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
About to go:
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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:
“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
“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.”
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
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
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
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.