Abbott, Derek: Giving practical effect to good intentions: Australian volunteers at work

Derek Abbott*

‘Giving practical effect to good intentions: Australian volunteers at work’, Honest History, 24 March 2019

Derek Abbott reviews Peter Britton’s Working for the World: The Evolution of Australian Volunteers International

Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) delivering services on behalf of, or in collaboration with, government almost invariably face a conflict between their founding values and aspirations and the expectations of government on the nature of the service and the manner of its delivery. This tension has in recent decades been exacerbated by governments on both sides of politics seeking to restrict the public advocacy role of NGOs in areas where they also receive government funding. The struggle to preserve the founding ethos and independence of Australian Volunteers International (AVI), while making the practical compromises necessary to pursue AVI’s objectives, whether dealing with the Australian government, host governments, the private sector or other NGOs, is the unifying theme that flows through Peter Britton’s history of AVI.

Image result for Working for the World: The Evolution of Australian Volunteers InternationalAVI, the renamed Overseas Services Bureau (OSB) and its program Australian Volunteers Abroad (AVA) had its origins in post-World War II Australia, at a time when the certainties of Empire were no longer sustainable, Australia’s proximity to Asia was undeniable, and decolonisation was unstoppable. Australia’s active participation in the establishment of the United Nations and support for Indonesian independence were but the most visible evidence of Australia’s acceptance of its changing place in the world. While that acceptance was neither uniform nor always whole-hearted there was a widespread understanding that attitudes of ethnic, cultural or economic superiority in dealing with our neighbours were no longer acceptable.

At Melbourne University the courses of Macmahon Ball  and others and the work of the Australian Student Christian Movement provided both the foundations of and the content for the creation of the Volunteer Graduate Scheme (VGS) that sent volunteers to work in Indonesia in the 1950s and 60s. The ethos of this scheme in turn became the founding ethos of OSB. VGS volunteers, having qualifications that the newly independent nation required, were to work in Indonesia, receiving local salaries, in a program that would benefit both countries by emphasising people-to-people contact, while avoiding any implication of ‘Western benevolence … [offensive to] nationalist sensitivities’. This involved strong identification with Indonesian colleagues’ aspirations and avoidance of anything that smacked of ‘colonial attitudes’ or the expatriate style of living. That Australia would benefit from close contact with our neighbours and a better understanding of their cultures was to remain a core value of volunteering.

It quickly became apparent that the altruism of VGS’s founders could take it only so far. The volunteers were the subject of an inter-governmental agreement between Australia and Indonesia; their safety but also the image of Australia they presented became a matter of concern to the Jakarta Embassy and the Department of External Affairs in Canberra. Recruitment, training, transport and support of volunteers was not cheap, thus funds had to be found; shoestrings extend only so far. Thus from the very beginning the Commonwealth government had an interest in the general oversight of volunteering.

The success of VGS led to a desire to extend its approach beyond Indonesia and to the creation of OSB in 1961, initially as a clearing house for information on vacancies overseas and a support for those wishing to apply for them. It was not simply an extension of VGS, but it shared its ethos and there was considerable overlap of personnel. OSB initially depended on community support and was determined to demonstrate its value before it approached government for funding.

The United States Peace Corps, established in 1961 as a fully funded government program, attracted considerable interest in Australia, but the Australian government made it clear that it would not follow this model. Nevertheless, volunteering and the use of NGOs to deliver foreign aid had powerful supporters in Canberra, including the External Affairs Minister, Sir Garfield Barwick, and Sir John Crawford, by then Director of the Research School of Pacific Studies at the Australian National University. Thus OSB was well placed to meet the demand for such a service, if and when government decided to support it.

Although OSB prided itself on its independence it became increasingly reliant on government funding. Its leaders realised that the ‘market’ for community funding was very competitive, that fund raising was in itself a major undertaking that had the potential to distort OSB’s priorities and that government funding, particularly if it could be obtained over extended periods, was a much more secure base for its operations. Thus, between 1966 and 1984, reliance on government grants increased from 66 per cent to 94.5 per cent of the total budget.

OSB expanded throughout the 1970s and 80s with increasing reliance on government funding but, as Britton explains, reached something of an existential crisis in the late 1970s. Governance had not kept up with OSB’s growth. As a community organisation it had sensibly recruited supporters and committee members from among ‘the great and the good’ to develop its public profile and to improve access to government. Unfortunately, some of the establishment attitudes that the distinguished committee members brought with them were out of tune with the times and OSB’s leadership became increasingly ineffective, losing the confidence of OSB staff, the community of supporters and returned volunteers and raising doubts in the government’s Australian Development Assistance Bureau (ADAB) as to OSB’s capacity to deliver its programs. This situation became intolerable, leading to an internal coup, the removal of the Director and a spill of the Committee.

Thereafter OSB entered something of a golden age. Its new Director, Bill Armstrong, had long experience in the sector, a sound appreciation of OSB’s values and a good working relationship with ADAB (later the Australian International Development Assistance Bureau and then AusAID). The number of volunteers OSB placed overseas increased, as did the number of countries it worked in. OSB’s range of activities expanded into providing recruitment and training services for both NGOs and businesses operating overseas. Generally OSB worked to demonstrate its ‘credibility as a professional development agency’.

Nonetheless, tensions remained. Much of the middle part of Britton’s book deals with the negotiations with the Australian government’s development agency over how much funding, subject to what conditions, would be forthcoming. ADAB sought greater direct involvement in OSB’s management, which OSB resisted. While this period was generally amicable, OSB’s need to demonstrate its independence as a credible NGO ‘through attitudes, stances and actions’, as Britton puts it, could irritate officials and politicians. Bill Armstrong, as OSB Director, and as President of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA) often spoke for the NGO sector, entered into political debate and criticised government development policies. This was not always well received.

naa_volunteer_grad_scheme_image_-_crop_for_website_750x360pxTeachers Noela Motum and Joan Minogue, about to leave for volunteer work in Borneo under the VGS (NLA/NAA/John Tanner)

The last part of the book deals with individual country programs. These illustrate the complexity of work on the ground. OSB took strong positions, either directly or implicitly, on major issues, which could bring it into conflict with its own government or that of host countries, for example, the movement against apartheid in South Africa or independence for East Timor. Volunteers could become collateral damage of inter-governmental disputes; host governments’ policies and attitudes could change, leaving the volunteer program stranded; in front-line states during the struggle against apartheid volunteers might find themselves targeted as representatives of a hostile power. At the other extreme, for example in Cambodia, OSB and other NGOs could provide back channels for contact where the Australian government had no formal diplomatic relationship.

Peter Britton has produced a fascinating history of Australian Volunteers International that celebrates its achievements and is at the same time unflinching in its discussion of the organisation’s low points and the contortions that were sometimes required to balance principle and practice. The book is a timely reminder that to give practical effect to good intentions is a highly complex and demanding task.

* Derek Abbott is a retired Senate officer. He has done reviews for Honest History on an episode of family war history, the 1942 Melbourne ‘brownout murders’, what-ifs in history, the Commonwealth todayMonash and Chauvel, Australian home defence in World War IIthe Silk RoadsVictor TrumpersportAustralian foreign policyWorld War I at homeDuchene/Hargraves and the discovery of goldCharles Todd of the Overland Telegraph, and other subjects.


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