“ UK based development organisation placing volunteers overseas. „
This is my 1000th review in almost 10 years on Dooyoo, and although I could do a general, 'About Me', I think most of you know a fair bit by now, so instead I am going to tell you about what I did last year and, in a roundabout way, the reason I am in Colombia.
Every since I joined the NHS, I have read the Health Service Journal (HSJ). I had my subscription paid for a couple of years when I was on the graduate scheme, and after that I could often find an issue lying around the office to read. The HSJ is not the most scintillating of magazines, but most people just buy it for the jobs section anyway, as they list management and director jobs around the country. One day I spotted an advert for VSO. I had heard of the organisation but associated them more with teaching abroad. The advert explained that they were looking for health managers, and although I wasn't in a position to take apply then, I filed it away for future reference.
YOU WANT THEM, BUT DO THEY WANT YOU?
VSO place professional volunteers in over 40 countries worldwide. They work in 6 programme areas which are Education, HIV & AIDS, Health, Disability, Secure Livelihoods and Participation & Governance, but not all programme areas are supported in each location - normally a country chooses 2 or 3 to focus on.
There are 3 difference schemes: Youth for Development (for those under 25 when applying), Short Term (for up to 6 months) and Long Term (typically 1 to 2 years). I was a Long Term Volunteer, so that's the scheme I know most about. You can also volunteer with a partner, or take your children with you, those these placements are much harder to find for obvious reasons.
VSO's motto is 'Sharing Skills, Changing Lives'. Rather than send money, they send people who can up-skill organisations, so they can grow and develop. The idea is, when a volunteer leaves, the organisation should have the skills needed to continue without them.
When I applied I was told I needed 5 years experience in my field, though a quick look at the website tells me they're now asking for 2 years experience within the last 5 years. You also need to be able to volunteer within the next 12 months. Something I did not realise at the time was just how long the process takes: I applied in March and wanted to depart in September which was cutting it close. Had I known, I would have applied in October or November of the year before.
The application process is thorough. First you complete a sort of online screening form about your experience. This is checked to confirm you have the minimum experience and qualifications required, and if you look like you might ok, you are invited to complete a full application. This has all sorts of questions on, and is much more indepth than a normal job application form. It takes a few weeks from submitting this to getting a response, and if you pass this stage you are invited to attend an assessment centre in London. This is the final stage you need to pass to be accepted onto the programme. I'm not sure what the success rate is at each stage, but I do know that not everyone at my assessment centre was accepted, so it's not a sure thing.
My assessment centre was a full day, and since I was based in the north I travelled down the night before. There is a complex process for claiming back expenses. VSO ask you to cover the first so much, and will then reimburse your expenditure about this, up to a set limit. It ended up costing me about £50 out of my own pocket, but I was ok with this because I appreciate that they are a charity and have limited funds. The only slightly annoying thing was the 10 days notice I had of my assessment date, which wasn't long enough to bag any cheap train tickets. Some people have a much longer period between sending in their application and being offered an interview, depending on the schedule. It is really just the luck of the draw.
The assessment centre is a group event at the VSO offices in Putney. It was nice and relaxed, and we had chance to find out more about VSO and how things worked. We participated in group 'games' and had individual interviews. It was quite similar to the graduate assessment centres I did, and I enjoyed the day especially meeting the VSO staff and other applicants.
You don't get a result on the day, but are told a few weeks later. I actually squealed when they told me I'd been accepted onto the programme! I was really excited and annoyed everyone in my office by going on about it at great length.
NB: VSO have several recruitment bases in the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, India, Jitolee, the Netherlands, Bahaginan. The above refers to the UK application process, but should be similar for overseas applicants too.
Once you are accepted, you are assigned a VPA, or Placement Advisor, who helps you through the next steps. VSO do not offer placements themselves: they work with key partners in their countries who put in requests for volunteers. These are then matched against available people with the right skills, whose details are all on a database. These placements cover all countries, and you cannot apply to work in a specific region. Once a match is found, that volunteer is offered the placement. They get a placement description and country info, and have up to 2 weeks to decide whether or not to accept. There is no pressure to accept a placement but if you consistently refuse, it becomes harder for you to be placed. Passing the assessment centre is no guarantee that you will be placed, just that you will be put on the database. This was a bit worrying for me as my contract at work was coming to an end, so I wasn't sure if I should be looking for other jobs as well. When a suitable placement crops up is really just the luck of the draw.
