EFIL before EFIL

In 1964 AFS celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first ambulance services (1914) with a reunion in New York and lots of events around the world. The AFS chapter of Torino, Italy, had the idea of inviting three delegates from every AFS organisation in Europe to an informal meeting, with the purpose of sharing experiences and discussing how AFS could develop common activities in Europe. The idea was endorsed by the national board of AFS Italy and an invitation was sent out to all 15 AFS organisations then existing in Europe. 11 accepted the invitation and sent their delegates to Torino 1-4 November 1964 for an informal volunteer gathering. The meeting led to the establishment of a “European Information Committee” of volunteers that began to publish a European newsletter – the first one ever to spread the word about what AFS was doing in the different European countries.

A second informal European meeting

Followed in Istanbul in September 1965 and a third one in Oxford in 1966. In 1967 the volunteer meeting merged with a regional meeting called “European Conference”, and the event became an annual activity on the calendar. AFS International supported this voluntary cooperation movement in Europe and in 1967 it opened its first “European Coordination Office” in Brussels with three staff. It was the joint e#ort of this new office and of the European Information Committee that led to the establishment of a permanent European Federation in 1971.

At the AFS World Congress

In Lake Mohonk in 1971, the by-laws of a European federation were approved and AFS Europa was created. Its first General Assembly took place a year later in Birgitz, Austria, when Fritz Otti was elected Chair of the EFIL board. The birth of EFIL can be seen as the result of the crisis of old naive idealism, of the loss of image of the USA, of the hope for a united Europe, and of a new trend towards internationalisation. The first immediate result was to open the AFS network to multilateral exchanges: In 1970-71 12 students from Europe went to Latin America. EFIL was the first step of an internationalisation process at AFS, which was long and painful and it came to some completion only in the 90’s with the establishment of a partnership system. For many years the old “American” AFS looked at EFIL with suspicion – as a “power block” – and EFIL’s first decade was full of battles and antagonism.

50 years later

It’s correct to say that EFIL played a positive role in the evolution of AFS and introduced new programmes and new topics for the benefit of the whole network:
– the multinational exchanges
– the training of volunteers and staff, with three/four
European seminars a year – which influenced also youth policies and EU programmes in general
– the ambition of being present in all cultural areas of the
– the focus on educational content, beginning with a Colloquium on “Youth Mobility and Education” in 1978 at the Council of Europe

Historical perspective:

What was the world like when volunteers met in Torino in 1964? Common people did not travel in masses. Common people did not have friends in other countries. For Europeans, America was a promised land, an outpost of freedom, a place where one could “rub elbows with democracy” – as it was written in a letter by one AFS student in 1955. The philosophy of AFS was summarised in a slogan: Walk together, talk together…. What it meant was that war is a consequence of isolation and ignorance and that peace is the result of knowledge and understanding.

This equation was too simplistic, it was wishful thinking, as people started realising in the 60’s and 70’s when better communication, mass tourism and international business did not prevent any conflict from happening: in Vietnam, but also here in Europe. The late 60’s and the 70’s were years full of student unrest, atomic fears, local wars, decolonisation problems, ethnic fights. In the 60’s and 70’s youth became more and more disenchanted with a Western idea of democracy and with America’s role in the world and in AFS we realised that we could not promote peace by simply bringing people in and out of the United States. At the same time when the political climate around America was changing, Marshall McLuhan developed the concept of a global village and the United Nations launched the project of a World University. In Europe the “Communities” (the Union) were “enlarged” to three new countries and their mandate began to grow beyond agriculture and trade: in 1973 they opened a new division on education and
research. A new wind of internationalisation was changing the face of politics, economy, education.

Testimony from the meeting in 1964

It was the 4th of November 1964. It was the last day of an informal meeting of AFS volunteers, the first ever to talk about AFS cooperation in Europe. “I think that we have started something great and powerful today and that 50 years from now someone may still remember this meeting! Maybe 30 years from now some AFS people will still have meetings like this, somewhere in Europe, and will remember this beginning…” – Klaus Hinsch, AFS Germany, at the closing session of the volunteer gathering in Torino.

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See what did next decade bring: the 1970s

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AFS Europa became EFIL. EFIL put Intercultural Learning on the table, gave the youth of Europe a voice, and established connections with the European institutions.

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