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Working for the world: the evolution of Australian Volunteers International

Peter Britton Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne

If two approaches can be said to reflect many Australians’ approach to assisting others, they are probably volunteerism and working with communities. It was this approach which characterized Australia’s Volunteer Graduate Scheme (VGS), which from the early 1950s pioneered the idea of young graduates working in developing country settings with governments and local agencies and which spawned the US Peace Corps among others.    

Although operating through the 1950s, the VGS was formally established in 1962, later evolving into the Overseas Services Bureau and then Australian Volunteers International. By this time, it had become one of Australia’s most important – and most distinctive – aid organisations. It is tracing the trajectory of this evolution that is the subject of Peter Britton’s detailed book.  

Britton has drawn extensively on archives for his research but, as a former member of AVI’s leadership team for many years, he also has direct personal knowledge of its history, its origins and many of its committed and sometimes quite colorful characters. The major gap in AVI’s archives is over the period 1969 – ‘70s, which also reflects a period of uncertainty about the organisation’s direction and, indeed, its future.

For an organization that appears to many on the outside as a key fixture in Australia’s overseas aid landscape, at times its future – and the type of organization it would be – were uncertain. This, then, characterizes the wider structure of the book, which emphasises its formative years, the period in which it came close to losing its way and, under new leadership and a re-statement of its purpose, an examination of its expansion and the impact of its programs.

Starting as an organization that relied on reciprocal government support and a shoe-string domestic budget for a small number of volunteers, what was to become AVI increasingly became reliant upon, and enmeshed with, government funding priorities. It was through this, Britton tells readers through a highly detailed description of events, that AVI (or its predecessor) came close to being drawn into the government’s policy orbit.

This was a period when the organization was favorably regarded by government, which funded volunteers and some other costs, almost becoming an unofficial government service. It was at this time, too, that the organisation’s leadership helped pioneer the peak Australian NGO body, the Australian Council for Overseas Aid, with which it retained a close subsequent relationship.

Towards the end of its formative years, as the 1960s receded, the culture of the organisation’s shifted, with its leadership appearing more concerned with particular outcomes and, as such, becoming increasingly out of touch with its voluntary and community-oriented origins. This led to internal divisions, primarily between management and many of the volunteers themselves and, by the end of the 1980s, the organization was a pale version of its former self, having lost both direction and about half its volunteer numbers.

This problem was resolved by a government review and AVI, as it was to become, moving away from a degree of direct government involvement. This also meant that the organisation’s future was somewhat more negotiable. But it also meant a change in the leadership of the organization, back to one more attuned to its original vision of voluntarism and community engagement, if leavened with a dose of social justice.

The story concludes in 2002, perhaps fittingly as the decade to this point was perhaps AVI’s high water mark, in terms of the clarity of its purpose and mission, its effectiveness and its independence. The period of rebuilding AVI, and what might be thought of as its peak years, not just coincided with it being led by Bill Armstrong but were very much a product of his leadership. In this, as Britton demonstrates, Armstrong led a committed and very capable team.

The latter part of the book can be read as a series of case studies, with the Papua New Guinea section receiving fulsome treatment, as was its due. For this reviewer, the sections on Cambodia – and the ‘unoffocial Australian embassy’ – and particularly Indonesia and Timor-Leste are most interesting, for their overlap of the reviewer’s professional and personal interest.

Working in Indonesia under Suharto’s presidency was always a high-wire act, with one AVI worker being expelled. But AVI otherwise managed to be seen as ‘non-political’, while working hand-in-glove with that country’s civil society – the only viable form of internal ‘opposition’ to the regime.

It is perhaps little known that AVI also worked closely with the transition process in Timor-Leste, in supporting its leader Xanana Gusmao as well as with work on the ground after the 1999 ballot for independence in what were challenging circumstances.

Indeed, it was this section that implicitly highlighted that anyone who has had an interest in the countries in which AVI has worked has very likely either come across AVI people in those countries or been influenced by them or their activities. That certainly applied to this reviewer, in multi-faceted ways, in both Indonesia and Timor-Leste, particularly through AVI’s core principles of voluntarism and community engagement. In this respect, the culture that AVI created spread well beyond its own walls and immediate organization to become something of an ethos for many people with the barest or no effective knowledge of AVI itself.

After 2002, the tide of government sentiment turned away from NGOs generally and from AVI in particular, yet it has managed to regroup and move on in new partnerships and in a new and somewhat reduced NGO world. It is Britton’s book, however, that reminds us of its high points and its achievements, and the foundation that was laid for the future.

This book is also a testament to an approach to international engagement that even the most conservative and unlikely government has obliquely recognized, through the creation of community-based ‘friendship’ funds for regional engagement. A metaphorical stone of an idea was thrown into the international assistance pond in the early 1950s and, almost seven decades later, through the continuing work of AVI and a host of like-minded organisations, the ripples – sometimes waves – continue to spread.