I was offered a placement almost immediately, but turned it down. The main reason for this was that I didn't think I would be able to do the job successfully. It required skills I didn't have, and was only a vague match with my profile. A few weeks later I was offered something else which sounded great, so I accepted. This time I didn't tell friends and family until I had done so: after talking about my first placement offer I received a lot of negative comments about the destination (Ethiopia) so decided from then on to present it as a fait acompli - much like with baby names, everyone has an opinion before the bubba pops out, but once you've named the tot no one will come up to you and tell you how much they hate the name...
Once you accept a placement there is all sorts of paperwork to do, include sending a proper application specifically for that job, though this is really just a formality. The nerve wracking bit is waiting for confirmation the organisation has accepted you. My confirmation came 2 weeks before I was due to depart! (And almost 2 months after I sent back my paperwork for this specific placement).
VSO are an extremely well organised and thorough organisation, and not in the habit of sending people off to countries without preparing them. As such you have to attend 2 training courses prior to departure, plus an additional Health and Safety workshop. These are residential weekends, held in Birmingham, and VSO cover the cost of food and accommodation but again ask you to cover the first part of your travel expenses. The days were intense and long, but good fun, and our trainers were excellent. We covered everything from the VSO philosophy to dealing with problems to people skills to the fancily named 'Skills For Working In Development' (affectionately called SKWID). I met lots of other volunteers who I still keep in touch with, and I felt much more confident about my trip having completed these courses.
Part of your acceptance includes an agreement to fundraise for VSO, with a target of £900 though some people raise more, others less. You have the support of a dedicated fundraising team, and are given all sorts of ideas to get you started, plus t-shirts and promotional materials. I did a Sponsored Cheer along Hadrian's Wall, which finished on my birthday last year, while others did everything from marathons to pub quizzes.
There are all sorts of things that need sorting before departure, all of which VSO organise and pay for. Their philosophy is that you shouldn't make a profit from volunteering, but nor should it leave you out of pocket. Some people needed motorcycle lessons, which they sorted out and paid for. Me, I just needed a helmet for motorbike taxis. Visas and flight tickets are organised by the super helpful travel office, though again it's always a little alarming when you only get your ticket a week before departure (though of course less alarming than when Royal Mail lose your registered passport on route to its visa appointment, necessitating an 11th hour dash to the Liverpool passport office, and some grovelling to get a same day replacement). I asked for a connecting flight from Manchester down to Heathrow, and this was provided.
There were about a dozen of us travelling out for the September start. Some of us met at Heathrow, we picked up more people on the plane (Canadians who had flown in to the UK that morning) and met others when we landed. Almost everyone was on our flight - the exception being a few people from the Philippines. We had been sent instructions on what to do on arrival, but as we staggered off the severely delayed BMI flight into the boiling hot African night, it was still like stepping into another world. We made it through baggage claim and security to the welcoming sight of a VSO sign and our welcome team. It's not easy to get from the airport to the capital, but we just stood to one side as boats were organised, and bags labelled. We were given envelopes of wads of cash, SIM cards and phone credit - if anyone was a target for mugging, we thought, it would be us pasty white folk, huddled in a corner looking lost.
Pretty soon we made it across the water and were assigned to different cars for our onwards journeys. People staying in the capital went straight to their new homes, while the rest of us were accommodated in a hotel. My first taste of Africa was air conditioning and MTV...
IN COUNTRY TRAINING
VSO placements start with some kind of training in country. Ours lasted a week while in some countries it lasts 2 months or more, if the local language is required. (Interestingly the cohort before us got 2 weeks ICT, and the lot who arrived after us got 10 days, so even within countries it was flexible). This week covered an introduction to the country, and to the local VSO programme, plus basic language lessons. We also filled in lots of forms, and opened our bank accounts during this time as well as getting ID cards. The only thing, with retrospect, that I think was missing was a guide to surviving the hassles of everyday life as someone who clearly stands out as a foreigner. As I was to find, life was not super easy, especially up country away from the relatively cosmopolitan capital.
The week ended with a city tour, and a party, and again, was quite like my graduate scheme induction way back when. It was a fun, fairly relaxed way to acclimatise to West Africa, but by the end we were all itching to get to our placements and start work.
