From colonial rulers to do-gooders going native

Never the Same Again
November 13, 1998

This book's release marks the 40th anniversary of Voluntary Service Overseas, Europe's largest volunteer organisation and one which has been instrumental in the way in which development work has been constructed in post-imperial Britain.

It is laid out as an anthology, beginning with the founding of the VSO by Alec and Mora Dickson in the 1950s and continuing with a decade-by-decade account of how the VSO evolved with the times up to the 1990s. Dick Bird, a long-time VSO volunteer and manager does not, however, problematise the link between Britain's not-so-distant history and the organisation's insidious connection with the demise of empire.

On the impact of VSO volunteers in the 1960s in Northern Nigeria, a VSO secondary school teacher comments: "For a white man to walk was a little unusual; for him to carry his own baggage more so, but the strangest thing of all was for him to be carrying it on his back."

Those who identify with the experience of white western development workers will no doubt appreciate the book and its narration of VSO's history while others may not be so inspired. A quote by Pierre Ceresole in a "farewell" broadcast on All India Radio in 1937 reflects the sense of superiority and power which gave the impetus for continued development "assistance" in the former colonies: "We came not for the infinitesimal contribution we could hope to bring in material help and relief, but mainly for a gesture."

The story of the founding and establishment of VSO cannot be divorced from the international stage from the 1950s to the 1970s when the organisation grew from a small-scale volunteer scheme to a massive organisation sending volunteers to dozens of countries. But Bird ignores the fact that VSO exists within a contemporary world of structural adjustment packages, "democratisation" and multinational corporations. Within this context, volunteer work has its limitations, to which Never the Same Again does not address itself.

To be fair, the book is clearly only a story of the inception and growth of one particular volunteer organisation. But by telling the story from the perspective of Britain and its volunteers, the historical roots of underdevelopment and the continuing power relationship between those who send and those who receive volunteers remain unexplored.

Navtej K. Purewal is lecturer in development studies, University of Manchester.

Never the Same Again: A History of VSO

Author - Dick Bird
ISBN - 0 7188 2975 1 and 2976 X
Publisher - Lutterworth
Price - £25.00 and £15.00
Pages - 205

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