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Volunteering with attitude

For generations of young Australians with a passion for social justice, volunteering in developing or indigenous communities has been a rite of passage. Bill Armstrong has been deeply involved in this movement since the 1960s, making considerable contributions and observing its shifts and successes, writes Robin Davies.

Bill Armstrong has been deeply immersed in Australian volunteering through all these passing generations. He is best known as head of the Melbourne-based non-government organisation Australian Volunteers International, which until 1999 had been known as the Overseas Service Bureau, for two decades until his retirement in 2002. But he goes back much further than that, having joined the fledgling Overseas Service Bureau as a junior staff member in the early 1960s, around the time it absorbed the Volunteer Graduate Scheme.

Unsurprisingly, Bill has encountered sceptics in the course of his career, people who think that volunteering is a kind of amateur activity without much impact, or at least lasting impact.

‘There are lots of people who somehow can’t get out from under the fact that if you don’t earn big money you’re not really professional, or there’s something wrong with you—you’re a “missionary, mercenary or misfit”.

Bill ArmstrongBill well recalls the period when Papua New Guinea was heavily dependent on the substantial numbers of Australian volunteers who worked as doctors, nurses, teachers and engineers throughout the country. He points to OSB’s early project in Vietnam, which trained or upgraded about 1,000 Vietnamese English-language teachers before the Australian government was ready to go back in with its own aid program. He points to the contributions of Australian and other volunteers in refugee camps in Africa and other parts of the world. And he talks also about the particular importance of volunteers in small and fragile states.

‘I can think of a situation in the Cook Islands in the Pacific, where for something like 10 or 15 years a series of volunteers were responsible for electrical engineering at the power plant, until the local authorities were able to take responsibility. And in East Timor, following the crisis of ’99, there were some 200 volunteers from Australia, some attached to the UN, working in very senior positions within the fledgling public service.’

The crisis in East Timor, in fact, called forth perhaps the fullest expression of Australian international voluntarism up to that time. Much of this came from the state of Victoria, OSB’s home state, owing to its historical close relationship with East Timor, dating back to World War II, and its status as a node of the East Timorese diaspora.

‘A lot of Victorians were in East Timor at that time. We, AVI, were looking to work closely with the Victorian government, and we put out a joint call for volunteers. And we had something like 2,000 responses. So there was an incredible upsurge of interest and support, which of course continues through the “friendship groups” whose members have often gone to work in the field, in rural areas, as organisers, administrators, teachers of English and so on.’

Bill started with the Overseas Service Bureau more than 50 years ago, in 1963, and worked there for seven years. Later, in 1982, he returned as Chief Executive Officer. When he took on the leadership role, it was a very small organisation of just a dozen or so staff and a budget of around $400,000. It had been struggling with some financial and management problems. When he left, two decades later, it was one of the most substantial NGOs in Australia. The staff had grown tenfold and the budget was around $20 million.

‘We grew very quickly, and that helped us to attract good staff. By the end, I would have thought that Australian Volunteers International had one of the best staff of any non-government organisation in the country. It was an organisation that was open, flexible and innovative. We were able to move quickly, as we did with English-language training in Vietnam in the early days, and in Cambodia later on. And we were able to build complex partnerships like that with the Solomon Islands Development Trust, which saw us provide 20 or 30 volunteers over time to work on community development programs in the outer islands.’


Bill Armstrong: Volunteering with attitude (DevPolicy)

Images: Bill Armstrong and DevPolicy