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Australia's Overseas Volunteers: A Treasured National Resource

Launch of Peter Britton, Working for the World: The Evolution of Australian Volunteers International, Melbourne, 14 March 2019

My experience both as Australia’s Foreign Minister and, after I left Australian politics, as head of a major international non-governmental organization, the International Crisis Group, taught me that there were four indispensable prerequisites for an NGO working in this space to be successful. Successful in terms of staying afloat financially. And successful in making, and being seen to make, a difference, whether that difference be some positive contribution to peace and security generally, or to the quality of individuals’ lives.

Those criteria are first, meeting a need – adding value, by filling a gap that is not currently being filled well, sufficiently or at all; second, clarity of mission – having a very clear niche and sticking to it; third, independence from vested interests; and fourth, absolute professionalism in everything it does.

The Overseas Service Bureau (OSB), given birth in 1961 by its early 1950s progenitor, the Indonesia-focused Volunteer Graduate Scheme (one of the first of its kind in the world, predating both Britain’s VSO and the US Peace Corps), and rebranded as Australian Volunteers International (AVI) in 1999, seems to me to have amply satisfied those criteria at nearly every stage of its evolution, although there have been some bumps and grinds along the way.

It’s hard to argue with the success of an organization that, according to its latest published Annual Report (2017-18), is managing 1191 volunteers applying their skills and experience with 498 partner organizations in 27 different countries across Asia, the Pacific and southern Africa, with a staff of 127 spread through 22 countries, and attracting Australian government funding in 2018 of over $28 million.

This is an organization of which Australia, and Australians, can be very proud, and Peter Britton has made a great contribution in writing the story of its organizational history, from the earliest beginnings up to the retirement of Bill Armstrong, who led it from 1982 to 2002 and did more than anyone to make it the powerhouse it remains today. (Although, as he would be the first to acknowledge, certainly with a great deal of support along the way from many others whose positive roles – particularly when the organization was close to meltdown in the late 1970s – are described in this book, including the late Chris Fogarty, Frank Engel and Jeannine Paton; Hugh O’Neill, happily still with us and here this evening; and Elizabeth Britten).

As to the clarity of the organization’s mission and the extent to which it meets a felt need, the core role of OSB/AVI has always been, in the words of the 1991 Future Directions manifesto, “to provide opportunities for individual Australians to live alongside people in developing countries and work in partnership with them in order to foster cross-cultural relationships and international understanding [and] assist in the development of their own and other communities”.

Over time there has been a gradual change of emphasis in the way this core mission has been interpreted, away from the focus of the founders, going back to the earliest VSG days, on providing a formative, Asia-sensitising experience for young Australians (so much so that OSB’s first director, Jim Webb, felt able to acknowledge, as Michael Kirby reminds us in his Foreword, that the value derived by Australian volunteers was usually much greater than the benefits derived by their hosts), to the overwhelming focus today on providing high-quality technical assistance, of a kind actively sought by developing country partners from qualified and experienced mature-age volunteers, skilled and knowledgeable across multiple trades, professions and disciplines.

That shift has been very much driven by successive Australian governments since they started seriously funding OSB in the mid-1990s, and in particular by AusAid and its predecessors, who have been much more comfortable with – and much more willing to support financially – something easily characterisable as part of our aid program, directly beneficial to other countries, rather than as providing an experiential benefit for young Australians.

That said, these differences of approach and emphasis should not be overstated. It has been recognized from the earliest days that the benefits from volunteering flow two ways, that as Peter Britton writes in his Introduction, “Bringing altruism and self-interest together is the genius of volunteer programs”. If the earlier generations of younger, less experienced volunteers had not been seen as contributing something of real value to the communities in which they worked as teachers, health workers, office support staff and the like, they would not have been invited, or invited back.

And, as made very clear in the many personal testimonies in other books and bulletins of later generations of volunteers, the great majority of whom have been mainly older and more experienced, volunteering for them – with all the significant financial sacrifice it has usually involved – more often than not has been a life-enhancing and life-changing personal experience. And of course it is the case that when such committed Australians are on the ground, working with local communities, cross-cultural understanding – and Australia’s reputation – cannot help but benefit.

I might add in this context that, as absurd and indefensible as it often is to generalise about national characteristics, I have always thought that there is something in the national psyche which does make Australians, for the most part, great national ambassadors – great examples of soft power, if you like – when they find themselves in culturally unfamiliar situations.

