It is Thursday, the 11th of May, and we are sitting at HNK, an office collective in Utrecht. In the background there is the buzz of conversation and activity. Our meeting is with Wim de Jong, whose job is ‘Account Manager for Business Partners’ at Voluntary Service Overseas, otherwise known as VSO.
An introduction: ‘VSO works toward the sustained eradication of poverty by bringing people and specialized knowledge together, through personal contact and at the request of local organizations.’ Their focus in doing this is on improving education, healthcare, and work & income. “We focus on developing countries, whereby we reevaluate each year which countries that will be,” according to Wim.
To illustrate, he recounts his own experience in Ethiopia, one out of 20 countries where VSO is active. “I did two placements (foreign assignments by VSO – Ed.). One was a monitoring & evaluation project, and the other a position with an association for people with HIV/Aids,” he says. Wim has been working for eight years now at the VSO Netherlands headquarters in Utrecht.
How did VSO started and how long has the organization been active?
“VSO International has been around for nearly 60 years now, and it originated in England.” VSO Netherlands was founded later and has been active for about 25 years now, with its offices in Utrecht. “The aid work began with providing teachers. Where initially the assignments of professionals were fairly random at different organizations, VSO gradually developed as an aid organization with amongst others programs for improving healthcare and education in a specific region.
The principle of bringing people together and sharing expertise, in the form of volunteering, has always been the singular approach. The volunteering itself has become much broader over the years. What began with international volunteers primarily from the west, the volunteers these days are mostly nationals, and also professionals from countries such as Kenya, Uganda and the Philippines who come to share their knowledge in other developing countries.
Effective delivery of the global goals requires all of us to have the capacity, the confidence and the willingness to engage.
VSO chooses to specialize within the wider issues they are involved in. With healthcare, for example, the focus is on care for mothers and children. For education, it is on improving primary education. “The VSO Office in London decides the various programs. The role of VSO Netherlands is attracting volunteers, fundraising and finding sponsorship partners, especially in the business community,” Wim explains. The programs are developed by the local offices of the country they aid, in collaboration with local organizations.
VSO organizes projects through volunteering (not to be confused with volunteer work; VSO volunteers receive a living allowance and accommodation appropriate to the local situation). Placements are often for longer periods of time, varying from one month to two years.
To attract the necessary expertise, i.e. volunteers, VSO frequently works together with the business community. In addition to direct collaboration in developing countries within the value chain of a company (VSO works, for example, together with chocolate maker Mondelez to create a more sustainable value chain for cacao), VSO believes businesses have considerable relevant knowledge that would be of benefit to the work VSO does. Specialized knowledge is also often clustered within a business, which means the right expertise for VSO’s work can be found with minimal recruitment effort. To give an example, VSO has been working together with Randstad for over ten years. The Randstad organization is the world’s second largest agency ‘shaping the world of work,’ which means they can make a major contribution to VSO’s projects for work and income (secure livelihoods).
For Randstad, it is a way of enlarging its footprint in this area, by making a difference in developing countries through VSO. This fits perfectly with what the UN had in mind for involving business in the fight against poverty, and specifically for achieving the SDGs. “The collaboration between Randstad and VSO is a perfect example of a contribution to the goals such as SDG #8,” says Wim compellingly. As he is talking to us, we can see his enthusiasm and passion for his work. He beams as he speaks.
But how does VSO’s work relate to the SDGs? And what can JCI learn from VSO?
The programs that VSO implements for healthcare, education and secure livelihoods all contribute to various SDGs. The programs are also set up according to those SDGs.
In addition, the concept of ‘volunteering’ as a singular approach has been recognized by the UN as an extremely important intervention for achieving the SDGs. It is exactly that bringing people together, sharing knowledge and increasing the involvement of large groups of people, which is seen as essential to reaching the SDGs.
Impact starts at the local level.
One community at a time.
In that respect, VSO would like to take a greater role based on their experience from more than 50 years of volunteering. VSO does this, for instance, through research into the impact of volunteering, both as it applies to that impact on change in developing countries, as well as the impact on the individual and the role he or she plays after a volunteering experience.
“The Global Goals do help in putting the role of volunteering in a good light, and the SDGs have strengthened the goals of VSO,” Wim admits.
The focus of the JCI association, on the other hand, is ‘the development of people, society and the business community, wherein learning to think in terms of solutions.’ What unites VSO and JCI is the willingness and the ability of both organizations to make a difference at the local level. As Wim explains, “after a period of volunteering, you see that people become more active locally as volunteers, and that it is a method that works directly toward the goals.”
Do the SDGs help to improve the visibility of VSO’s services?
Wim says that “it certainly helps in conversations with companies, such as with Randstad. It gives us a mutual starting point from which we can begin to define a collaboration”. It doesn’t automatically lead to more funding, or more interest in foreign aid and the work VSO does, however. There is now a tendency worldwide to decrease budgets for this type of work. “By working toward the SDGs, we expect there to be an eventual shift in business attitudes, even if it takes a while.”
What advice would you give an organization just starting out with the SDGs?
“Look for broad collaboration, and involve a lot of people at the local level. The people are the only key to a solution,” according to Wim.
And how can JCI help VSO?
“We would love to collaborate with companies in industries such as the energy sector. Any suggestions in that regard are more than welcome!”
What is the profile of a VSO volunteer?
That looks a bit like the JCI profile: 25 to 39 years of age. But also people of all ages above 25. Usually more women than men, well-educated (due to sharing expertise), at least five years of work experience. Looking to increase a specialization in education, securing livelihoods and healthcare.
Find work in Africa or Asia!
Would you like to work in a foreign country? Then have a look around the VSO volunteering jobs database. Employers in Africa and Asia explain what they are looking for. Can’t find the opportunity you’re looking for? Sign up for the VSO job alert. There are always new challenging opportunities online to apply for!