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In 1957, Joan Minogue, freshly graduated from a teaching college in regional New South Wales, arrived in Semarang in Central Java. She was there for eighteen months, teaching English under Australia’s Volunteer Graduate Scheme. Far from her parents and eager to further the Volunteer Graduate Scheme mission of “identification” with Indonesians, Minogue met and fell in love with Hardjono, a Javanese man living in nearby Bandung. After a slow start complicated by religious differences, declarations were made and the couple decided to marry. Minogue reapplied for another term with the Volunteer Graduate Scheme, which was delighted to have her back, but her application was rejected following a routine security check by the Australian government’s Department of External Affairs. Upon application, the Minister, Richard Casey, explained that Minogue was rejected because “you had declared your intention of getting married on your return to Indonesia.”1 For the Australian government, volunteering to help Indonesia’s development was one thing, but forging an intimate relationship across boundaries of nation, culture and race was quite another.
Development volunteering demanded ordinary people leave the comforts of home to spend one, two or more years in previously unfamiliar reaches of the Global South. Why did tens of thousands of Australians, Britons and Americans respond to this call and why were they so enthusiastic about it? At the heart of this question lies a broader problem: how and why did private individuals seek to become involved in international political action? To closely engage with the motivations of volunteers, this chapter is based primarily on a cache of application questionnaires and correspondence from intending candidates for the Volunteer Graduate Scheme. Scattered across 112 boxes in the National Library of Australia, this collection includes virtually every application the scheme received from its establishment in 1950 to its final disbanding in 1969. The total number of applications is relatively small – in the hundreds rather than the tens of thousands received by the Peace Corps – but because of this, questionnaires were descriptive and provided space for volunteers to ruminate about their motivations, often at length.
Twenty-two-year-old Susan Richards, from Kettering in England’s east Midlands, applied to VSO in the winter of 1964. Newly qualified as a registered nurse, Richards had read about development volunteering in the Observer; it seemed an ideal way to nurture her interest in “the underdeveloped countries” while also working towards a career in international health.1 Richards arrived in Blantyre, Malawi, on September 6, 1964, two months after the nation declared independence from Britain. The British Council, acting as VSO’s “overseas arm,” had arranged for Richards to be posted to the government hospital, which was “desperate for nurses.” It seemed an ideal arrangement that would promote “goodwill between the people of Britain and the people of Malawi.”2
Australia’s Volunteer Graduate Scheme, Britain’s VSO and the United States Peace Corps were expansionist enterprises. Even when they were not sure of their own objectives, let alone effectiveness, each program was determined to expand across the globe. They sought to expand in two ways: by placing volunteers in more developing nations and by influencing other developed nations to establish programs in their image. It is surprising just how quickly the Volunteer Graduate Scheme, VSO and the Peace Corps began to explore, and then pursue, the goal of extending their spread and influence; indeed, each of these programs set down this path before they had a single volunteer on the ground. Initially, it took a good deal of effort to convince people of volunteers’ value. Even the Peace Corps did not have an easy time of it: entire wings of the agency were tasked with persuading developing nations to accept American volunteers and convincing other developed nations (and the United Nations) to start their own development volunteering programs.
In March 1961, a young Clint Eastwood wrote to President Kennedy to offer his services for the United States Peace Corps. Eastwood’s star was on the rise; the CBS series Rawhide, which brought him to fame, was already one of the highest-rating television programs in America. Eastwood did not know much about the Peace Corps, but he knew he wanted to be involved, so he offered to create “a volunteer entertainment group to supplement the work of the Peace Corps.”1 Eastwood’s letter provoked some discussion but he was ultimately turned down. Even in its infancy, the Peace Corps exuded a strong appeal, drawing in celebrities and suburbanites alike. Countless hours and millions of dollars were spent further publicizing and advertising the Peace Corps over coming years, bringing development volunteering, and international development more broadly, to wider prominence than ever before.