I have described elsewhere how often, in how many different environments, I have seen or heard of Australian humanitarian disaster relief teams distinguishing themselves from so many others – and being so often recognized for doing so – for just plunging in, rolling up their sleeves and getting on with the job, however demanding, difficult or dirty, if that job cried out to be done. Cutting through in the process whatever bureaucratic or procedural obstacles that were piled in the way. And doing so in a way that endeared them, if not always to the officials, certainly to the locals they were there to help.

The same goes for Australian peacekeepers, who I found as Foreign Minister and leading the International Crisis Group were the toast of just about every local community in which they have ever served, and win us the plaudits of professionals around the world. There just does seem to be something instinctively egalitarian about Australians, whatever their background, education or life experience: an absolute willingness to take others as they find them, neither sucking up nor kicking down; responding to the way others behave, not the way they look, or dress or talk, and whatever their station in life. Of course there will always be exceptions, but don’t think very many AVI volunteers have been among them.

The OSB/AVI mission has never been solely confined to managing volunteer programs. As articulated in Bill Armstrong’s 1991 Future Directions manifesto, there was a commitment also to providing recruitment, training and briefing services to other organizations; to developing and delivering particular on-the-ground development projects; and to community education – in particular increasing public awareness of aid, development and cross-cultural issues. And at least the first two of these additional roles continue to be played today, albeit on a very modest scale as compared to the volunteers program, although community education, and engaging in policy debate as part of that, seems to have dropped by the wayside.

I for one, as Foreign Minister from 1988-96, saw all these subsidiary objectives as complementary to, and not in any way inhibiting either the clarity or effectiveness of the primary mission, and I hope I demonstrated that – together with Gordon Bilney when he joined me as Minister for Development Cooperation – when we increased OSB’s Commonwealth funding during the course of my term from under $2 million to over $10 million per annum.

I think it's fair to say that Labor governments – not least the ones in which I served– were much more relaxed about NGOs generally, and OSB in particular, engaging in policy debate than our conservative successors, even when Bill Armstrong, wearing both his OSB and Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA) hats, was giving me, and us, a hard time not only on aid policy generally, but issues like human rights in East Timor. To me at least, robust debate came with the territory, and Bill was always one of the most robust – and effective – in the business.

There is, by contrast, a manifest reluctance by AVI today – completely shared by a great many other organizations highly dependent on government funding – to engage in the kind of policy debate that was routine in my time, and most of Bill Armstrong’s (until he ran into my successor Alexander Downer: Peter Britton has a splendid account of their post-Budget contretemps on p.151). I can’t help commenting that I think this is a matter of real regret, and I hope this wheel turns again soon. On the particular issue of aid funding I do think the whole sector could and should have been a lot more aggressive than it has been in contesting the unbelievably savage slashing of our forward aid commitments by the present government, now at their lowest level (at 0.22 per cent of GNI) since our development assistance began, and heading for a disgraceful 0.19 per cent.

Since the early 1980s there has been no question that OSB/AVI has been anything other than consummately professional, outstandingly effective at doing what it does: plenty of good examples from the 1980s and ‘90s are given in the concluding part of the book, on programs in Indochina, Africa, Indonesia, PNG and the Pacific Islands, and East Timor.

But if it is to completely satisfy my remaining criterion for a successful NGO – that it be manifestly independent of any vested interest, including the governments on which it is financially reliant – there is perhaps a little distance to go in demonstrating persuasively that it really is a non-governmental organization, and not just a very professional service provider.

I don’t underestimate for a moment the enormous difficulty -- clearly faced not just by AVI, but by all the humanitarian organizations working in this space – of treading a genuinely independent path when an organization is so enormously dependent on a single government funder. There are only so many risks that an organization can prudentially take. The real need for governments to be as relaxed as we hopefully were in the early to mid-90s about robust political debate, including sharp policy criticism from time to time. I hope my current Labor colleagues are listening, and will be on their case if they are not!

Peter Britton has done us all a great service by describing in the meticulous detail he does, before early records are lost and memories fade, AVI’s history up to 2002: all the recurring arguments about principle and direction; all the sometimes faltering steps to turn dream into reality; all the sometimes distressing personality and ideological clashes that made the organisation – after a great early start, and before it was rescued by Bill Armstrong and his colleagues – so unhappily dysfunctional in the 1970s; and all the underlying integrity and commitment of those who laid the foundations for AVI becoming the success story it manifestly is today.

As a volunteer himself in Indonesia in the early 1980s, then as an enormously valued and influential staff member of OSB/AVI for an extraordinary 32 years, from 1984 to 2016, no one could have been better placed to tell this story. We are indebted to Peter and all those who assisted him, to Michael Kirby for his excellent Foreword, and to Australian Scholarly Publishing, for producing this very attractively presented slice of significant Australian history, which I am delighted to now declare duly launched.