NEEDS ARE NOT DEFICIENCIES: Discussing the European Solidarity Corps



All needs considered by humans to be real must be considered as real” Agnes Heller

A pivotal gear in the machinery of social action, need has remained an elusive and contested concept. Hartley Dean, Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at the London School of Economics concluded to such observation in Understanding Human Need, a reference publication on social policy, published in 2010. 

The acknowledgment of needs is at the inception of NGOs and CSOS ‘ commitment to social impact, with processes such as needs assessment operationalizing it. I care is the bedrock of social action. But need as a concept, as a discussion on public action, is not addressed by these actors, a state of affairs that must be challenged. 

The urgency to do so is unveiled by an emerging discomfort, that International Organizations ' appeal to target real needs illustrates. Does the misunderstanding of need misguide CSOs? Non-governmental organizations already set up methodologies to target beneficiaries' specific needs, with a toolkit of ethnographic methods, design thinking, or bottom-up approaches to program management. Still, these incremental solutions cannot solve a conceptual controversy. Philosophers and social politics such as Marx or Hegel did identify the special force of need: in one plead, what is not, and what must be are synthesized. 

A myriad of binary distinctions establishes a hierarchy of needs, by intensity or nature. For instance, one could estimate a community to have essential and non-essential needs, material and non-material needs, relative and absolute needs … Slipping into a normative argument deciding that some needs are more reasonable than others is easily done. Needs are gathered in a pyramid of distinct aspirations although they are interconnected. Moreover, the assessment's legitimacy is fooled by the judge's cultural and economical biases. 

One conception caught the sector's attention. Needs as a deficiency, as a void hollowed out in the social fabric to be filled by an outsider. Under this paradigm, CSOs ignore the community’s resources as durable options to target the need. The need-as-a-deficiency model paints a society where some communities are need-less, while others are need-full. Consequently, the systemic nature of social issues and their political, social, and economical factors are glossed over. Instead, quick fixes and vertical financial assistance or the setting up of services will be agreed to, without questioning their durability nor social impact. NGOs may disregard alternatives such as capacity-building or advocacy. This standard sustains that development is induced by external factors, resources, and capital. Furthermore, the identification of needy communities draws from an assessment of available resources. Communities suffering from poor accessibility to available resources or governance issues impacting the quality of these available resources fall off the radar.

Does the launch of the European Solidarity Corps signals a general acceptation of the need-as-deficiency conception? 

With a dedicated budget of over €1 billion for 2021-2027, the new program offers opportunities to some 275,000 young people to help address societal and humanitarian challenges through volunteering or by setting up their own solidarity projects.

Press Release: European Solidarity Corps 2021-2027, European Commission

Volunteering promises numerous benefits for all parties involved: young students, communities, and the EU.

However, experiential learning can individualize the understanding of social issues, reinforcing the ignorance of their structurality. Volunteers must enter the community, giving credit to the delusion that communities are deficient, inapt and the passive recipients of outsiders’ help. As in the north-American case, volunteering can prompt states’ disengagement, replacing systemic and institutional solidarity for an individual and intermittent one. Volunteering can not substitute for appropriate governmental action and social policy. Moreover, NGOs and CSOs, as well as volunteers, may not take heed of their own impact. They might contradicting their aims with the functioning, logistic, governance of their organizations, (lack of inclusivity, transparency, accessibility…), creating needs similar to those they wish to reform through volunteering. Volunteering requires harmonizing the community’s needs with the volunteer’s learning requirements. Participating NGOs and young students risk imposing their agenda, interests, schedules, and objectives on the communities. A need becomes relative to the organization, not to the community. 

Needs are to be understood as nodes in an absolute network. With the EU Solidarity Corps being launched, the aforementioned challenges must be tackled. Proper training, the adoption of good practices and guidelines, systematic inclusion of populations in all steps of the process will pave the way to sustainable and inclusive volunteering activities. The European Union took the first step by conceptualizing the European Solidarity Corps as a supplement to public action: “[they will] help address societal and humanitarian challenges”.