the country’s chairmanship of the Council’s Committee of Ministers, the second Convention took place between 27 and 30 April 2015 in Brussels. The intention was to identify 'common ground' for the European youth work field and its various formats, themes, activities and challenges. The Convention called for a European Youth Work Agenda, a suggested plan of action for the continued development and strengthening of key priority areas and institutionalised processes within the Council of Europe and the European Union. This would help recognise and boost youth work in Europe at the local, national and European levels.
So what could this common ground be, given that youth work in Europe is so diverse and variable? The Council Resolution of 27 November 2009 on a renewed framework for European co-operation in the youth field (2010-2018) was the first official EU document to provide a definition of youth work: 'Youth work is a broad term covering a large scope of activities of a social, cultural, educational or political nature both by, with and for young people (…) Youth work belongs to the area of "out-of- school" education, as well as specific leisure time activities managed by professional or voluntary youth workers and youth leaders and is based on non-formal learning processes and on voluntary participation.'
The final declarations of the two Conventions added further detail to this definition, incorporating shared principles such as participation and empowerment, human rights and democracy, and anti-discrimination and tolerance. Youth work practices were described as encapsulating non-formal education, open work, street work, project and issue-based work, self-organised activity through youth organisations, youth information, exchanges and more.
Time for genuine action
The Conventions of 2010 and 2015 made a considerable contribution towards giving visibility to the diversity of youth work in Europe, highlighting its benefits and sharpening its profile - for despite the diverse nature of youth work, the two final declarations indeed identified broad common ground. Yet the work cannot stop there. In many European countries, youth work remains in a precarious situation.
Final declarations confirm the parties’ engagement and willingness to embrace responsibility, yet they must to be followed through to implementation. Five years after the second Convention, Germany is planning a third Youth Work Convention under its EU Council Presidency – with an ambitious agenda to match. The third Convention, scheduled to take place from 7 to 10 December 2020 in Bonn, is not just about exchanging good practices, sharing new research insights and inspiring new networks. Its primary aim is to start defining a strategy for implementing the European Youth Work Agenda that will help youth work in Europe to evolve and remain strong in the long term. The spotlight is on actions that will give a sharper profile to youth work in Europe, its potential objectives and benefits, and the steps that are necessary to achieve them. Naturally, two days of discussion will not suffice for this, and so the Convention is the starting point of a longer-term plan known as the Bonn Process. The political framework for this incorporates the EU Youth Strategy 2019-2027, the Recommendation of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers on youth work of 2017 and the Council of Europe’s youth sector strategy 2030 – as well as the impending Council Resolution on the European Youth Work Agenda. Both the European Youth Work Agenda and the Youth Work Convention are intended to help ensure that neither the youth work community of practice nor youth work disappear off the political agenda. Boosting youth work in Europe means making an active contribution to the field.