Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) first started sending youth from the UK to developing countries for teaching stints in the 1950s. Today the organization has expanded to more than 50 countries where volunteers work to advance development through a variety of initiatives. VSO has had a presence on the Mainland since 1981 and is currently in the process of introducing several new initiatives. I spoke with Assistant Country Director Simon Brown and Country Director Li Guozhi about VSO China’s past, present and future.
Social Venture Group: How did VSO International get started?
Simon: VSO was actually started 52 years ago in the UK by the Bishop of Portsmouth. He had this great idea of sending volunteers, very young people—pre-university, university students to Commonwealth countries to teach. Later VSO became a British charity and has since then expanded hugely to now be recognized as an international development organization.
On average, we have about 1600 and 1700 volunteers placed in more than 40 countries. All of those volunteers on average spend about two years in their placement.
SVG: VSO came to China relatively early compared to other nonprofits. How were they able to establish a presence so quickly and what type of work have they been doing since then?
Simon: VSO China started as a partnership with the British Council working with education and cultural exchange in 1981. We became our own entity in 1990. Since 1981, more than 750 volunteers have come to China.
Historically our program has been about bringing volunteers to China, primarily to teach English. Later we added other programs like HIV/AIDS and most recently the promotion of Chinese volunteering with Chinese volunteering in China or overseas from China. That’s the point where we are at the moment: to change our program so we bring less people into China and promote more Chinese volunteering in China.
We have our first two Chinese volunteers leaving next February—one to Nigeria to work in HIV/AIDS program in Nigeria. She’ll be our first overseas volunteer. And another who will start in Cambodia.
SVG: What is VSO China’s operational philosophy?
Simon: We recognize that there are organizations that already exist that support local volunteering. Our role in China is to help them increase their capacity to recruit volunteers and manage their programs. We’re not about recruiting in China but supporting organizations that do that and hopefully to help them do even better through program development, coaching, and capacity building.
Because we send volunteers for two years, we give people time to build relationships. For the first six months we don’t expect volunteers to do more than build trust. Then things happen in a fantastic way.
In any place the philosophy tends to be that our changes will always be small. We’re not looking for great systematic changes. Of course we hope that eventually policies will support the kind of things we’re trying to do but most of our impact is felt, and quite rightly, at individual levels.
I went to meet some teachers in Gansu and I asked the children what is the best thing you get from school. They said we get unexpected happiness from the classes. It’s that that I think is really important.
SVG: Why did VSO China choose Education and HIV/AIDS as the primary areas to support here?
Simon: VSO has six program areas: education, health, disability, HIV/AIDS, participation and governance (capacity building), and livelihood programs. Each country has historically chosen two or three areas to focus on with education being the most popular program area across VSO.
Every country looks at the context every few years and sees in what areas they can make a difference. It’s not a one-way discussion; there are a lot of discussions with the government, beneficiary groups, and potential partners. We went through a structured process to choose VSO China’s programs then we mapped out what we could develop.
Besides education, the other areas where we thought we could bring something that would help and would be welcomed is our work in HIV/AIDS and in national volunteering.
SVG: Can you elaborate on your education initiatives? Do you work with teachers? Do you send in your own teachers? How do you partner with organizations?
Guozhi: With education, we’re primarily focused on the poor and western areas of Gansu, Shaanxi, and Yunnan provinces. We’re mainly involved in partnerships with education bureaus, teachers colleges, and primary and middle schools. We take a student-centered approach to learning through teacher capacity building, school management, and community involvement.
Simon: With that a lot of our work has been more in the urban areas than the rural. Our volunteers have tended to be placed in urban areas and through that getting access to rural schools. They do a huge amount of coaching to develop the skills that they need. Additionally, working with the same people in the education bureau builds a kind of relationship and trust.
SVG: I imagine your work in HIV/AIDS looks much different than education. How do you help raise awareness and support the cause?
Simon: In HIV/AIDS we’re mainly focused in Yunnan, where the epidemic is a little more serious. We’re working with the CDC center and a number of NGOs that work with HIV/AIDS. In addition to that we’re promoting awareness among our partners in other program areas. Our work through village doctors on general HIV/AIDS awareness has been tremendous. Also, because we work in partnership with the health bureau and CDC, our volunteers sit in the same offices. It’s not necessarily the volunteers working directly with sex workers, it’s building the capacity of the center to be able to do that for themselves.
Guozhi: Our model is basically to provide supplementary support to the existing mechanisms of HIV/AIDS response. For instance in Yunnan province the government has issued a joint response program across the province, but that is a big mechanism and in terms of how to manage it they need support. What we bring in is practical experience, program management, project deliverance, and technical staff, enabling kind of a coordination and communication among different stakeholders. It is a learning and sharing experience.
SVG: You just had your first Volunteering Expo. What was the purpose of the event?
Simon: Currently, there’s no platform for volunteering organizations to meet with each other and also with corporations involved in social responsibility. At the Expo, organizations showcase their programs and also discuss between themselves and between the government and with the public. It provides a space where the public can see opportunities that exist. And also a space to debate the future of volunteering.
At this year’s Expo we had 40 NGOs show casing their programs and over 1,000 people in attendance. The day was split into two parts. The theme was about celebrating volunteering and inspiring people to get involved in volunteering—whether that be at a corporate, government, or individual level. It also coincided very nicely with the 10th anniversary of the UN’s international year of volunteering.
SVG: What are you hoping to achieve through the debate aspect of the Expo?
Simon: It’s a place for people from the government, the corporate sector, and media groups to have a debate about how volunteering really is or could contribute to the millennium development goals. And second, to debate on how innovation can support volunteering goals. We’ve seen a lot of e-volunteering. We want to ask how can volunteering learn from that and seize those opportunities? It’s not about presentation but debate and discussion and to use that time to inspire volunteering groups to do even more.
SVG: VSO is announcing a renewed strategy for China. What changes will this bring? How did the need for an updated strategy come about?
Simon: We’ve been in China for a long time and a lot of our program has been focused on bringing international volunteers to live and work alongside Chinese people. The context of China has changed hugely since 1981.
It’s more appropriate now for VSO China to support people in China themselves to be volunteering whether that be at a community level or even an international level. We want to change the paradigm and show that China can also be a contributor of international volunteers for least developed countries. As I said our first two volunteers go international in February.
We’re also focusing more on being open with our volunteering knowledge. We have more than 50 years of experience so we want to make that information available to other organizations in China. We also want to work with the government to develop policies and processes. We’re not a huge organization in China but we do have opportunities and organizations that might benefit the government policies and practices.
Additionally, we’re changing the paradigm about how we support volunteering in China and overseas from China. It doesn’t mean we will stop bringing in international volunteers, but we’ll bring in people specializing in volunteering not education or HIV/AIDS and we will work to support the volunteering sector in China.