From Zimbabwe to Cambodia

When I was accepted on to a placement by VSO I was initially told that I would be going to Zvishavane, Zimbabwe; recently, however, this has been changed and  I am now going to Stung Treng, Cambodia.  Whilst I do not know the details, I thought I would explain what I have been told about why this has happened, and what this means to me.

My lovely and currently overworked volunteer coordinator told me that VSO is withdrawing from Zimbabwe following feedback from volunteers and team leaders that the project is more challenging than they had previously considered. When they followed up on this feedback they decided that they needed to review the support being offered to volunteers out there before sending anymore.

This move gives me great faith in VSO as an organisation. You’re probably familiar with ‘voluntourism’ as a concept: well-intentioned young people shelling out money to organisations which promise them both an excellent holiday and a fantastic addition to their CV. Somewhat unsurprisingly it turns out that sending unqualified adolescents to vulnerable and sensitive communities without training isn’t that fantastic. I wouldn’t trust myself to build a school and there are even reports suggesting the industry is fueling child trafficking.

Conversely, VSO is a charity with a sense of responsibility to its staff, volunteers, the communities in which it works, the tax payer, etc. etc. As you go through their site quotes from those they have worked with abroad reveal how entrenched the concept of sustainable development is:

“Some organisations come, give assistance and don’t leave anything. VSO leaves us knowledge and that is its strength.”

Usha Shanmuganathan, Social, Economic and Environmental Developers, Sri Lanka

An important part of this model is that volunteers do not do anything if they lack the training, qualifications or support required. Volunteers are costly and  money should only be spent on them if they can produce meaningful work that will not collapse or be torn down as soon as they leave. For VSO volunteers that means we spend much of our time raising awareness of issues, coordinating visits from people in country who have the necessary qualifications – e.g. health days with doctors – and supporting the work of local charities.

I know some destined for Zimbabwe are feeling uprooted by the change and it has certainly created a lot of work for my volunteer coordinator. However I think this move exemplifies the philosophy of VSO, and I’m glad they constantly monitor the programmes they are running. I have faith they will be back to start significant work with the people of Zvishavane in no time at all – I believe they are projecting to return in September.

In terms of how this affects me, I’m honestly happy to go wherever they send me. Health is obviously of interest to me of a medical student, so raising HIV awareness in Zimbabwe would have been great; on the other hand I’ve always been interested in education and love teaching roles. Zimbabwe would have been fascinating and I’ve never been anywhere similar before – the trip there would have been the first time I visited that continent. But then South East Asia is a dream destination for me and I’m very interested in Buddhism. The only thing I’m dreading is the rain.