A different world…

    Low pay, poor morale, too much work, not enough face-to-face
    contact with clients… the oft repeated complaints about social
    work in the UK can leave some staff wondering whether a fresh
    perspective might not be in order. Perhaps a trip to work in
    countries where a formal social care infrastructure does not yet
    exist might help professionals put their feelings about
    difficulties here into some context.

    VSO is the world’s largest independent development agency to use
    volunteers. Since 1985 the organisation (which used to be known as
    Voluntary Service Overseas) has sent more than 29,000 volunteers to
    work in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Pacific region and eastern
    Europe to fight ill-health, poverty and social exclusion.

    VSO focuses on sustainable development rather than the short-term
    relief of problems. Social workers play an important part in
    achieving this aim. Their role is to increase the effectiveness of
    social welfare provision in developing countries and improve
    services to disadvantaged people. To do this, VSO works with local
    government, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and community
    groups to identify how a VSO volunteer could help.

    Here, we talk to four VSO social work volunteers about their
    experiences.

    About to go:
    Eva Jackson
    At 63, many women would be thinking about retiring, if they had not
    already done so. Not so Eva Jackson, who says: “Oh, blow it, I
    can’t retire.”

    As if to prove the point, she is off to Kazakhstan in central Asia
    with VSO in September. The two-year trip to the ninth biggest
    country in the world will involve setting up fostering services for
    local children and families. Part of the brief will be to teach
    life skills to adolescents who have been in residential care.

    But this is by no means Jackson’s first volunteering trip. A
    qualified social worker, she started her career in residential
    social work before moving into psychiatric social work and then to
    child protection until she was forced to retire on medical grounds
    in the late 1980s because of a back injury.

    After recovering, she saw an advertisement in Community Care for
    volunteers to work for VSO’s Eastern European Partnership (EEP).
    She applied to go to Romania where she worked with orphans as well
    as on a fostering pilot scheme.

    After returning home, she was soon off again, this time to Poland
    with an independent NGO working in a camp for Bosnian refugees.
    Albania followed, again with EEP, this time working with
    ex-political prisoners. After that came Bosnia, again with an NGO,
    working with women and children, and then Russia with EEP, training
    staff at the first child protection facility, the Ozon
    Centre.

    Each trip was interspersed with periods of returning to the UK and
    working for a social work agency. After Russia you might have
    thought Jackson had had enough of being away from home comforts.
    Instead she took a year out to travel in India, Cambodia and
    Indonesia.

    Jackson’s travel bug started young – she was only 17 when she left
    her native Switzerland for England as an au pair. “I don’t get
    homesick. I find it difficult coming back. Not because I don’t like
    it here, I do, but I enjoy other cultures.

    “It’s a different way of looking at things. You learn from other
    cultures as well as hopefully them learning from what I have to
    offer. And it gives you a global overview of what’s
    happening.”

    She admires VSO’s principles such as paying volunteers a local wage
    so they gain an insight into what it means to live in that country.
    “And I like the ethical principles VSO has about sustainability,
    co-operating with other people and its humanitarian
    attitude.”

    As a volunteer, what you have to remember, she says, is: “If you
    can achieve tiny amounts it’s a lot. You can’t expect you are going
    to change the world.”

    Back from Bosnia:
    Rachel Curtis
    Rachel Curtis was in her forties when she decided it was time to
    live and work abroad before she was too old. She took unpaid leave
    from Bradford social services department, where she had been since
    1988, and went to Trebinje in Bosnia-Herzegovina in March
    2002.

    She was the first social worker from VSO to go to Bosnia and worked
    at the Centre for Social Work where she advised the director on
    work carried out by all departments. First, she helped staff put
    organisational systems into place. “They didn’t have meetings.
    There’d be lots of discussions between two people who would put
    what they’d discussed into practice, but then they didn’t
    understand why no one else went along with them.

    “You couldn’t plan anything in advance because it’s not that kind
    of culture. You can tell someone you are going to do something
    tomorrow, but if you talk about next week, they say ‘we don’t know
    what we are doing next week’.”

    Her workload varied from setting up fostering projects and
    establishing a day centre for people with learning difficulties to
    training, developing volunteering and working on case records,
    planning and reviews. Some of the differences between practice
    there and in the UK surprised her.

    “They combine social support and social work, so deal with people’s
    money, which isn’t my understanding of social work. And in the UK
    we work to a legal framework, but there the legal system is very
    simple and lots of issues aren’t covered – for example, child
    protection.”

    Institutional care for children is the norm as fostering has only
    recently been considered. And care of older people falls to their
    children – even if they fled during the civil war. “Usually their
    children send money which is used to pay for their care,” says
    Curtis.

    The impact of the war is everywhere in Trebinje: from an increase
    in people with disabilities and mental health problems, to the fact
    that professionals in this once affluent country can no longer
    afford to buy a car or house. Largely a Serb town, it is not far
    from Dubrovnik in Croatia, to which Curtis often cycled, passing
    mine signs and bombed-out houses.

