Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Isn't It a Bit Patronising of VSO to Tell Third World People: 'We're Western, So We Know How to Run Things'? Is Voluntary Service Overseas an Outdated Hangover from the Days When Britain Ruled the World? We Put 56-Year-Old Chief Executive Mark Goldring, Himself a Former Volunteer, in the Hot Seat

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Isn't It a Bit Patronising of VSO to Tell Third World People: 'We're Western, So We Know How to Run Things'? Is Voluntary Service Overseas an Outdated Hangover from the Days When Britain Ruled the World? We Put 56-Year-Old Chief Executive Mark Goldring, Himself a Former Volunteer, in the Hot Seat

Article excerpt

Byline: KITTY DIMBLEBY

Q With global terrorism and, seemingly, a local guerrilla movement in every Third World country, are your volunteers safe?

A No one can ever guarantee security but we have lots of experience and thorough systems. Volunteers often tell us that they can feel safer abroad than they sometimes do at home in the UK.

Q Is it not patronising, almost missionary-like, to travel to a foreign country and say: "Here's how to run things - we're Western, so we know better than you ..."

A It would be if that was what we did. We select people for their professional and personal skills then encourage them to work with local communities to find solutions, not to just impose their learning. What works best is a volunteer's skills combined with local knowledge.

Q Are volunteers doing anything more than bailing out dodgy regimes that should provide essential services themselves?

A VSO can't bail out anybody.

We work with committed local employers - government agencies, the private sector or voluntary agencies - which are trying to change their society. We don't give money, we provide people who have skills and we work hard to select those local employers who are serious about what they do. That is what our 40 offices around the world are there for and we believe that when we work together we can contribute something very sensible.

Q Why should any ambitious, hardworking person choose to take two years out of their career to work in uncomfortable, sometimes dangerous circumstances, far away from their loved ones?

ABecause they are going to do something that will make a difference to local communities and which will give them something that is just as valuable in return. Our consistent response from serving and returned volunteers - and we have 30,000 now - is that they have learned just as much as they have taught. They come back much richer, more enthused, and with an insight into life they would never have otherwise got.

It really is a two-way process.

Q VSO receives money from the Department of Overseas Development.

Does that make you a creature of the Government?

A No. We are an independent charity that the Government supports because it believes we are effective - and we have to demonstrate that. We have to raise nearly [pounds sterling]10 million from the general public every year. That is a massive undertaking and we can only do it by showing that we use money effectively.

Q Some volunteers work as management consultants and IT wizards, rather than doctors or teachers. Is that really helping the poorest people?

A It certainly is. It's been a real development over the past 10 years to recognise that what is needed in many countries is not just technical skills of doctors, nurses, agriculturalists and engineers, but management skills to help the systems work more effectively. We are constantly recruiting people with business skills who can support essential services. We believe that is making a real contribution to development.

Q Do you consider yourself a do-gooder?

A I have the privilege of being paid for doing what I love.

There is an element of commitment to social justice in all of us. What is great is that I can do it as a day job rather than only in my spare time.

Q Why work abroad when we have so many dreadful problems here?

Doesn't charity begin at home?

A The problems of the world are linked, you can't separate what is going on in Britain from the rest of the world: look at Christian and Muslim relations, look at attitudes in Iraq to the West and the aftermath of 11 September. We've got to work on all fronts and what is fantastic about VSO is that it actually makes a difference to British society. There are thousands of returned volunteers who've been given an insight into life through VSO, who are now bringing that knowledge to their work in Britain. …

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