Before I tell you about my placement, let me tell you about the many, many benefits of being a VSO.
BENEFITS 1 (CASH)
The word 'volunteer' may not make you think of mountains of cash, and indeed we weren't rolling in it, but when we arrived it seemed like we kept getting more money. When your standard allowance is £7 per day, you quickly get excited about other hand outs. We got an ICT allowance and an equipment allowance (more later). We also got a preparation payment in the UK before we left, and continued payments into UK bank accounts for the length of the placement. NI contributions were paid if requested, and there is also the option of having your public sector salary paid, though this is done with retrospect, and you have to rejoin the public sector post placement for it to be paid.
Once we started work, some people found other income streams, for example people who travelled for their placement were given a sustenance allowance. Equally, if you had to go anywhere on VSO business, you were given an allowance for this.
I didn't spend any extra money of my own during my placement, but for 3 of the 4 months I stayed I was based up country where there is LITERALLY nothing to spend money on. People in the capital often spent twice their allowance, supplementing with money from home. This was a personal choice, and the result of gym memberships and many meals out etc. You can live on the VSO allowance but you have to be frugal. The main problem with spending more was how to access money: foreign bank cards didn't work in most ATMs, and credit cards were not accepted. It was recommended that we bring £50 'for emergencies' but as soon as we got out there, we discovered this was not really enough, and we should have asked serving volunteers, not the programme office, to confirm this amount as they had a better idea. I think the programme office didn't want to be seen to be implying you needed extra money beyond what they would pay you, but still it would have been helpful to know. From your living allowance you were expected to pay for all food and transport, plus any treats you wanted to buy (if you could find any!)
BENEFITS 2 (HOUSING)
As a VSO you are provided with basic housing, either by your partner organisation or, if they cannot support you in this area, by the local VSO office. You are guaranteed your own room, but that's about it. In Sierra Leone there were more than half a dozen different places people were accommodated, and I personally stayed in 5 of these, while visiting another 2. They varied enormously, so let me tell you about them:
The first VSO property I stayed in was 'up country'. I was travelling to my placement, but we needed to overnight somewhere, so I stayed in the spare room of one of the houses. This was a 4 bedroom two bathroom house. It was quite dark because of the close perimeter wall, and had running water but electricity only when you switched on the generator. It was the residents' responsibility to buy fuel for the generator. It was a nice house that had been in VSO's clutches for quite some time, and as such was well furnished though previous residents seemed to have pilfered most of the plates etc.
My next stop was in my placement town, but not in my house as it wasn't ready... I stayed with another volunteer in a guest house belonging to the university. This was really pretty and secure (the campus had full time guards) with running water, but electricity was rationed to 4 hours a day when they turned on the campus generator, and since this wasn't in the evening, nights were spent by candlelight.
My house, when it was ready, was one of the nicest. It had almost constant water and electricity, and was spacious (7 bedrooms! 4 bathrooms! And me living there alone!) It had balconies on two sides, and felt secure. I also had lots of outdoor space for sunbathing (hey, when in Africa...) and if the only thing to think about had been the house, I would quite happily have stayed there forever.
I went back to the capital for a few nights to discuss some issues, and stayed with a friend in one of the 4 VSO properties there. This was also a 2 storey house with 5 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms, though they did not have running water. They paid a local boy to bring them barrels, which were used for bucket baths etc. Most of the time they had electricity, but when it went off, it went off for a while.
My final residence was when I moved to the capital myself. It was in a different house which had 4 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms. What it didn't have was electricity or water and we had great trouble accessing water with no reliable local boys to help us, even though we were paying. On several occasions we had absolutely no water which, in a house of 3, is far from pleasant. Think of everything you use water for: brushing teeth, bathing, flushing the loo, cooking, washing up. We couldn't do any of those.
There were two other VSO houses in the capital. Both had running water. Both had electricity. You can imagine the jealousy this evoked! There was no apparent formula to allocating people to houses. It was really just the luck of the draw.
In SL we were given an allowance to equip our houses. The trouble was, everyone got the same amount, but not everyone was going to the same kind of place. Mine was brand new so I had to buy everything - cutlery, crockery, chopping boards, pots and pans. Once I'd done this, there was little left over. Others were moving into established houses that already had the basics, so could splash out on other things. It was really just the luck of the draw.
