VSO Just Got More *A*W*E*S*O*M*E*

Breaking news from the world of international development: Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) is forming a strategic partnership with the Peace Corps (PC), announced by President Obama and David Cameron during Obama’s recent visit to the UK.

Peace Corps for those who don’t know is a US Government agency that also does international volunteering.

So what might this mean for VSO?

Simple; we may become a damn sight more *A*W*E*S*O*M*E*.

VSO was actually the inspiration for JFK to form Peace Corps, sending plucky young folk around the world to far-flung inhospitable lands to fight the good fight against poverty and all that stuff.

There are of course some major differences between VSO and PC which I will now attempt to summarise.


Peace Corps is actually a branch of the US Government whereas VSO is an NGO (albeit largely funded from various governments such as the UK, Dutch and Canadian).

This explains why Obama made the announcement but it remains unclear how Cameron was on the bandwagon (but since he’s being very good about overseas development at the moment I will let him off).

The difference can easily be seen in flags and pictures. The PC office is adorned with flags (USA, Peace Corps, Nam…) and pictures of the president and various government officials (all carefully ordered in terms of prominence). VSO has a sign.

(I speak from experience – the other week I managed to get past the layers of security and right into the belly of the beast i.e. Peace Corps Namibia office. I was there man. I have seen the endless flaggage and pictures. Huuh-rah!)


PCVs are all American and often quite proud of it. Nowadays VSOs are quite diverse and come from all over the world (a big VSO focus is south-south volunteering, volunteers from a developing country to a developing country).

PCVs are generally younger (though not always, but the median age is mid-twenties for sure). The typical PCV is a year or two from university (or college to use the US term). The typical VSO is older, until our Youth for Development programme volunteers were usually at the very least 25 to have the experience. The mean age remains mid-40s for VSO.

A lot of VSO volunteers are older, often retired and looking to travel and do interesting things. VSO like older volunteers because they tend to be more stable and less drunk. And have lots of work experience of course.

PCVs are sometimes disgustingly keen and genuine. Some are so genuine and caring it can make my heart bleed out of my bottom. Often they want to be in a hut in the middle of nowhere without running water which is the opposite of VSOs who often want to be anywhere but a hut in the middle of nowhere and demand running hot water as a minimum.

VSOs are often more jaded and in some cases (speaking personally of course) travelling as a result of some deep personality defect and the need to get away from a life of drudgery.

A Peace Corps friend summarised it thus; “Peace Corps volunteers are usually running towards something whereas VSO volunteers are often running away from something”. True that.

Of course the Peace Corps are brave (or stupid – a fine line). At that age I wouldn’t have had the cohunes to do VSO let alone Peace Corps where the chances of being stuck in the middle of nowhere are very high (and they don’t know even where they’re going or what they’ll be doing).


When in-country the Peace Corps are usually poorer than VSO. Not only do they get less (on average a PCV gets half what a VSO gets in Namibia) but of course being younger recent graduates in most cases they don’t have any money back home to bring over.

But before you feel sorry for them remember they have a very generous resettlement bonus, many thousands of these American dollars. When you consider the cash they get on return the PCV package is actually better than the VSO deal.

That doesn’t stop VSOs from lording it over PCVs when in-country though; “oh yes another Strawberry Dachary for me and, yes, a tap water for my PCV colleague”.


Peace Corps have a massive rulebook. Seriously. In print form it would be enough to beat an elephant to death with if you could even lift it.

Every time another one of them dies in an impressively foolish display of drunken abandon another few pages of rules are added.

PCVs are not allowed to drive, travel away from their site without letting PC know, travel away from their site for more than two weekends a month, travel internationally without specific approval in triplicate or a whole bunch of other things.

That is not to say VSO don’t have a rulebook. We have a “Terms and Conditions” package and various things we sign, but you would struggle to beat a mouse [edit 10/06/2011 *1] to death with it. You can however often hear conversations similar to this in the VSO office: “What do you mean no? Where in the rules does it say I cannot insist on being referred to as ‘the Great White God of Kamanjab’?… Oh, page 4, I see, thanks.”


PCVs work for the Peace Corps. They are paid from US Government coffers and cost their ‘host organisations’ nothing other than housing.

VSOs work for their ’employer’ (a VSO partner organisation). Usually (unless on some specifically-funded project) they are paid by the employer.

As a VSO you work for this organisation and are viewed as any other employee. You agree day-to-day (even month-to-month and year-to-year) things with your line manager and things like holiday, overtime, TOIL and working conditions are between you and them. VSO are rarely involved apart from regular reviews to make sure you’re still alive and all is going well or if things go very badly wrong.

To get leave approval a PCV must gain the permission of their ‘supervisor’ at their host organisation and then also from Peace Corps (who they actually work for). VSOs will (usually and if they remember) tell VSO when they’re on leave and where they’re going but the permission bit is from the employer (unless you go internationally in which case you need VSO permission to check you are still covered by their medical insurance and so on).


PCVs get two months of up-front training when they first arrive in-country. This compares to VSO (Namibia anyway) at four days.

Prior to departure though prospective VSO volunteers must do two courses on ‘Preparing to Volunteer’ and ‘Skills for Working in Development’. There’s also a lot of stuff available online including language courses if this will be required for your placement.

PCVs get none of this, they only meet up the night before they fly and then it’s off to wherever. They also only get their vaccinations when they arrive which can make for some interesting first few days in-country. In their training they are made to sing lots of songs such as the US and Namibian anthems every day. I can’t imagine VSO doing this or the look of horror on faces were it even to be suggested.

VSOs look at PCVs language skills with envy. PCVs look at VSOs lack of two months of indoctrination and just getting on with it with envy. The grass is always greener.

Getting Along

Of course being fellow international volunteers VSOs and PCVs have always interacted and partied down together.

Personally I’ve had (and continue to have) some very good PCV friends. Right now in Opuwo the rest of the VSO contingent is Dutch and I don’t care how friendly they appear to be what with their smiles, nice words and invitations – I know they are secretly drawing their plans against me whereas I think (hope) the PCVs are more benign.

The Future

So what will the future hold? Will VSOs start spending months singing songs before leaving to their placements? Will they start tearing up at the US national anthem as some PCVs do (seriously)?

Will VSOs start ‘wooing’ at random intervals? Take pictures of themselves jumping up and down? Become more loving of freedom? Talk about ‘merica with tears in their eyes? Become more *A*W*E*S*O*M*E*?

Probably not but time will tell.


P.S. Please note there are some actual important differences between how VSO and PC work, their aims and how/where they send their volunteers. Those are outside the scope of this post as they are dangerously close to serious considerations.

Footnote *1: This section originally stated you would struggle to beat to death a housefly with the VSO T&Cs. It has been pointed out that only I would struggle due to natural weakness but others would find it easy. Therefore after extensive experiements in which many animals were harmed it has been settled you would stuggle to beat to death a mouse (though this is not impossible).


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