International volunteers are diverse.
The communities and organisations these volunteers serve are diverse.
However the Australian government, through AusAID, has recently ended its Volunteer Fund, the only instrument to encourage diverse approaches to volunteering for development.
The reason for this decision, was a desire to market Australian aid volunteers with a single brand, AVID, so that the Australian government would receive goodwill.
The decision had nothing to do with effectiveness, with volunteers under the agencies supported by the PVF at least as effective as those under AVID.
It had nothing to do with cost, with Palms Australia volunteers costing less than half as much as AVID volunteers.
It had nothing to do with what our aid partners want, with many preferring to work in the relationships they have built with small organisations which share their philosophy or approach to development.
It has nothing to do with what volunteers want, as like partners they have diverse needs not realised by a single monolithic program.
It doesn’t even achieve the goal of increased goodwill towards Australian aid in the way that recognising the diversity of partners and the flexibility of smaller agencies would.
For a lower cost AusAID could re-instate the volunteer fund and demonstrate that its priority is aid which delivers the best bang for Australian taxpayers’ bucks.
The PVF was initiated in recognition of the fact that volunteers and host organisations are diverse and are not well served by a homogenised program.
Rather than meeting its goal of streamlining processes for greater efficiency, the focus on maintaining a single “AVID brand” has significantly increased the cost to AusAID per volunteer without significant improvements in program effectiveness or volunteer support.
By contrast, agencies such as Palms Australia, bring over 50 years experience and significant networks, to place long-term volunteers at less than half AVID’s cost.
On the ground, host organisations do not care about branding. They see Australians as Australians, regardless of their AVID branded baseball cap. They find the proof in the pudding.
They do, however, respond well to being treated as diverse individuals rather than a single stereotyped “aid recipient”. Some may prefer the AVID model, but many organisations which host volunteers seek the flexibility and tailored support provided by smaller groups. AusAID would do well to recognise that this is what generates goodwill.
The volunteers sent through the PVF served in humility and were terrific ambassadors for Australia’s aid contributions in the countries they served.
It appears the branding imperative is driven by a desire for goodwill towards the Australian government. If you want goodwill from people of other countries, a good starting point would be listening to their voices and respecting their diversity.