    But with its boutiques, restaurants and tourists, Dubrovnik seemed
    a million miles away, she says. “There are yachts in the harbour.
    It’s such a contrast with Trebinje. I was paid a local wage of
    £200 a month and I couldn’t afford the price of a coffee in
    Dubrovnik too often.”

    There used to be about 12 buses a day between Trebinje and
    Dubrovnik, now there is only one because of remaining tensions in
    the area. “What people have been through is still very raw,” says
    Curtis.

    She has now been back six months. She says: “It made me realise
    that I didn’t want to live abroad. It was bloody hard, not just the
    work, but being isolated. But in the end it was worth it.”

    Life in Bulgaria:
    Claire Cooper
    “In the first eight days I clocked up such a huge phone bill that I
    got a call from the phone company saying I would have to pay it
    immediately or they’d cut me off. They’d never had such a huge
    bill,” says Claire Cooper, illustrating how much she missed family
    and friends when she arrived in Bulgaria this February.

    Cooper, a qualified social worker for 15 years, is the first black
    VSO social worker to go to Bulgaria. With experience in fostering
    and adoption, as well as being a foster carer and having an adopted
    daughter, she was a perfect choice to help set up fostering
    services from scratch. Fostering is a new concept to Bulgarian
    social workers as most children who cannot be cared for at home are
    placed in institutions. Child protection teams have only recently
    been created and they will be responsible for establishing
    fostering services – “so they’ll be wearing both hats, like we did
    when we had generic social work teams”, says Cooper.

    She is based in Veliko Tarnovo, a town of 65,000 inhabitants, and
    is tasked with training its social workers, psychologists, senior
    police, lawyers, directors and the 12 commission members who
    approve, review and deregister foster carers. She has also trained
    40 staff in preparation for establishing fostering services in the
    region.

    “I’m up against the usual problems, lots of people with anxieties,
    and some who don’t see what’s wrong with institutions.”

    Her training technique has obviously been successful, though, as
    she has been given permission from the state agency to undertake
    training at a national level.

    What she had not been prepared for was how much she stands out.
    Apart from the Roma community, which is marginalised, Bulgaria is a
    predominantly white country and Cooper has had to get used to being
    stared at. The positive side to this is that it has helped her to
    be recognised. She has found the Bulgarians welcoming, and her
    effort to learn the language has won her local friends.

    Although Bulgaria is opening up as a popular cheap holiday
    destination, tourists often do not see the other side to the
    country. “The roads are badly maintained, houses are left to go to
    ruin, people still farm the land with donkey and cart, and hoe by
    hand. It’s a poor country,” she says.

    Surprisingly to some, she chose this placement over one in the
    Maldives. “It was partly the distance – I wanted my husband to be
    able to visit me. And also, I wasn’t confident about travelling
    between islands in a kayak and being stranded.”

    Malawi task:
    Debbie Livingstone
    About 70,000 children in Malawi are HIV positive and as many as one
    million are orphans. Debbie Livingstone left Scotland, where she
    had been working as a development manager for voluntary
    organisation Business Community Connections in Craegmillar, in
    February 2001.

    Her VSO placement to Malawi, the 11th poorest country in the world
    was sponsored by Unicef. She worked for two projects: Support for
    Orphans and Family Affected by HIV/Aids and Community Child Care.
    Both projects were taken into every one of Malawi’s 28
    districts.

    Livingstone worked in the Blantyre district which alone has 30,000
    registered orphans. It is the biggest town, with half a million
    people in townships. People live in mudbrick and grass roof huts,
    though some have tin roofs. In urban areas there is more access to
    essentials such as food, but some townships are violent and many
    are congested with no sanitation.

    Food can be limited and Livingstone got used to sharing a meal of
    nsima, the staple food made with maize flour and water cooked into
    a thick porridge. Fairly tasteless on its own, it is eaten with
    chicken or beef, if it can be afforded, or beans and tomatoes by
    the poorer population.

    She helped set up area task forces to go into the community to
    advise people on orphan care, home-based care for those who are
    sick, and exclusive breastfeeding. The latter prevents the spread
    of HIV by feeding the child breast milk only as anything else can
    irritate the stomach lining, allowing the virus to be passed
    on.

    In 2002, there was a 150 per cent increase in the number of street
    children, putting them at risk of abuse, crime, drugs and HIV. So
    trying to keep them with their extended family is a priority, hence
    the importance of teaching home-based care, says Livingstone.

    After finishing her placement in February 2003, Unicef offered
    Livingstone a job at the organisation’s head office in Malawi
    working nationally on the Support for Orphans project.

    This made fitting in socially even more important. Although English
    is spoken, she has learned the local language, Chichewa. “Malawi is
    a great place to live and work. There’s a lot you can do if you
    have the resources, so I wanted to stay and do more.”

    – For more information go to VSO’s website on www.vso.org.uk or call its inquiry
    line on 020 8780 7500.

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