BENEFITS 3 (HEALTHCARE)
I never saw health insurance as a particular important benefit until I did VSO, but I unfortunately had to test the service they provided, and it was excellent. We could see a doctor any time, without paying. We could get our prescriptions filled for free at a certain chemist, or pay and claim the costs back. Once I got a pack of plasters on prescription (mainly because I couldn't read the hand writing so didn't know what I'd been given). I was hospitalised with Malaria, and put in a nice private room in a private hospital. When I later got Typhoid, I was seen as an outpatient in that hospital, all free of charge to me. The reassurance this offered, not to mention the amount of money it saved me, was immeasurable, and full marks to VSO in this area.
MY PLACEMENT EXPERIENCE
The reason I left the country early (after 4 months, not my contracted 12) was 10% due to the accommodation and 90% due to my placement, or lack thereof. I should say first that the majority of people both in country with me, and elsewhere, have decent placements. Yes, some are not as busy as they had assumed, and some are doing something completely different from their initial placement descriptions, but most have something to do. I did not. The hospital I was placed at did not have work for me to do. They did not have anywhere for me to sit. They sent me home before noon every day for several months, with the explanation that there was no work. I am not quite sure how they got a VSO in the first place, but I suspect it was a directive from the national government rather than at their original request. I was the only VSO remaining in that town for 2 months, so for 2 months I spent my days reading in the sun and, well, writing reviews. I knew no one except for the nice Lebanese guy who owned the small local supermarket. I visited him every day.
I raised my concerns with the local VSO office and was told I needed to look for something to do. This goes against what VSO is (sending in a skilled person to fill an identified gap in an organisation) but I agreed. However, the two options I found were then rejected by VSO because they were with different organisations who 'had too much capacity' and therefore did not warrant a volunteer. This left me disappointed and frustrated: I had gone out there to work, but that was the one thing I was unable to do.
My placement did not work because there was no placement, and in the end I came home because to stay there seemed a waste, but I am very conscious that mine was the exception rather than the rule, and would still recommend people consider VSO. I might do so myself again in 30 years time, but it would not be in that country.
There were a few other issues I faced, mainly to do with security. VSO, understandably, has strict rules to keep their volunteers safe. You cannot travel after dark, due to the safety of the roads....and yet, when I was supposed to be heading up country, they suggested I get a lift with someone going at 4.30pm. The trip was 4 - 5 hours. It would have been dark long before we arrived.
We were told only to travel my government busses for long distances. These left at 5am - 6am in both directions, making a weekend in the capital nigh on impossible.
When I moved into my house, I was shown the way to work. It was a 30 minute walk, and not a very pleasant one, but then that's all part of the adventure. When another volunteer arrived, her organisation provided her with a car and driver as she couldn't walk because it was dangerous to be a white person on the street. So, off she went to work with her driver, and off I went on foot. And later that week I was assaulted in the street. Guess they knew what they were talking about after all.
I decided to leave over Christmas, so had to wait for the office to reopen after the holidays. My resignation was taken without fuss, and my flight home booked for a few days time with transport to the airport provided.
Once back in the UK, I was invited to provide feedback to VSO. I went to London for a debrief with a lovely member of staff who was very supportive. At no point did the (British) team make me think it was my fault the placement had failed.
When I signed up to VSO, I packed up my life for a year. I sold my things, left my job, rented out my house for 12 months. And then, things didn't work out, and I came back early. The reason I am in Colombia is because I needed somewhere to while away the months until I can move back home. But that's no real hardship. Colombia's ace, though that's another review...
But back to the main question of VSO. Would I recommend? Without a doubt. The team in London are phenomenal and I know many hundreds of volunteers successfully complete placements every year. I would recommend, but it's in spite of, not due to, my personal experience in country. I wanted it to be the experience of a lifetime and it was, but for all the wrong reasons. Even so, I'm glad I gave it a shot, and know not to take it personally that I got a dud placement and it didn't work out. It is just the luck of the draw.
I kept a blog of my time as a VSO, though it was made private when it was suggested I was moaning too much... If this wasn't long enough, and anyone would like to read it (and I think it's a good read!) PM me you email address and I'll give you permission