Every year VSO recruits and sends several thousand volunteers to work in countries economically less developed than Western nations. This has arisen for a variety of historical reasons, largely to do with the exploitation of people and resources during the colonial era.
I am nearly half-way through my VSO posting with the Malaysian education department, and something I have suspected for some time has become very clear: "volunteering" is in fact another name for cheap wage slavery. In a social system where men and women are forced to sell their labour power in order to gain access to goods and services, VSO is able to provide the less successful capitalist nations with highly skilled workers from the West at a low price — they call it “low cost technological assistance". The word "volunteer" misleadingly suggests that we work for nothing. In fact, we are paid a wage which is supposed to be roughly equivalent to what a local worker with similar qualifications, doing a similar job. would receive. How this works in practice varies from country to country. The wage is paid by the employer in the country to which we are posted, although VSO does negotiate our salary, terms and conditions.
Most volunteers here earn a good deal less than Malaysian colleagues with similar qualifications. Furthermore, those of us working in East Malaysia, a very expensive part of South East Asia, with a shortage of qualified workers, find ourselves alongside teachers, doctors and engineers from other parts of the country who receive large allowances to encourage them to come and work here. Many of us have also found that our terms and conditions of work are far from clear. Only some volunteers know exactly what their working hours are, what sickness benefits they are entitled to and how much leave they can take. The only written agreement VSO have with the Malaysian Economic Planning Unit, which approves and administers postings. concerns pay. Yet like our unfortunate local colleagues we are expected, for instance, to apply for leave in triplicate months in advance and clock in and out punctually. Because we are foreign workers our behaviour is carefully noted and any signs of "irresponsibility" or disrespect can be held against us.
And so we are encouraged to believe that "development" is about redressing social, economic and technological inequalities in the world and, where VSO is concerned, particularly at the grass roots level. In other words, it is about using our skills and expertise to help some of the world’s poorest workers achieve greater self-reliance. The VSO logo states that “VSO sends men and women overseas to share their skills with the people of the third world" and one of the VSO objectives is that ‘‘Emphasis should be given to work which benefits poor and disadvantaged people and to enhancing the status of women" (VSO Volunteers Handbook). It is claimed that by volunteering we are doing more than just sharing our skills; we are also helping to undo some of the racist myths and stereotypes about people from Africa and Asia, to repair some of the economic damage inflicted on them during the colonial period. We are, according to VSO, helping to promote greater understanding between workers in different parts of the world and educating the people in Britain about the causes of third world poverty and inequality
In fact, this is all a VSO confidence trick. These vague, idealistic visions of development obscure the fact that organisations like VSO, along with the governments of countries who request volunteers, are firmly committed to capitalism — the kind of economic Development which will not bring about a world in which everyone has equal access to resources and technology and where there is mutual co-operation between people. The governments of third world countries are committed to perpetuating and developing a system where most of the world's wealth is owned and controlled by a minority. Its driving force is profit and even basic human needs will not be met unless it pays.
Organisations like VSO are committed to try and reform the system in order to bring about a more equal distribution of the world s wealth, but their effect is to improve the prospects of a rising capitalist class in the world scramble for profits. They also promote cultural and technological institutions which accompany the development of capitalism. In Malaysia, for example, VSO has provided a large number of volunteers to work in government social service departments, in the belief that this will help to bring about some improvement in the lives of Malaysia’s poorest — the mentally ill, handicapped, schoolchildren. What is overlooked is that workers only have access to social, welfare and health provisions for as long as it is profitable or in the interests of the owning class. For instance, although many diseases could be prevented by providing communities with safe drinking water, children still die because it is not profitable to do so. In Singapore, a rapidly developing capitalist state, workers are noticeably healthier than those in the neighbouring countries of Malaysia and Indonesia. Singapore water can be drunk straight from the tap and need not be boiled before drinking; there is no malaria and the medical facilities are probably better than in many Western countries. But then, as Singapore is extremely short of labour, it cannot afford to have a sickly workforce.
Capitalism, then, only provides workers with what is profitable: children who do not have a nourishing diet are still able to buy Coca Cola! They may lack adequate hospital facilities but are taught how to operate a submachine gun. Low paid volunteers are recruited from the West to develop a country’s health services, while millions are spent on arms and foreign experts to train the military in their use.
Another aspect of development is the emergence of an increasingly sophisticated education system. A developing nation needs workers whose minds are trained in new ways, and VSO provides many teachers for schools and training programmes. We do not usually teach young workers skills to enable them to articulate grievances and improve conditions, although this may sometimes be a side effect.
The process of urbanisation, the breakdown of communities into family units and the increasingly alienated lives of working men and women are all part of the development of an industrial capitalist nation. Mental illness, drug abuse, crime and child-battering become increasingly regular features of daily life and expertise is needed to deal with these problems. A VSO staff member suggested that the level of development attained by a country could be measured by the kind of volunteer workers it requests. A less developed country would ask for agricultural experts and primary health care workers; a more developed country like Malaysia will request social workers, mental health workers, probation officers and teachers. This is an interesting indication of what VSO understands by development. It certainly does not seem to be something in the interests of the people at grass root level.
But at least we do not suffer high-flown statements about promoting international understanding and racial harmony! It is made quite clear that we are here to assist Malaysia's social and economic development by filling gaps in expertise, until such time as qualified Malaysian workers take over. There are constant reminders from the VSO and the Economic Planning Unit that we must be sensitive to, and accept, the Malaysian way of doing things. This means that we should not question the racially divisive policies pursued by the Malaysian government, to keep workers separate and subjugated. If we are seen to be taking too close an interest in politics we will be deported very quickly. VSO, despite all that is said in their literature, is working closely with a government which locks up workers who attempt to take industrial action to better their lot.
At best, VSO volunteers are foreign workers filling expertise gaps at the same rate of pay as local workers. This can be a rewarding and educational experience for both the volunteers and the local people with whom they work. At worst, volunteers are directly supporting the anti-working class policies of oppressive governments Occasionally, volunteers are recruited for posts when qualified and experienced Malaysian workers are available but rejected because of their ethnic origins. This, of course, is in direct contradiction to the VSO's declared anti-racist position. . .
As volunteers we are learning another lesson in exploitation — our own and that of follow workers in other parts of the world. We are not putting an end to exploitation by promoting the development of a global community based on co-operation. That will only come about when a majority of politically conscious workers across the world challenge minority ownership and control resources. Socialists work to that end; we cannot leave it to organisations like VSO, who are in the "development business" merely to promote and perpetuate the profit system.
Understandably, because of the critical nature of the article, this article was signed off as the anonymous 'K'. I understand that 'K'. was the SPGB Bristol Branch member, George Marcelo. He wrote further articles in the Socialist Standard whilst based in South-East Asia which have yet to appear on the blog. They will do eventually.
Also worthy of note, another member of the Bristol Branch of the SPGB during the same period, Naomi Roberts, also undertook VSO work and wrote about her experiences in Ghana in the pages of the Socialist Standard: