European youth eager to help in third world

REN'E M., aged 20, is a baker's son in Brittany. Trained as a baker himself, he is volunteering to help the third world. ``I would like to work for the poor for free, for one year,'' he wrote to a volunteer relief agency in Paris. ``If you give me 1,000 kilos of dough, I can make 1,600 kilos of protein-enriched bread.''

Jean B. from Paris, also 20, is a university graduate. He wrote to the same agency: ``I am out of work, but I don't lack dynamism, and I would like to offer my services [to the third world] in any capacity.''

Sabine and Marie, both 17 and from Picardy, France, say they want to spend one month working in Africa before beginning their seven-year study to become doctors.

At age 33 Judith Stirrat from Dorset, England, volunteered to go to Sudan. She stayed for two years as a librarian: She wanted to ``do something worthwhile and gain professional experience in a different context,'' as she explained.

These five are among a growing number of young Western Europeans coming forward to volunteer to help alleviate famine and poverty among the two-thirds of the world's population in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

``The number of inquiries we're getting so far this year is three times higher than last year,'' according to Robert Nurdon of the British organization Voluntary Service Overseas.

``If the pace keeps up like this, we'll get 50,000 to 60,000 applicants this year, compared to 30,000 in 1984.''

In Paris, Dominique Rigoux, communications director for a high-profile private group called M'ed'ecins Sans Fronti`eres (Doctors Without Borders), reports ``more and more'' inquiries from would-be volunteers, including the baker from Brittany.

``We haven't done a scientific survey,'' she said in a telephone interview, ``but young people want what might be called `useful adventure.' ''

``I myself am answering 40 letters a day now.''

``Yes, we have more approaches by young people now,'' says Barbara Mildenhall, who recruits people to work for Save the Children (UK) in London. ``They want to be involved. Both Dominique Rigoux and Barbara Mildenhall stress they are looking for volunteers who have training and professional skills: Too often, they say, young people have little more than idealism.

Ren'e, the Brittany baker, will probably be accepted by M'ed'ecins Sans Fronti`eres (MSF), which needs backup staff. But Sabine and Marie are being told that they need to complete their training first, and besides, they must be prepared to stay in Africa more than one month. Jean B., the unemployed Frenchman, will need to show evidence of specific skills before he is accepted.

Voluntary Service Overseas -- the biggest British group of its kind -- selects rigorously. Last year the group, which gets 90 percent of its finances from the British government, sent about 600 people abroad in response to requests from third-world countries such as Kenya, Sudan, Nigeria, Senegal, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Uganda, and Egypt.

MSF in Paris dispatches about 700 doctors, nurses, and support staff to 25 countries each year. Teams often work in bleak, primitive conditions.

Save the Children has between 70 and 90 expatriate staff abroad, mostly in Africa.

But why, officials ask, has this youthful surge of interest in the third world appeared?

Is a new generation of young Europeans emerging from the self-centered ``me first'' era to mix self-interest with idealism and hard work in response to television pictures of starving children? Or are the new volunteers part of Europe's army of people without jobs, restless and attracted by the idea of work experience as well as altruism?

Volunteer agency officials in London and Paris say it is difficult to tell: Motives are often mixed.

Ms. Rigoux says many of the French applicants are attracted by wide television coverage of MSF teams working in such places as the large relief camp in Korem, northern Ethiopia. Others like the idea that MSF is private and sends teams into areas where the French government does not go, such as Afghanistan and Angola.

In London Barbara Mildenhall of Save the Children says three factors prompt the new volunteers: (1) new awareness that voluntary private agencies are active and need help, (2) unemployment, and (3) competition to get into university -- so tough that many young people have a year of free time after school while waiting.

``Save the Children needs specific skills,'' she adds. ``The last thing the third world needs is more untrained man-power.''

Robert Nurdon of Britain's Voluntary Service Overseas says that although the unemployed make up a fair proportion of first inquiries, only 8 percent of the final 600 or so his organization sends abroad each year had been unemployed.

In Paris, M'ed'ecins Sans Fronti`eres was founded by Dr. Bernard Kouchner in 1968 to help in Biafra during the Nigerian civil war. Doctors are now paid 4,000 francs a month ($420, about one-quarter of what young doctors can earn at home) and nurses 3,000 francs (about half the usual French salary).

Dr. Kouchner, who currently heads a separate, smaller agency called M'ed'ecins du Monde (Doctors of the World), has a new idea to encourage youthful idealism. The idea is to organize service in the third world as an official alternative to conscription into the armed forces in France and other countries.

Kouchner has raised the plan with President Franois Mitterrand and Prime Minister Laurent Fabius. One of his aides says both leaders are ``more than interested,'' and government ministries and private agencies in France are holding talks with counterparts in West Germany, Belgium, and Spain.

Official approval could take a long time to obtain, the aide says. If it does come, multinational groups of young people would work beside Africans on small, specific projects: planting trees, repairing machinery, or growing food, for example.

Somewhat similar to the Peace Corps in the United States, it would encourage private industry to become involved, to provide money, equipment, and expertise.

The French government already has a plan whereby young doctors, architects, and engineers can apply for places as ``coop'erants'' working in specific fields abroad, many in the third world.

Kouchner's idea for a European volunteer corps, a former colleague says, ``sounds perfect, if it's not just a political gadget.''

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