VSO: Sharing their skills to help change our lives History This Week
By Cecilia Mc Almount
Stabroek News
March 15, 2007

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In 1999, a decade after the introduction of the Economic Recovery Programme (ERP) created a more facilitating environment for the operation of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO), I wrote a series of articles highlighting the work of national and international NGOs. Since then several of the international NGOs and many of the national NGOs that had mushroomed mainly because of the availability of funding have ceased operation while others responding especially to the crises in the health and education sectors have burgeoned. The Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) was among the first in series of articles. It had recommenced operation in Guyana in 1989 after a thirteen-year lapse and by 1999 had implemented two five-year programmes. In this article, the work of VSO in Guyana will once again be highlighted.


Voluntary Service Overseas is a United Kingdom-based charity with over forty years of experience in international volunteering. By 2001, it was working in forty countries with some 2,000 volunteers serving overseas at any one time and 30,000 returned volunteers in all walks of life in many countries of the world. Originally, it recruited its volunteers from the developed countries of the United Kingdom, Canada and the Netherlands but within recent years has been able to tap the surfeit of professionals available in some developing nations and now also recruits from Kenya, Uganda, India and the Philippines.

A dynamic organization, its contribution and focus has evolved in consonance with the changing development environment and since the mid 1990's has set out its vision in a series of strategic plans. The first, focused on Investing in people while the second concentrated on Increasing the Impact. Its goal was that by 2003 VSO would place a stronger focus on working with disadvantaged people and would be well equipped "to respond flexibly to changing circumstance and opportunities". Its success is reflected in its receipt in 2004 of the International Development Charity of the year award. Its most recent strategic plan Focus for Change sets out the six development goals through which it hopes to help fight global poverty and disadvantage. Those goals - Education, HIV and AIDS, Disability, Health and Social Well Being, Secure Livelihoods and Participation and Governance reflect the intent of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which are described as "A compact among nations to help end human poverty." VSO goals provide the framework within which individual countries prioritise those that are most relevant to local needs and are used to create individual strategic plans.


The changing nature and scope of VSO Guyana's programme reflect the dynamism and commitment to change of the international organization. In the period 1989 - 2003 VSO Guyana's Programme evolved from a mere gap filling exercise to one where its volunteers were actively involved in training and capacity building of its partners primarily in the public and NGO sectors in the area of Education and Disability. During the period, it provided about three hundred volunteers, one hundred and eighty one or 61% of whom served in the Education sector. It has evaluated its achievement as follows: "the over 400 volunteers' years the VSO contributed to education in Guyana revealed that, classroom delivery did not improve the long term quality of teaching, did not reduce migration of trained teachers, was appreciated by the MOE but did not contribute to improvements in their plans." However, as this writer observed in 1999, "for the first time in many years, prominent senior secondary and several junior secondary schools had enough qualified Maths and Science teachers to prepare students for CXC and GCE 'O' and 'A' Levels with significant successes, while for the first time two interior schools required teacher trainers. Not only students benefited but untrained and under qualified teachers were upgraded so that they could be admitted to CPCE for further training."

The current Education Programme Area Plan 2005-2009 aims "to tackle disadvantage in the education system through working at the higher levels of education policy and curricula design, the intermediate level of education management development and the grassroots level civil society support and empowerment for education development". In keeping with the MDG goal of ensuring that by 2015 all children everywhere will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling, the focus will be on children in the rural and hinterland areas, specifically the training of nursery and primary teachers in four hinterland regions to deliver quality education and to improve the regional education management system so that it could effectively manage and monitor Special Education Needs (SEN), Early Childhood Education (ECE) and Distance Education (DE) through placing volunteers with CPCE, NCERD and the innovative Education For All Fast Track Initiative placing volunteers with CPCE, NCERD and the innovative Education For All Fast Track Initiative, VSO Guyana also hopes to support the development of "an enabling and motivating environment for teachers."

One of the most valuable aspects of VSO's Inclusive Education is the crosscutting and overlapping with its focus on Disability, especially in the area SEN. From the inception, VSO has contributed to the health sector but in keeping with its evolving focus has shifted to working with disability. Far more than in Education this intervention allows VSO to work with partners in Civil Society and to empower people especially the most disadvantaged - the disabled and women. VSO has assessed its impact on disability in Guyana over the past seven years as "addressing immediate needs and less strategic in natureā€¦In many cases, new volunteers have replaced previous ones, sometimes with slight, if any, adjustments made in the job description. If not replaced, the same gap was often left behind the one that prompted the original placement. Thus many placements have had an impact on individual lives but missed out on the opportunity to have along term impact in the sector as such after the volunteer would leave."

Consequently, in its current Disability Programme Area Plan, it has narrowed and focused the relationship with its partners most of whom it had been working with over the past decade - the Division of Rehabilitation Services, the Guyana Community Based Rehabilitation Programme, the Ministry of Health and recently established NGOs like Eye Care Guyana and the Guyana Association for the Visually Impaired. Its aim is to complement what it described as a medical approach to disability with a social rights- based approach. Several recommendations were made as a result of a Stakeholder Consultation Workshop and Field Research project in 2004. Among others, they recommended building well established relationships and new partnerships with government ministries, civil and disability organizations, push for integration of SEN into the regular school system, facilitate key stakeholders to network and collaborate, and lobby for legislation to be passed in Parliament. Legislation on disability is currently under consideration. A mid term review of the PAPS will take place by mid year. In addition to those two areas, VSO Guyana is currently piloting a programme on "Strengthening National and Local Volunteering" and will decide by September whether it would become a third area of intervention. Consideration is also being given to the implementation of a "Secure Livelihoods Programme" in Guyana. The focus is to be on agriculture supporting the most marginalized and vulnerable groups that have been left out of the development process specifically the Amerindians and small farmers on the coastland. Support will be given to enhance their capacity to produce more food and so decrease their vulnerability. A study is being conducted to decide on the nature of the support to be provided.


Between September 1998 and October 2007, 65 volunteers will have been posted to Guyana in organizations associated within its areas of focus. For the period 2003 - 2007 there will be 12 volunteers in Education, 6 in Disability, 7 in Secure Livelihoods/Natural Resources. It is envisaged that for the period of the current PAPS thirty one volunteers would be posted to Guyana. For this year about 18 volunteers are expected as replacements or new placements. Despite its attempt at diversification, Region 4 continues to receive significantly larger numbers of volunteers as compared to elsewhere perhaps because especially in the case of disability the very limited services tend to be clustered in and around the urban centres as are NGOs, CBOs, etc with the human resources to have effective partnerships with VSO. Herein lies one of the contradictions and weaknesses of the programme.

This continues to be one of the challenges facing the programme: A second major challenge is funding. Many of the NGOs that managed to provide the human resources find it difficult to secure funding and VSO is partially or fully funding several of the volunteers attached to these organizations.

VSO in Guyana has planned its work and for the most part has worked its plan and there is ample evidence to show that over the last eighteen years it has selflessly shared its skills, the question is, have we provided the resources so that they could really change our lives?