VGS ‘pioneer’ Herb Feith with his
adopted family in Indonesia, 1952
Every year, thousands of young people leave the relative comfort of the so-called First World to volunteer in less-developed countries. Perhaps the best-known program is the United States Peace Corps, but the first secular, government-supported development volunteering program was Australian. The Volunteer Graduate Scheme began in 1950, with a small group of Melbourne University students who decided they could help alleviate the skills shortage crippling Indonesia in the wake of decolonisation.
VGS volunteers regarded their program as the embodiment of radical anti-racism and post-colonialism. However, VSO’s genealogy is complex, with roots deeply embedded in colonial humanitarianism and Christian missionary discourses.
It was further complicated by drastic shifts in Australian-Indonesian relations during the 1950s, as well as the Cold War, the global politics of international development, and the creation of the Third World. Although it is little known today, VGS played an important role in the construction of the global foreign aid system. Its model of development volunteering spread around the world, facilitating widespread public engagement with foreign aid and international development.
Exploring both VGS’s rhetoric and the lived experience of overseas volunteering, this paper will examine the complex ways in which ‘ordinary’ people – even students – helped shape the global system of international development. In so doing, it contributes to our understanding of foreign aid and international development as a historical and cultural, rather than strictly economic, process.
Dr Agnieszka Sobocinska is a Senior Research Fellow in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University. She holds an ARC DECRA (2016–2018), working on a transnational cultural history of foreign aid. She is an historian with research interests in the intersection of popular opinion and foreign affairs, particularly in the context of Australia/Asia and of Western constructions of the Third World. She is the author of Visiting the Neighbours: Australians in Asia (NewSouth, 2014) and, with David Walker, coedited Australia’s Asia: from Yellow Peril to Asian Century (UWA Publishing, 2012).