Independent Appeal: Trading places and changing the world

This year's Independent Christmas Appeal is supporting VSO. Once a gap-year student's staple, now it attracts an altogether different kind of volunteer. Paul Vallely reports

Earlier this year, at 69, Charles Martin undertook the long journey from Britain to Sarawak on the island on Borneo. But it was not as arduous as the voyage he had made 50 years before when he travelled to the same remote destination as one of the guinea pigs in a venture that has led to more than 33,000 Britons volunteering to work with some of the world's poorest communities.

Mr Martin had been reluctant to go back. He did not want to spoil the extraordinary memories he had of a place so inaccessible that it took him 16 hours to get there by boat – and canoe – from the island's main port. It had been the last days of the British Empire. The place had been called the Land of the White Rajahs, after the Brooke family who had run Sarawak as a kind of family fiefdom in the fag-end of the colonialist era.

But this year is the 50th anniversary of the organisation which had sent him out there in its very first group of volunteers. The changes he witnessed when he returned to Borneo were testament to the breathtaking speed at which the world has turned in the past half-century. But they also reflected the extensive changes in that organisation, Voluntary Service Overseas, in that time.

So much so that VSO was recently voted top international development charity at the Charity Awards for its work in promoting innovative approaches to globalising volunteering. It is one of the three charities being supported in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal.

VSO has its roots in the fading days of that imperial era. In 1958, a British government coming to terms with a world that had been changed irrevocably by the Second World War, announced it would abolish the two-year compulsory national service in which all young British men found fit enough had been compelled to join the Armed Forces. Those who had arranged to go to university two years later suddenly found themselves with time on their hands.

The splendidly-named Lancelot Fleming, a polar explorer before becoming Bishop of Portsmouth, wrote to a national newspaper to suggest that something useful should be organised for these young men. A few months later, Charles Martin and his fellows were eastward-bound. It was, he says, "an experience which transformed my life".

As the years passed, there were critics who chafed that the experience did more for the young British adventurers than it perhaps did for the Africans and Asians who were the subjects of their tender attentions. If that was ever true, it is not now, as the case of Janis Cushnie reveals.

Ms Cushnie is a much more modern kind of volunteer. Five decades ago, the people VSO sent out may have been "white, male and spotty", to quote Mr Martin, but today the average volunteer is nearer the age of this 47-year-old teacher from Staffordshire. Most are now highly-skilled professionals at the peak of their career. Today's volunteers, who range between 18 and 75 in age, include management consultants, health professionals, communications experts, fundraisers and IT specialists. At present, there are 1,600 of them in placements of between one month and two years in 42 countries.

Critics can no longer claim they stand for a "white man saves the world" model of development because half of them are not from the UK. Indeed, a quarter are volunteers from poor countries who are sharing their experience in other parts of the developing world. Recently, VSO has begun to recruit Africans and Asians living in Britain to work in their country of origin or cultural heritage.

Volunteering is a complex phenomenon. It is not just about sharing skills; it is about building a constituency for political change back here in Britain. There are now 33,000 former VSO volunteers back in mainstream careers in the UK. Among the phalanx of ex-volunteers are a large number of influential figures, high court judges, diplomats, MPs, church leaders, police chiefs, writers, business people, trade unionists (Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC was a volunteer in Ghana) and journalists (Jon Snow, Mike Wooldridge, Brian Hanrahan, and Michael Brunson were all VSO volunteers).

To replenish this pool VSO has set up, in partnership with the British Council, a scheme which pairs a British town with one in the developing world and allows pairs of young people from the two nations to work alongside one another for three months in each country. "The experience abroad is formative for many people," says Jonathan Dimbleby, the president of VSO. "When they return they act as ambassadors for the developing world in their homes, workplaces and local community. They are the core of a key lobby for development among the British public."

Many never lose their links with VSO. For the past 50 years, Mr Martin has continued to serve on the selection panels that choose the volunteers from thousands of applicants each year. "We're looking for people who can make a realistic and positive contribution, who understand it's not a glorified holiday," he says. "They have to be flexible and adaptable, good, practical, problem-solvers and team workers who are sensitive to the people and culture they will work with."

When he went back to Sarawak this year he was pleased to find – that in addition to the 16-hour river journey being replaced by a three-hour bus ride along a paved road – one of the individuals he had taught was now the regional director of education.

Fifty years on, Janis Cushnie has a similar ambition. "I've had to go from being a classroom teacher to being a trainer of teachers to being a trainer of trainers and I've gained a range of skills that I would never have had the opportunity to develop in the UK," she says. But she can also now can look around and see teachers happily and confidently doing what – when she arrived – only she could do. "Then you start to think, 'OK, that's it. I don't need to be here anymore'."

From Malaysia to Malawi: The new breed of Brits helping out abroad

The veteran

Fifty years ago, Charles Martin was among the first batch of British youths to go abroad with what became Voluntary Service Overseas. In 1958, his call-up for National Service was cancelled as conscription tapered off, and his place at Cambridge University was not available for two years, so he, and 11 other volunteers, went to work in Sarawak in what is now Malaysia.

It took him 16 hours to get from the capital to the village of Betong up the Saribas river. There the entire population lived under one roof in a long hut where, now 69, he recalls "the blood of a cockerel was sprinkled over him as a mark of honour, and the infant mortality rate among the children was huge".

The locals had names such as Sawmill "because he was born in the year the mill was built" or Aeroplane, to mark the first time one flew over the village. It was a remote existence. "It took letters six weeks to get to us."

The volunteers were ordered not to mix with expats but to live and work with the locals. "We terraced hillsides, planted rubber trees, harvested pineapples and dug fishponds. It was the first time the orang puteh (white man) had done manual labour there. That was revolutionary at the time."

The career break

Janis Cushnie is a 47-year-old teacher from Staffordshire who is serving as a volunteer in Guyana in South America. She is typical of the new breed of VSO professional and has taken a break to work in the developing world at the height of her career, rather than as an unskilled youngster between school and university.

She went to Guyana in 2002 as a remedial reading teacher, using skills built up over 20 years in UK primary schools. "When I arrived, I realised there was a particular problem with pupils' reading but nobody really knew what that was. I did lots of observation and saw there was a lot of copying from the board or 'parrot learning'."

She decided to try an innovative literacy programme, called Jolly Phonics, that she had come across before she left the UK. "Instantly, the teachers really enjoyed it," she says, "and the children opened up. They were so hungry to learn. It made me realise that these children didn't have special needs, they just needed to be taught there was a relationship between what we say and what we write and read."

Five years on, she has not just taught a handful of kids to read. She has retrained 19 teachers, each of whom has retrained between 30 and 35 more teachers. The skill she has brought have rippled out to 600 primary school teachers so far.

The student

After graduating in English from Newcastle University at 24, James Blackburn volunteered for a scheme jointly run by VSO and the British Council called Global Xchange. The scheme takes nine youths from each of two countries and pairs them to spend three months together in the UK then three months on a project in the Third World. James was sent to Caithness with a young woman called Faless from Malawi. There they lived with a local family and worked in a centre for disabled people. After that, they went to Malawi to work on HIV and Aids awareness where both were given basic training in counselling.

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