Aid helps the aiders

Volunteers also benefit from VSO work, Robert Nurden discovers
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The Independent Online
DEVELOPMENT WORKERS have never been able to make their minds up about Bob Geldof. Yes, his Band Aid initiative in the 1980s alerted the West to famine in Africa and raised vast sums of money. But there was a heavy price to pay for all that altruistic tear-jerking: the perpetuation of the worst stereotypes about Third World poverty and squalor.

The West's concern soon died down and the aid industry experienced what became known as "compassion fatigue". We've done our bit, the rich West seemed to be saying. A measure of altruism has always gone with working in the Third World. Ever since the British organisation VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) put 17 volunteers on a plane in 1958 to go to Malaysia for a year, working with poorer people abroad has attracted phalanxes of privileged, white middle-class youngsters eager to "put something back".

But at last, it seems, a new realism is blowing through the hearts and minds of those who opt to work in Africa and Asia. The blind altruism seems to have gone and so has the public's post-Band Aid indifference. It has been replaced by an acknowledgement that different parts of the world are for ever linked, that globalisation has irretrievably taken hold, and internationalism is a normal mode of existence.

Sally Kelling, 36, with an MSc in water management, goes to The Gambia in January to advise the government on how to tackle pollution. "My work there will reflect what I've been doing for 10 years in the water industry in this country," she said. "There will be differences, of course, but pollution is a worldwide issue and it's natural to cross national boundaries when you're working in this field. It's an exciting prospect and I expect to learn a lot."

The trend towards downsizing has led to multi-skilling and portfolio working in many workforces in the West. The days of rigid specialisation are fast disappearing and in that respect the West is taking on the working patterns of the Third World, where people have traditionally been involved in many different tasks.

"I see my job in The Gambia as a positive career move rather than a period of do-gooding," said Ms Kelling. "I hope to gain more skills and to be more flexible and this will enhance my prospects when I come back."

That extension of skills certainly seemed to work for the Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow, who went to Uganda to teach. "I'd led a very sheltered, very English life," he said. "I was completely transformed by my VSO experience and came back radicalised. It gave me the scope to stretch myself and discover a resourcefulness I never knew I had. Coming back to the UK, I soon found that as a journalist I was using skills I had developed in Uganda."

A VSO job, which comes about as a result of an organisation asking for a skills input, usually lasts for two years, though to reflect the changing nature of the workplace VSO has become more flexible over the years. There are now six-month contracts for people such as doctors, whose task might be to set up a training programme in a rural hospital. The age range is from 20 to 70. Volunteers get accommodation, a local-level allowance, air fares and insurance; 30 per cent stay longer than two years.

Only professional people - ideally with lots of work experience - will be accepted to work abroad. School leavers are no longer eligible. The range of jobs is wide: in addition to those skills which you would expect - teachers, nurses, doctors, midwives, engineers, builders, carpenters - there are more abstruse ones. They range from a community-theatre adviser in Kenya, town planners in Soweto, media lecturers in Papua New Guinea and an ostrich farmer in Zimbabwe.

But VSO, which is 40 this year, still finds it difficult to fill all its requests: not so long ago almost a third of its vacancies remained unfilled, but following a heavy recruitment drive earlier this year the situation has improved. It has 1,750 volunteers, 900 of whom are women, in 61 countries. Their average age is 36. The selection process has to be rigorous. Some 40,000 people asked for information about VSO last year; 4,000 applied, 1,400 attended an assessment day and 1,000 were selected.

Since 1958, 23,000 volunteers have returned to work in Britain (96 per cent are re-employed within six months), often in influential positions - three current MPs were VSO volunteers. The charity values the contribution these former development workers make to multicultural Britain. A few are now coming from ethnic minorities, though progress in recruiting more is slow.

The 1998-99 programme is costing pounds 28m, pounds 21m of which will come from the Government's Department for International Development. VSO has a network of 75 local groups which help to raise the rest.

VSO puts great emphasis on its volunteers learning the host language to ease the process of acclimatisation and to help them participate fully in the workplace. They will attend language classes either here or abroad before starting work; Ms Kelling, for example, will be studying The Gambia's main language, Mandinka.

That linguistic task will not be facing Patrick Warren, however, as he has been learning Chinese at evening classes in Durham for two years. In January, at the age of 60, he will go to Beihai in Guangxi province, China, to work with the local council on urban design after taking early retirement as principal architect/planner with Durham county council. "My job will be to attract industry and foreign investment to the town with the overall aim of increasing the standard of living," said Mr Warren. "It parallels the regeneration work I've been doing in the North-east following the closure of the coal mines."

Over the next five years VSO will prioritise the needs of the more disadvantaged and promote new forms of partnership. It also wants to develop its Overseas Training Programme, which offers students the chance to gain practical overseas experience while still at college.

"A VSO placement often brings with it considerable responsibility, requiring both personal and professional qualities which are in demand in every kind of employment," said Rachel Savage, VSO's recruitment manager. "As a result, many volunteers find that their skill base has been broadened and their career prospects enhanced. This fact is widely recognised by employers.

"After having the wide range of experiences that goes with a VSO job, a volunteer is admirably placed to return to the increasingly portfolio style of working in this country. It's no longer just a question of altruism: now it makes sense to work abroad."