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International volunteering is no longer just for the rich

Last year it was reported in the national media that, early in her career, Education Secretary Justine Greening had been turned down for a job in finance after leaving university because she hadn’t taken a gap year and as such didn’t have enough ‘world experience’. She recalled that she was “too embarrassed to admit that I simply couldn’t afford one”.

In the UK the phenomenon of taking time out, to travel or experience life outside of the classroom or existing workplace, is so heavily associated with privilege that the term ‘gap yah’ was coined to mock it.

But gaining new experience, building new skills, broadening one’s understanding of the world and our individual and collective responsibility to help make it a better place are important skills for young people everywhere, from whatever background they come.

VSO ICS volunteers Senara Anstey and Harry Wilson in Nepal
VSO ICS volunteers Senara Anstey and Harry Wilson in Nepal

'Before ICS I'd never left Europe'

Before Senara applied to volunteer through International Citizen Service (ICS), the UK Government funded programme that VSO leads, she was working in a school as an apprentice teaching assistant. When her apprenticeship ended and the school couldn’t find her a job, she considered international volunteering.

Having travelled little in the past, Senara, who’s from Cornwall, wasn’t immediately sure that ICS was for her.

“Coming from a working class background, I had only been abroad three times and had never travelled outside of Europe. Even the thought of going up to London, by myself, on the train terrified me! That’s why I took the chance to go to the pre-assessment workshop.”

Senara attended one of our especially designed workshops that seek to help young people from less privileged backgrounds feel confident and prepared for their ICS selection days, which all our volunteers attend.

A volunteer teaches Kenyan Sign Language to learners in school.
© Jeffrey DeKock / ICS
A volunteer teaches Kenyan Sign Language to learners in school.

'Even before ICS, I'd changed'

The workshop was part of the International Volunteering Opportunities for All (IVO4all) project, through which VSO is working with government agencies and organisations across Europe, to make international volunteering opportunities more accessible for young people who wouldn’t normally have that opportunity.

At VSO we think long and hard about how we reach out to young people and how we support them before they travel overseas. This means we can reach a more diverse group of young people and remove the barriers they face to participation. As part of IVO4all, we’ve made further changes to how we work in order to broaden our reach.

Right now, Senara is in Nepal, working on a project to improve education and sanitation for children in rural areas - and building her skills, experience and confidence.

“Before I even stepped foot in Nepal I had gotten over certain fears and anxieties, and had experienced things that would never have been possible if it weren’t for ICS.”

A volunteer teaches Kenyan Sign Language to learners in school.
© Jeffrey DeKock / ICS
A volunteer teaches Kenyan Sign Language to learners in school.

We're working to influence policy

In 2017 we’re working closely with our IVO4all partners to influence policy across Europe. The aim is to create a better environment for all young people to take part in international volunteering and in doing so, to make a bigger contribution to their own societies.

We’re also continuing to work with the UK Government, to further reduce the barriers facing young people from less affluent backgrounds taking part in ICS.

IVO4all is just one of the ways we’re working to make ICS accessible for as many young people as possible. We’re committed to ensuring that our young volunteers who travel overseas are a true reflection of the UK population.

This is further reinforced by diversity targets we monitor ourselves against - not just for socio-economic background, but gender, ethnicity, disability and geographically across the regions of the UK.

ICS Volunteers on Placement
© Jeffrey DeKock / ICS
Deafway ICS volunteer Levi Choutan teaching parents of deaf children Kenyan Sign Language in Nandi county, Kenya

Pairing different perspectives

Last year, for example, we worked with Deafway to send a group of Deaf British volunteers to Kenya, where they worked alongside young Deaf Kenyan counterparts to increase social, education and economic opportunities for Deaf Kenyans.

Through an ICS Access Fund, we provide extra funding to make adjustments for volunteers whose needs might not otherwise be met on placement. We also provide assistance to those experiencing considerable financial hardship that would prevent them for accessing the scheme.

We support young people from all over the UK, from diverse backgrounds, to share their experiences through the media, at meetings with MPs and ministers, and at global youth events.

We do this because we believe different people offer different skills and perspectives, and different solutions to problems. We believe that including people in this way also helps equip young people from across the UK to make a stronger contribution at home.

To make our projects, and the ICS programme as a whole, as impactful as possible, we need this diversity.

Volunteers at a Kenyan Sign Language session with parents in Kenya
© Jeffrey DeKock / ICS
Volunteers at a Kenyan Sign Language session with parents in Kenya.

We’re committed to the double benefit of ICS

The communities our volunteers work with benefit from their passion, insight and their ability to drive social change, and our volunteers benefit from the chance to learn about international development, the wider world and to hone much sought after skills that will help to set them up for life.

Nobody from a less privileged background should find themselves in the same situation as Ms Greening did. ICS applicants are judged on their suitability to take part and contribute to the projects they work on, not their ability to pay.

So we encourage all young adults aged 18-25, whatever their background, who want to build their capacity and confidence, and to give their time to make the world a better place, to consider applying.

Don’t limit yourself or the positive influence you can have in the world.

We won’t.

This post first appeared in the Huffington Post, October 6, 2017. 

Our commitment to inclusion

Find out more about how we select inclusive and diverse volunteers

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Funded by the UK Government.

ICS is funded by the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), which projects the UK as a force for good in the world, including reducing poverty and tackling global challenges.

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