Dick Bird

June 26, 1998

NEVER THE SAME AGAIN. A history of the VSO. 206pp. Cambridge: Lutterworth. Pounds 25 (paperback, Pounds 15). - 0 7188 2975 1.

I am sure young Americans would learn a good deal in this country . . . . I hope they will not be too disappointed if the Punjab, when they leave, is more or less the same as it was when they came", was how Nehru welcomed the Peace Corps to India in 1961. His words illustrate perfectly the dilemma of international volunteering: who benefits most? VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) is the largest volunteer-sending organization in Britain. Each year it sends a thousand volunteers all over the world. The average age of those who qualify is surprisingly high at thirty-three, which reflects the skills and experience the VSO management now expects from its workers. This is a far cry from the vision of Alec Dickson, VSO's founding father, who wanted to build bridges between young people in Britain and the newly independent states of Africa and Asia. In spite of a distinctly unenthusiastic Foreign Office, which Dickson pursued doggedly for support, the first volunteers were dispatched in 1958. Almost all were "first-rate chaps" from upper-middle-class families, fresh out of pubic school, eager for a year's excitement. Yet the essence of volunteering has remained a heady mixture of adventure and a desire to "express concern and internationalism through personal practical action". Dick Bird was an early volunteer and is now VSO's Director of Fundraising. As he is, understandably, unwilling to "reveal all", the book makes for a rather lifeless read, in spite of some often touching anecdotes. Dick's response to Nehru's view on volunteering is perhaps best captured in a quote from a Filipino who worked with many volunteers, "If . . . you will be happy to leave behind former friends who have become more self-confident and proud as human beings and families because of the friendship you have shared with them, then please stay with us." RG

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