In her regular column from Cambodia, Patricia Sloan looks at how VSO has evolved over the last 50 years

It is 50 years since the first intrepid VSO volunteers left the shores of England for West Africa, embarking on a programme of international volunteering that has expanded and changed over the years.

Those first volunteers were mainly young graduates, who travelled overseas to deliver a direct service, such as teaching in schools or working directly with patients in hospitals. There was little to link the work of the volunteers to the strategic development goals of their host countries.

VSO now works in more than 34 countries, mainly in Africa and Asia. A recent merger with CUSO (Canadian University Services Overseas) will see the work of VSO expand to Central and South America.

VSO is no longer managed directly from London but consists of a federation of countries that act as recruitment centres. While it is still an international development agency working through volunteers, VSO now has a clear strategy guiding its work. The VSO country programmes are closely aligned to the development goals of the countries in which they operate.

New breed of volunteers

The profile of volunteers has also changed to reflect the strategic intent of VSO International. Volunteers are recruited from all over the world through recruitment centres in the UK, Ireland, Holland, Kenya, the Philippines and Canada. Most volunteers are professionals with considerable work experience and skills in their own countries. The average age of volunteers has also increased to around 39, marking a major shift in the age profile of new recruits.

Volunteering with VSO in 2008 is very different to volunteering 50 years ago.

For example, the availability of internet access and mobile phones in Cambodia means I can keep in regular contact with my family and friends at home. How this differs from relying on dubious mail systems to deliver letters in an attempt to maintain contact.

Also, the increasing popularity of international travel means some of my adventurous friends have visited me as they are keen to get a real sense of the country and cheap accommodation!

Life experience

Despite some obvious differences, I am sure the personal impact being a volunteer has had on me will be similar to what many of the hundreds who went before me experienced. Like many who have volunteered with VSO over the years, I consider my time in Cambodia as a privilege and one of the most important experiences in my life to date.

Living and working in a community of people with a different cultural background and with a very different outlook on life has encouraged me to reassess some of my personal and professional values.

This experience is forcing me to draw on my personal resources and rapidly develop new skills, such as heightened cultural sensitivity and a new language. No doubt the need to adapt to new circumstances and meet new challenges here in Cambodia will be beneficial on my return to the NHS in 2010!

About VSO

VSO is an international development charity that works through professional volunteers who live and work at the heart of communities in 34 countries around the world. Working in partnership with local colleagues, they share their skills and expertise to help find long-term solutions to poverty.

The charity recruits skilled and experienced professionals from a wide range of backgrounds, including health, education and business. Health management professionals are needed to develop hospital management systems through staff development, budget planning and resource management, particularly in Cambodia.

VSO volunteers usually have a professional qualification in their field, as well as a minimum of at least two years' experience. As well as professional skills, they must have the right personal qualities, which include confidence, flexibility and the ability to work effectively with others. Volunteer placements can last from two weeks to two years, with shorter-term assignments aimed at those with a high level of experience.

In return, VSO offers a comprehensive volunteer package including return flights, basic accommodation, a local living allowance, national insurance contributions for the period of service (or country equivalent), insurance, comprehensive pre-departure and in-country training, as well as support from a dedicated VSO team on the ground.

For more information, visit www.vso.org.uk