Miss Noela Motum and Miss Joan Minogue
Recording date:

Initiated in 1951, the Volunteer Graduate Scheme was a world leading and globally influential program, helping Australia's neighbours develop, free from colonialism. Dr Agnieszka Sobocinska reveals its history.

Dr Agnieszka Sobocinska is a National Library Fellow, supported by Ryan Stokes.

Image: John Tanner, Miss Noela Motum and Miss Joan Minogue, Australian school teachers, embark on a journey to teach English at a teacher’s training college in Bandjarmasin, South Borneo under the Volunteer Graduate Scheme  1957, National Archives of Australia. NAA: A1501, AP34/1

Transcript of ‘The Volunteer Graduate Scheme’

Speakers: Robin Holmes, (R), Agnieszka Sobocinska (A), Jeff Miles (J), Don Anderson (D), Paul Bird (P), Patrick Anderson (N),

Location: National Library of Australia

Date: 27/04/16

R:            Lovely to welcome you tonight to the National Library Fellowship Lecture by Dr Agnieszka Sobocinska, senior research fellow at the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University. I’m Robyn Holmes, and I’m Senior Curator at the National Library, with the responsibility of managing the fellowships program.

As an historian, Agnieszka’s research interests particularly lie in the area of popular opinion and foreign affairs, particularly in the context of Australia and Asia, and of western constructions of the third world. Her first book was published in 2014, Visiting the Neighbours: Australians in Asia, and she co-edited with David Walker Australia’s Asia: From Yellow Peril to Asian Century, that’s now been translated into Chinese and published in Beijing. So you’re an international author!

Agnieszka is currently working on a very large project to examine the history of foreign aid in Australia, in Britain and the United States, but from a cultural perspective. She is interested in probing how popular engagement with people—people’s engagement with foreign aid and international aid development has shaped public understanding, assumptions and opinion, and has impacted on foreign policy and aid programs.

During her fellowship here, Agnieszka’s been specifically investigating Australia’s volunteer graduate scheme, that pioneered the model for development by secular governments in the 1950s. So it’s with special effort, and care that we welcome tonight some former volunteers and some people that have done and practised international aid. And I found out, Agnieszka, that you actually met somebody tonight, who’s here, in Cambodia, volunteering yourself. And you never told us that! So I welcome you as a former volunteer as well. So that was very, very special.

Perhaps our oldest volunteer in the room is Jeff Miles, and we particularly welcome you, Jeff, and particularly also Paul Bird, who is the CEO of Australian Volunteers International. And I think they’re looking back at their own history, and will find the beginnings of their ideology about volunteering very much evident in your talk tonight, Agnieszka.

2016 is a really exciting year for the National Library’s fellowship program. We currently have four fellows in residence, and they’re all here tonight, and having four we’ve got this tremendously exciting group in residence. But they’re the first group to be here since, of course, the National Library was able to reinvigorate and reinstate its fellowship program with the generosity of donors and supporters. So this is the first of four fellowships talks over the next four weeks, so don’t go without your next flyer for May the tenth, which is Klaus Neumann’s, which is actually about multicultural backgrounds—‘New Lives in a New Country’. So we certainly expect to see some of you back here.

Agnieszka’s fellowship is supported by the National Library’s Council Chair, Ryan Stokes, who really led by example when we set out to raise funds to support the program. So Agnieszka is also the first of the Library’s former summer scholars to receive a full National Library Fellowship. A scholarship that she received ten years ago, in 2006, while undertaking her PhD at the University of Sydney. So we do feel a certain pride, at the National Library, in your career, but also the career of others, more than 50 PhD students that we’ve now given a kind of career impetus through running the summer scholarship scheme. It’s a delight to welcome you back, but also to have followed your remarkable achievements within a ten-year history in academia since then.

So, welcome Agnieszka, to share with us your findings of your fellowship research on this volunteer graduate scheme.


