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VSO | Voluntary Service Overseas

The Sunday Times

Travelling white

I had arrived in Ghana as VSO's guest. They were looking for anniversary publicity. Four decades ago this summer, The Year Between had sent its first crop of suitable boys to this, the first modern African country to retrieve independence from Britain. Also travelling on our expedition, courtesy of the British aid budget, were two of the organisation's local staffers and one of those original pioneering youths - now himself a headmaster - retracing the right road "to make a video".

The original plan had been to take a different journalist, who was scheduled to fly to Accra, attend a catwalk show featuring work by the organisation's "fashion volunteers", check-out the beach and then go home to write. But she belatedly discovered that she would be entering a yellow fever zone and balked at the mandatory shot. So instead they got me, and I straightway changed the brief to VSO's work with the poor. Hence the flight north: Fan Airways, FA 812, from Kotoka International to Tamale.

I suspected rural poverty would be more taxing than fashion, and did a fast cuts job for background. Along with interviewing VSO staff, including its director David Green, at its south-west London headquarters, I'd clipped, scanned and pasted a bunch of extracts from its publications and news reports into my notebook. As the Beech slumped and soared above scattered straw-roofed settlements, I did what I could to absorb the contents, so as not to waste time spent on the ground.

The VSO stuff suggested that it had come a long way since Fleming and Dickson's scam. The suitable boys requirement was progressively phased out, and by now more than 22,000 volunteers of both genders and all ages have travelled overseas - with nearly 2,000 presently deployed in 59 countries. They perform various tasks, including teaching, nursing and engineering, for locally-based employers, who pay them. This year, VSO will nevertheless spend more than £21m of British taxpayers' money - four fifths of its total income - thanks to Clare Short's Department for International Development.

"How do we define 'volunteer'?" asks a shiny blue-on-white text, which I may have clipped from the annual report. "Look up the word 'volunteer' in the dictionary. It will describe someone who freely offers their services with no promise of remuneration. We have our own definition." (Surprise) "We see VSO volunteers as people who share our values. They all see adventure, enjoy challenge and are motivated by the prospect of living and working in a community with a very different outlook. Qualified in their particular field of work, they want to share their skills by doing a real job from day one. In return, they receive a modest financial package and accommodation - plus the experience of a lifetime."

This wasn't even true. Volunteers spend up to half their time in training, not doing the job from day one. But when I turned to the news clips, a somewhat darker picture emerged than even this "help-yourself-helping-others" kind of hype. Marking the organisation's tenth anniversary in 1968, The Observer (whose reporter may have been on a freebie like mine) noted volunteers' motives to be "uniformly non-idealist," and quoted one Julie Wootton ("a slim, 23-year-old brunette from Hampshire") stating: "Actually, my living conditions are better here than they would be if I worked in Britain. People acted as if I were going to a steaming jungle. Well, I didn't expect quite that, but I certainly didn't expect hot baths and a houseboy."

I thought count me in, as the missionaries chatted about their project to train preachers in Bolgatanga. But the press coverage also showed that despite its popularity, the organisation has proved endlessly controversial. In 1971, for instance, The Times noted criticisms from a commonwealth education conference, declining acceptance of volunteers by former British colonies, and reported: "With more than a little regret VSO has been forced to phase out its school leaver programme almost completely."

Much of the criticism focused on nagging accusations that VSO was more concerned with providing adventure holidays than bona fide overseas aid. But there was also evidence that the recipient communities resented the "white children" who arrived. In 1972, The Daily Telegraph announced: "India wants no more foreign volunteers." The following year, The Guardian reported that the British Foreign Office had cut off funds to the organisation. And by 1981, placements had collapsed to only half their former heyday numbers.

Before leaving London, I had phoned around to check on the hindsight of former volunteers. "It was very good for me, but not very good for them," was the conclusion of a Sunday Times feature-writer who taught in Algeria in 1963. A senior editor on the Sunday Times Magazine, who taught in Nigeria in the early 1980s, spoke in frighteningly similar terms. "My feeling is that it was a brilliant experience for me, but a complete waste of time for Nigeria," she said. "People regarded me as being like a cross between Princess Diana and Madonna."

Back to fashion, then. And that's not my style. I'm more a Rudyard Kipling kind of guy. As he wrote in 1899, at the peak of Britain's imperial responsibilities, this Africa thing was no trivial pursuit:

Take up the White Man's Burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go, bind your sons to exile,
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

*****

VSO | Voluntary Service Overseas
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