VSO faces crisis as volunteers fear to serve overseas

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The Independent Online

The number of Britons volunteering to work overseas has dropped by 40 per cent amid mounting fears over personal safety, a leading charity said today.

The number of Britons volunteering to work overseas has dropped by 40 per cent amid mounting fears over personal safety, a leading charity said today.

Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) said, since the launch of the war on terror, workers were increasingly fearful of being targeted by terrorists in Africa and south and east Asia, where the majority of volunteers are needed.

In 2001 VSO recruited 650 British volunteers, with an average age of 37. But last year, although the number of inquiries remained steady, recruits dropped to 400.

Potential aid workers from Britain said bombings in in Bali and Mombasa, Kenya, had added to their concerns. Others expressed worries about being far from friends and family in case of a terrorist attack in Britain. Some said they were worried by the effect a possible war in Iraq would have on the economic climate.

Danielle Maslen, 27, a primary school teacher from Brighton, was put off by growing international instability.

She graduated four years ago and works as special educational needs co-ordinator and classroom teacher at St Joseph's Catholic primary school, a background likely to find favour in the VSO recruitment office.

When a mailshot from the VSO arrived in the staffroom last year appealing for teachers with exactly her experience she felt it was a calling to broaden her professional skills and add to her "life experience".

"I spoke to a family friend who did VSO and said it was an amazing experience," she said. "I applied because I wanted to experience teaching in another country."

But after conversations with her headteacher and her mother, Ms Maslen became concerned about her safety and decided not to pursue the application. She said: "The thought of travelling across vast expanses of country terrified me but also if there was a terror attack in the UK and I wanted to get back to friends and family I would be worried about getting a flight."

VSO launches a recruitment campaign today to address such fears and attract mainly teachers, doctors, nurses and social workers to sign up for the unpaid two-year projects.

The charity has sent out more than 29,000 volunteers, aged 23 to 68, to some of the world's poorest countries since it was established in 1958. But it said there was a particularly urgent need to fill posts for teachers, doctors and nurses in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Ghana and Nigeria.

Mark Goldring, the charity's chief executive, said: "It is not surprising we are focusing on our own safety and security in the current climate but our attention is being diverted away from the world's poorest.

"Education and health care, especially the impact of HIV and Aids, are the real battles we should be fighting."

Since the start of the war on terror VSO has withdrawn staff from Afghanistan and Pakistan. It also ceased all projects in Zimbabwe because of unrest in the country following the general election. Mr Goldring said: "We want to reassure people contacting us at the moment. Volunteers live and work in communities where they are valued and respected by friends and colleagues. These communities need our help and the feedback from our volunteers is that they feel as safe or even safer than they do at home."

The shortfall of volunteers has worsened as a result of inducements offered by the Government to solve the current shortage of teachers, traditionally the source of 40 per cent of VSO recruitment. The charity sent teachers last year from Canada to fill posts in Namibia and other African countries.

Security concerns have had little sustained impact on the overseas holidays market despite a dip in the immediate aftermath of the 11 September attacks. Holidaymakers continue to be lured by low prices and new destinations offered by budget airlines.

Organisers of gap-year adventures said the fear of travelling was not apparent among students. Chris Gallant, of the World Challenge Expedition, said the popularity of such trips was undiminished by security fears. "We don't have problems with the fear of war," he said.