A:            Thanks to National Library of Australia and its wonderful staff, particularly Robyn Holmes, Margy Burn and Beth Mansfield. Thanks also to everyone who worked so hard to make the NLA Fellowships possible again through philanthropy; these Fellowships are both a privilege and an absolute pleasure, and I’m very grateful for the unparalleled opportunities for focussed research I’ve had during my time here.

Tonight I want to tell a small story with big consequences. On the one hand, it is a story of particular individuals working within very specific contexts. On the other, it is a story of ideas so exciting that they burst beyond those contexts, to be taken up elsewhere (with inevitable tensions and problems as they were made to fit these new circumstances). It is a story of international connections, both physical and sentimental. It begins in Australia, before moving to Indonesia, to New Zealand, Burma and Canada, the United Kingdom, Ghana and Malaya, to the United States, Latin America and Southeast Asia. It is a story of the movement of people and ideas, encompassing much of what came to be known as the developed and developing worlds.

The story begins in 1950, as two Melbourne University students, John Bayly and Adam Hunt, return from a student conference in Bombay. Whilst away, they had struck up an acquaintance with a delegate from Indonesia, A.B. Loebis. Loebis had given a vivid account of his nation’s recent revolution, its current state of development and particularly, the chronic skills shortage that followed the sudden departure of Dutch bureaucrats with the declaration of Indonesia’s independence in 1945.

Back in Melbourne, political science student Herb Feith heard the story and was enthralled. Feith had been born to a Jewish family in Austria, and fled from the Nazi regime at the approach of World War II. Partly because of this, Feith believed that ‘ordinary’ people had a responsibility to become involved in international affairs. He was also a ‘doer’ who was heavily involved in student life, particularly the Labour Club, the ALP Club and the Student Christian Movement at Melbourne University.

This idea – that ‘ordinary’ people could have agency in international affairs – was becoming increasingly widespread in the post-war years. It was especially common amongst those who were critical of Australia’s policies towards Asia. The White Australia Policy, introduced at Federation in 1901, was the formal expression of Australian desires to remain isolated from the Asian region. Fifty years on, many Australians were beginning to think that a drastic rethink was needed. The Asian region was decolonising. It was also becoming increasingly strident in calling out colonialism and racism. With a conservative Liberal government that didn’t seem to be responsive to these shifts, many ordinary Australians came to think that it was their responsibility to improve their nation’s relations with Asia.

And now, Feith saw an opportunity. He thought that young Australians could spend a couple of years working in Indonesia, at Indonesian rates of pay, to help plug the skills gap. He began to plan the Volunteer Graduate Scheme or VGS, and was put in touch with Molly Bondan, a Sydneysider who had married an Indonesian revolutionary and moved to Jakarta. With her husband’s connections, Bondan had begun to work for the Ministry of Information, and she was sure she could organise a job for Feith and any other Australians who wanted to help Indonesia’s development as an independent nation.

So, in July 1951, Herb Feith arrived in Jakarta. He was the only one to disembark when his ship docked; his fellow passengers were worried by rumours they’d heard that Indonesia wasn’t safe for ‘Europeans’. Feith’s fare had been covered by a Melbourne University travel scholarship, but as promised, Molly Bondan had organised him a job at the Ministry of Information. From the moment she met him as he came ashore, Bondan took Feith under her wing. At first, he found Jakarta confusing, confronting and exhausting. ‘You couldn’t imagine any city more conspicuously lacking in any semblance of planning of the most primitive sort’, he wrote to his friends soon after arrival, with buildings that looked ‘awfully primitive and tumbledown.’ Yet, under Molly’s guidance, Feith learnt to see Indonesia’s potential, rather than its failings.

Perhaps most importantly, the Bondans were very well-connected, and Feith used the opportunity to introduce his idea of a Volunteer Graduate Scheme to senior political figures. Within months, he reflected ‘how terrifically lucky I am …in fact if I wasn’t in some ways regarded as a protégé of Molly’s it might not be nearly so easy, but that position has given me just wonderful privileges.’

