Sunday, May 16, 2010

Why VSO and why Vietnam?

VSO (volunteer services overseas) is an international, non-governmental organisation which works to help some of the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged people by sending skilled professional volunteers (yep! thats me, haha...!) to share their knowledge and experience with local people who are trying to initiate change and development. I’m really proud to be working with/through them. They really try to make a sustainable difference, with volunteers aiming to empower local people, not do the work for them. This approach avoids creating a dependency on overseas help, encourages communities to take responsibility for change, and allows local employment. Placements are long (1-2 years), meaning we can learn the language and really get to know the context in which we’re working. We’re not paid ex-pat wages (although we’re paid a living allowance), and we live in the communities we’re working with. We work as a part of a strategic network, with volunteers working at governmental, organisational and grassroots levels in each country.

With Vietnam soon to be classified as a ‘middle-income country’, there is discussion in the development community about whether organisations, volunteers and aid are still needed here. In my case, working in healthcare (disability), I would argue that effective medical and education systems/methods/techniques can only develop with investigation, analysis and research. Which can only happen when people have the opportunity, time and money. Which naturally follow behind the initial economic and infrastructure development. So... whilst there ARE more decent roads, and schools and hospitals being built here, the skills and knowledge of the people working in them are significantly behind those in the more developed world. (Obviously I’m talking about 'Western' not 'Eastern' medicine, which I think is valuable and they certainly know more about than we do!)

My placement has been set up as part of project funded by an American Veterans organisation to address the alleged ongoing effects of the use of the herbicide Agent Orange (amongst others) during the American/Vietnam war. Due to a lack of concrete data I can’t comment on whether or not these herbicides (and in particular the dioxins which contaminated them) have led to a prevalence of child disability in this area compared to elsewhere in Vietnam, or the world. But this province was very heavily sprayed, and there are a lot of children with complex disabilities here. (Protracted and messy moral and legal battles continue between Vietnam and American chemical companies. There is plenty of information online, including an interesting US congress report at

I’ll explain more about my particular job in the next blog.

Sorry, these are a bit dry... but it’s not all noodles, beaches and karaoke...

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