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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 8. 19th April 1973

VSA Volunteers Tell Their Own Story

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VSA Volunteers Tell Their Own Story

New Zealand is part of the Pacific, and as such must work with the other Pacific nations. It is hard to know how this should be done. Up until now all that we have done has been to provide 'aid' — which is a one way thing and invites many New Zealanders to adopt a patronizing and superior attitude towards those they are 'helping'. We don't think that present 'aid' is necessarily the right form of involvement.

Volunteer Service is only a small part of this total 'aid'. Aid in a wider sense is feasible only at a government level; VSA is a small private organization set up to cater for just one small section of 'aid'. VSA does not claim to be a total aid programme; this could not be possible. This must be done at an inter-govermental level and with such organizations as Who, Unesco etc.

VSA has taken just a small section and specialized in it. It has been as successful in its volunteer programme as larger similar organizations such as Peace Corps (USA), VSO Britain, and AVA Australia. Success is as measured in terms of the dropout rate of volunteers and the quality of personal standing in the communities in which they work. Because VSA is a small, low budget organisation, it has decided to concentrate on providing short term aid and doing it thoroughly.

It is responsible for providing volunteers for specific tasks until the host country has sufficient qualified people. Volunteers are asked for by the people they are going to be working with, Public Works Department, hospitals, schools, etc. No volunteer is sent to a job that is not specifically requested of VSA. The posting is checked by a VSA field officer after the request is received to ensure that the volunteer is really necessary.

The total number of volunteers in the field has remained steady over the last three years. The number of school leaver volunteers has dropped from the highest point of 45 in 1970 to 22 this year and probably fewer next year. The number of adult volunteers has risen non-correspondingly as the need for more qualified assistance has increased.

This drop in school leaver numbers follows VSA's policy of flexibility and sensitivity to the changing situations in the host countries. As an example school leavers were phased out of the school where they were teaching in Western Samoa because sufficiently qualified teachers became available.

Western Samoa now has no school leavers and in the last five years has had a total of only twelve school leavers, all of them employed by the same private church school. In Western Samoa at present there are eighteen fully qualified adult volunteers and two teacher trainees.

The Pacific is a big place, the people, cultures, and needs differ. Individual volunteers with various personalities and skills are carefully selected to fill the positions that are requested. VSA responds to requests for specific jobs and for many years it has not been able to fill the requests made to it. No volunteer is placed into a situation where he will be of no use whatsoever — if there is no job suited to his personality and skills, he stays at home.

VSA is particularly careful about selection. Although there is a need for more people, only about 20% of the school leavers and 65% of the adult applicants are accepted for service. This is because selection panels seek to find people who will not adopt a colonial missionary type of attitude. This is very important because VSA is looking for people who are able to work well with all kinds of people. However, VSA is an organization of human beings which means that it is not infallible.

VSA is now exploring the means of creating a reciprocal volunteer programme, so that Pacific volunteers can come here and fill assignments where they are needed, eg. teachers of Pacific studies in schools. Reciprocal volunteering is one way of overcoming the unidirectional nature of aid. Volunteering aims to be a "two way street". As Keren Clark, (VSA's former Selection and Training Officer, said in an article in "New Zealand Volunteer" March 1973). "I'm loathing leaving Tonga and the simple things like going to stay with Lose at the farm . . . being part of the lakalaka celebrations with my school children. I felt as if I were given a great privilege — instead of my teaching them, they were teaching me, very proudly, letting me be a part of their culture".

"Volunteering has a reputation for changing people, bringing maturity, 'upsetting' them — and so it should. Living with the truth of the essentials of life, and directly responsible for oneself in a way that rarely happens where one is protected by a familiar home culture, many volunteers learn what the substance of their life may be.

Poverty has something to do with it: food, friendship, shelter, work are shared with others, and given to the volunteer in return for his energy and commitment. A balanced sharing of essentials with communities which we (the Europeans) traditionally believe have nothing to give but must take all".

Volunteering is only a small part of 'aid' as it exists. VSA is only a small, but much publicized, part of New Zealand's involvement in the Pacific. Criticisms levelled at VSA are often made because people expect VSA to be a total aid organization; or because they expect something different and comprehensive than 'traditional aid'. These points should be directed to the governments of the countries involved — it is only at intergovernmental level that really meaningful, long term aid can be worked out.

As we said earlier, VSA specializes in short term aid — it does not pretend to do anything else. Present aid is not the answer; New Zealand ought to look at more realistic ways of becoming involved in the Pacific it is a part of. This takes time. Short term, stopgap measures are needed, provided that they realize that their death heralds their success.

Jennie Wren, Carol Robinson, Rosemary Dixon. Elizabeth Harper, Helen Robbins. Charlie Moore, Vivien Spanton.

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