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VSO | Voluntary Service Overseas

The Sunday Times

Travelling white

We returned to Accra by the long way - road - and in a 16-hour drive saw the full sweep of the country, as beguiling as so much of Africa. I hadn't slept a lot in the previous week, had drunk a lot of tea made with local water and vaguely wished I'd stuck with fashion. I remember us crossing the Black Volta river, where the dry northern savanna gives way to humid rain forest, which swathes the Ghanaian midlands. Then came damp lowlands as we approached the coast, and finally, after sunset, the city, dark and chaotic, suffering seasonal electricity cuts.

One thing that struck me was the huge numbers who waved (mostly children, it's true) as we passed. We were not quite Madonna, but elsewhere on this continent the accumulated history of colonial conduct has made attitudes to strangers more varied. Unlike, say, in East or southern Africa, the climate here was considered so unhealthy that there was never much land-snatching during days of empire, so white people were often seen as quite benign. One legacy is a respect still granted to Europeans which they can't always depend on at home.

White aid workers have astonishing status, whoever they are and wherever they come from. As Seewraj told me one morning as we drove up to Karni: "People think that if a white man says that something will happen, then it will happen. It is definite."

Krish Seewraj was a white man. His local fans stressed this. But in Hampshire (the town of Basingstoke), he was black. We talked about this paradox. He was aware of it himself. And the image he sported - including the necessary bush hat - nagged in my mind almost as much as my worry that some projects might prove to be disasters.

Returning to Accra, this image threw me back to an evening with volunteers in the town of Wa. We had sat in a circle, ten white, one black, and some yelled their orders at waiters. It felt too reminiscent of ex-pats and empires, too loaded, to allow to pass. That night I recorded an interview in my notebook with another volunteer, Bonnie Horbach from Amsterdam. She was 28, a lawyer, and worked on a project in a village called Tibaani (where residents put on a play in our honour). She was a "motivator", she told me, concerned with "women's empowerment", but was quitting to live in Mali after only six months because she had fallen for a VSO man.

"Being white in this society means that you have a kind of superiority, and you can use that," she explained that evening about her work with the rural poor. Then she talked about funding aid projects in terms that, to me, were no less unnerving. "If you buy a tractor, then at least half should come from the recipient," she said. "It's like buying children's toys. If a child is given a toy he will break it. But if he buys it himself he will look after it."

Such a casual comparison between black people and children brought me right back to Kipling's verse. Although, like Seewraj's comment, it was probably the product of a battered idealism, it ought to make us think about the racial role models being offered to the Third World's young. Are these authoritative, superior and adult white people providing the kind of "inspiration" of which the bishop was thinking? What worries me is that maybe they were.

But if they seem too faithful to VSO's strange origins, then Britain has altered in the four decades since Fleming and Dickson's letter-writing deception. And after the long Conservative years, during which the organisation - a registered charity - came to depend on the taxpayer for an astounding 80% of its income, ministers say they remain to be convinced that this spending is properly used. A white paper on world poverty issued five months ago warned of a review "to ensure that all our resources are used effectively and in accordance with our policy priorities."

If a report last year is anything to go by, there may be jolts on the road ahead. After investigating VSO's work in Kenya and at its London headquarters, management consultants accused senior staff of acting as if "the volunteer's needs are as important, if not more important, than the needs of the overseas partners". And they warned: "Our view is that the current position is no longer tenable, not least because VSO's principal funders are interested in alleviating poverty, whether through volunteers or by other means."

It remains to be seen which way Clare Short will jump, but such is the scale of the organisation's bureaucracy that any cutbacks may not be too painful. Its two London headquarters buildings house some 200 staff, and at each of its 38 field offices there can be up to another ten. Moreover, although it swallows 1% of Britain's £2.2 billion overseas aid budget, more than half of its spending is in the United Kingdom, with much of the rest going on air fares and phone bills.

Doubtless VSO can change, as it has been forced to in the past - if only to defend its existence. But British attitudes towards the world and to foreign travel have shifted so much that the desire to experience them as volunteers, rather than tourists, has gone into free-fall decline. The number of applications to the organisation has dropped by more than one fifth in the past two years, while those for technical jobs, such as Seewraj's assignment, have slumped by more than half.

VSO 's response has been to return to its past - launching a 40th anniversary crusade combining nostalgia with promises of personal advantage. The slogan for its new recruitment leaflet is: "A world of opportunities," and it goes on, not to emphasise service to others, but to explain that "many volunteers find that their skill base has been broadened and their career prospects enhanced."

Another of its responses that worries some observers is an effort to boost raw numbers of volunteers by diluting its commitment to the poor. Three quarters of potential recruits interviewed last year were actually selected for placements - and with the "fashion volunteers" VSO maintains in Ghana you can see the kind of results. You might justify such activities, as you might justify anything, but I have to ask the question: who exactly is teaching fashion to whom in this hotspot of African design?

The clue, perhaps, was contained in biographies, also pasted in my notebook with the letter. They said that one fashion volunteer (who I never did get to meet) "designed the cover of the latest VSO publicity leaflet 'Is VSO for you?', using traditional Ghanaian batik technique." When she returns to Britain, armed with such skills, it seems likely she will put them to use.

So, that is my story about VSO. I didn't find servants, but masters. Like the old colonialists, the volunteers are adventurers - and they adventure on the moral high ground. They usually gain more for themselves than for those they aim to help - and although they feel happiest when others seem to benefit, that appearance may sometimes deceive.

And I would reassure the bishop (were he not too dead to sue) that, in the body which he founded with a letter to The Sunday Times, it is still 1958.

Read the letter which started VSO by Launcelot Fleming, Bishop of Portsmouth

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