Inclusion and Equal Opportunities

The annual topic for AFS in Europe and its umbrella organisation, the European Federation for Intercultural Learning (EFIL), is inclusive intercultural learning and exchange organisations contributing to equal opportunities for young people. But what does inclusive intercultural learning really mean? What are equal opportunities? And how do exchange organisations contribute to this?

The main reason for choosing this topic comes from the mission driven work we at AFS do. Our mission urges us to offer intercultural learning opportunities to create a more just and peaceful world, so being inclusive and offering equal opportunities is at the top of our agenda. This idea was more elaborately expressed at the beginning of the year in this article claiming:

“It has been apparent that AFS/EFIL needs more effort to open up towards less advantaged members of the society, to fulfil its objective of promoting intercultural understanding and justice. In order to claim real impact, AFS needs to […] address all layers in the society, namely reaching out to [those who have not been introduced to the concept of] intercultural understanding, yet. This might mean offering intercultural learning activities for youth in vulnerable communities, providing the space for people from different backgrounds in the same society to meet and learn from each others’ diversity. This need of opening up has been true for a long time but it has become evident recently, when so many Europeans refuse to accept culturally different newcomers, and when exclusion and marginalisation has led to tragedies. In order to contribute to peace and justice in a diverse world threatened by inequality and intolerance, we need to do more for the promotion of intercultural understanding and sensitivity.”

With the financial support of the European Youth Foundation of the Council of Europe EFIL organises three activities for its volunteers this year specifically addressing these points. The Training for Trainers: Reach out to Enrich in November as well as the two that already took place earlier this year: seminar “Intercultural Learning for All” and the annual Volunteer Summer Summit. We bring you some of the main points raised by AFS volunteer at these events to improve how our organisation works on inclusion and diversity.

Intercultural Learning for All

The seminar titled “Intercultural Learning for All” took place in March in Budapest, Hungary. It addressed questions such as: Who needs intercultural learning? How inclusive are we as an organisation currently? And, what is our responsibility when it comes to intercultural learning and inclusion?

Participants at the seminar “Intercultural Learning for All” in Budapest, March 2017.

Participants of the seminar shared several concerns about the lack of inclusiveness in exchanges. First, there are a lot of conditions that prospective students need to meet before going abroad (e.g. high academic achievement), while increasingly more issues (like mental health issues) stand in their way to program participation. Secondly, some organisations have not been good at including students with physical disabilities, as they have a hard time finding host families for these students. Finally, it is relatively expensive to go on exchange, which excludes students from lower income families in some countries, even though in others there are possibilities for scholarships.

Participants concluded that to address these concerns, organisations need better volunteer training and management. With improved volunteer forces, organisations would be better able to recruit and retain both programme participants for the exchanges and volunteers for community impact projects. Volunteer training must include learning to work with people with diverse backgrounds, as for example, some volunteers are uncomfortable with working with people with physical disabilities because they simply do not know how to.

At the seminar volunteers had the chance to share local and national initiatives for inclusion and equal opportunities that are taking place in their AFS organisations. Although the 13 organisations represented at the seminar all work differently and have different emphasise, everyone was able to share some initiatives that are being realised. Here are a few of the initiatives that were shared during the seminar:

  • In order to include participants to school exchange program who have diverse needs, AFS Spain contacts associations who work with people with special needs and through them try to find host families for example for students with hearing and visual impairments.
  • AFS Latvia is actively looking for sponsors who are willing to give scholarships to students with diverse potentials and abilities to enable them to take part in the school exchange program.
  • One of the many projects that AFS Turkey runs in a domestic exchange that aims at bringing together people from different places in the country and breaking stereotypes through workshops about intercultural learning and more.
  • AFS Iceland has recently moved their office to a new address where there is wheelchair accessibility and they also make sure that all orientations and events take place in facilities that can accommodate people with different physical needs. Furthermore, grassroots volunteers of the organisation are trying to set up intercultural learning workshops in elementary schools.
  • AFS Germany has been running a project since 2014 that aims at helping immigrants to the country to find their place in the society (language courses, mentor projects etc.) and also to invite them into AFS. Additionally, grassroots volunteers are working on setting up a project with the goal of including more participants of immigrant backgrounds in the exchange programmes.

Although there is still a long way to go until we reach our end goal, it was encouraging to see the above-mentioned and many other steps taken towards making AFS organisations more inclusive.

Equal opportunities deliberated by volunteers

At the EFIL Volunteer Summer Summit (VSS) in Hellisholar, Iceland, volunteers from 30 AFS organisations came together to discuss equal opportunities from various angles.

From a workshop at the Volunteer Summer Summit in Iceland, August 2017.

One of their major concerns was that organisations want their volunteers and exchange students to be “actors of change”, but they do not have a clear understanding of this term. To live in a more just and peaceful world, we must act against or as an alternative to oppression, marginalisation and exploitation of any kind. For students and volunteers to be “actors of change” we must encourage them to reflect on their own privileges as a part of the discussion about their culture(s). Intercultural dialogue should aim at developing solidarity among different people and acting upon it – from the local to the global level.

Some volunteers argue that AFS should re-think the non-political nature of our organisation. They ask, “How can AFS claim to want to contribute to ‘a more just and peaceful world’ and develop ‘active global citizens’ without being political?” While our organisation is not affiliated with a particular political party or ideology, volunteers considered being political as the root of active citizenship and any kind of social change.

The volunteers also called for refocusing the discussion about accessibility of intercultural learning opportunities. We should explore alternative options of offering intercultural encounters to people and communities who cannot afford to go abroad. One way would be to engage more with minority groups and the diversity in our local communities and empower our volunteers to see diversity and intercultural enrichment in much more than exchange between national cultures.

Where do we go from here?

From these two events that have focused to the topic of inclusive intercultural learning and equal opportunities for young people it is apparent that as an organisation there is still a lot we have to do. Although, much is being done so far and we are moving in the right direction we can be better and do more. The new AFS Network Strategy for the upcoming five year period focuses on precisely these issues and defines concrete ways in which AFS can develop more active global citizens and expand access to intercultural learning opportunities, while being guided by the values of inclusion and diversity.

On 28 September Intercultural Dialogue Day will be celebrated by all the EFIL members and events focused on inclusion and equal opportunities will take place around Europe and North Africa. On this day grassroots volunteers organise public events to promote intercultural dialogue through youth exchanges, volunteering, and active citizenship. If you want to get involved contact AFS in your country or check out the Intercultural Dialogue Day page.



This article was written by Tinna Sveinsdottir, Communications Coordinator at the European Federation for intercultural Learning (EFIL), the umbrella for organisations that run AFS programmes in Europe and North Africa. EFIL organises numerous activities throughout the year for staff and volunteers in the AFS network including trainings, seminars, meetings and more. Every year EFIL identifies a topic that is the main focus of that year. In 2017 the topic has been “Inclusive intercultural learning: exchange organisations contributing to equal opportunities for young people”.



With the financial support of the European Youth Foundation of the Council of Europe.