On a muggy morning in June 1951, the first volunteer with Australia’s Volunteer Graduate Scheme disembarked in Jakarta, capital of the recently proclaimed Republic of Indonesia. Twenty-one-year-old Herb Feith was the only passenger to come ashore that morning; the others had been scared off by rumors of riots, shootings and the indiscriminate slaughter of Europeans. They had stared incredulously when Feith told them of his intention to take up a volunteer placement in Indonesia’s civil service. They told him he was being reckless and overly idealistic; that he wouldn’t survive a week, let alone two years, amongst hostile “natives” and their unsanitary habits.1 Indonesians, too, were often apprehensive. Many came to suspect that Western volunteers had ulterior motives: to make a profit, or try to convert Indonesian Muslims to Christianity. Others simply shook their heads, unable to see the point of it all. Feith soon became accustomed to incredulity and suspicion, as did the volunteers who followed him to Indonesia.
Young and pretty with a blonde ponytail and a wide smile, Anita Fecht looked “like the public’s idea of a Peace Corps volunteer.” Until recently a college student and a member of the New Left, Fecht anticipated “the easiest and most natural identification” with Chilean students as she set off for Santiago in 1966. She was in for a rude shock. Far from offering friendship, “As a Peace Corps volunteer … the radical progressive students literally spit on me.” Following this experience and after working in community development, Fecht began to reassess her presence in Chile. Before long, she began attending the regular anti-Peace-Corps demonstrations taking place across Santiago – even though she was still a Peace Corps volunteer. This “of course made me feel very uncomfortable and very ambivalent about what I was doing in Chile.” Having arrived with good intentions, she now thought that “I should not have been in Chile, period.” Fecht returned to the United States radicalized.
Although volunteer agencies’ rhetoric emphasized international friendship, in reality volunteers often faced a wealth of conflicts in their daily lives. This chapter explores conflict at both interpersonal and international levels. Many volunteers faced suspicion and enmity in communities suffering the legacies of European colonialism and confronting American neoimperialism. Some host communities regarded volunteers as spies or government agents; others merely resented inexperienced foreigners claiming to hold the key to their development or who professed egalitarian ideals whilst living in relative luxury. In numerous cases, volunteers became entangled in broader conflicts between nations, blocs and ideologies, and in the divisions between East and West, First World and Third World. As a result, the day-to-day experience of numerous development volunteers was marked by tense encounters ranging from minor slights to violent conflict.
Support for development volunteering cut across the social fabric of mid-century Australia, Britain and the United States. This chapter takes an in-depth look at backers below the government level. Seeing beyond the state, it reveals the vast scope of civil society’s engagement with international development during the 1950s and 1960s. Support for the Volunteer Graduate Scheme, VSO and the Peace Corps cut across traditional social boundaries. Sponsors came from left and right, young and old; from the stalwarts of established society to progressive reformers. If development volunteering was an idea for all seasons, it was also one that appealed to many audiences.
In September 1964, eighteen-year-old Helen Rosenberg departed the English seaside town of Worthing to take up a volunteer posting in the township of Abeokuta, some fifty miles north of Lagos in Nigeria. Helen had joined Voluntary Service Overseas (commonly known by its abbreviation, VSO) immediately after high school; now she was to be Senior Science Teacher at Abeokuta Girls’ Grammar School. Helen’s acceptance into VSO had caused great excitement at home. Not only was volunteering abroad “obviously glamorous and exotic,” the London Daily Mail enthused, but “few … can fail to be inspired by what our young men and women are doing in all parts of the world.”1
The previous chapter tracked the overwhelmingly enthusiastic coverage enjoyed by development volunteers in the mass media of the Global North. But how were volunteers and their organizations regarded in recipient nations? This chapter charts the view from the other side by analyzing press reports from two pairs of volunteer-receiving nations: Indonesia and Malaysia, and Ghana and Nigeria, from the early 1950s until the mid-1960s. Both pairs of countries were geographical neighbors who underwent divergent political, economic and social trajectories during decolonization. Yet, there were marked similarities in media reports about development volunteering. In contrast to the mainstream media of the Global North, the press of many receiving nations was not in thrall to young volunteers. Rather, Western development intervention was often assessed through the critical lens of anti-colonialism. Where volunteers’ good intentions had drawn enthusiastic praise at home, people in countries with recent colonial histories were just as likely to regard Western volunteers with caution, if not outright suspicion.