While Feith worked in Jakarta, a small committee of Melbourne University friends continued to drum up interest in Australia. Enthusiasm ran high, particularly in the Student Christian Movement, and in 1952 two more volunteers, bacteriologist Gwenda Rodda and radio engineer Ollie McMichael, arrived.

By the time they began work, the Australian government had agreed to fund VGS. Minister for External Affairs Richard Casey had at first been reluctant to sponsor the scheme. In 1952, however, he changed his mind following lobbying by notable groups and individuals (more on this later). From this point on, the Australian government paid volunteers’ first-class fares to and from Indonesia, provided them with a tropical clothing and equipment allowance, a bicycle, and a resettlement grant upon their return to Australia. (Volunteers’ salaries were paid by the Indonesian government). This made the Australian and Indonesian governments the first to support a volunteering program that framed its aims around ‘development’.

Yet, during these early years, and largely due to Molly Bondan and Herb Feith’s influence, VGS shifted from a work scheme designed to fill a skills shortage, to become a political statement. Even before disembarking in Jakarta, Feith had begun to think that ‘the gesture value of such projects’ – meaning ‘the motive rather than the immediate practical effect’ was ‘all-important’. Rather than the work itself, he began to think that the most important task of Australian volunteers was ‘identification and concrete manifestation of color equality views in a country where whites just never have done any manual work’.

This ideal of ‘Identification’ soon became all-important. An early pamphlet noted: ‘What they do in their actual work is important…But more important perhaps is the fact that these young people assert by the way they live, that racial equality is real. By having natural and friendly relations with Indonesians on a basis of mutual respect, they help to do away with the colonial legacy of mistrust and misunderstanding, which to so large an extent continues to affect relations between coloured people and whites.’

This was emphasised by the volunteers themselves, who claimed that ‘our most important job in Indonesia, more important even than what we do at work, is just to live normally and naturally in the Indonesian world, and to make friends among Indonesians, showing Indonesians that there are whites who don’t stand on superiority ideas, and making whites ashamed of the privileges they continue to enjoy.’

The fact that volunteers would be living ‘as Indonesians’ was the focus of early media coverage. This was emphasised because it was unusual. Since the 19th century, Australians in Asia had associated with the colonisers, rather than the colonised. In my last book, Visiting the Neighbours: Australians in Asia, I found that most travellers had a very keen sense of European ‘prestige’, and worked hard to maintain the illusion of superiority in Asian eyes.

And that was exactly the point. The White Australia Policy had created a serious image problem in Asia that VGS wanted to address. Whilst the original idea had come from an Indonesian suggestion, and saw Indonesia benefiting from cheap skilled labour, before long the Volunteer Graduate Scheme was largely focussed on improving Australia’s image in Asia.

As a result, volunteers felt a lot of pride when Australians were well received in Indonesia. As Ollie McMichael wrote in a letter to his parents in mid-1952, ‘they have bitter memories of the colonial time and they are always delighted to hear you are Australian, and not Dutch or American’. The fact that Indonesians familiar with VGS weren’t framing Australia through its restrictive immigration policy was very important. There was also a recognition of the Cold War. In another letter, McMichael claimed that: ‘No country matters more to Indonesia than we do…If Australia fails, they’ll turn to China’, and because of this, ‘if Indonesia fails, Australia is sunk!’

The Australian government’s support for VGS was partly based on this Cold War calculus, as well as the understanding that the program enhanced Australia’s image in Asia. Whereas the Minister had initially been reluctant to fund the scheme, by 1955, External Affairs had nothing but praise for VGS, writing that ‘in our view the scheme tapped a useful source of energetic talent from which we profited at a cheap rate.’Writing in the Argus the following year, influential journalist Peter Russo also thought the benefits accrued to Australia. “If there is any better way than that of ‘showing the flag’ in Asia, any surer way of dispelling Asia’s lingering distrust of colonial taints”, he wrote, “I have not heard it”. Rather than models of postcolonialism or agents for modernisation, Russo thought VGS volunteers were “our leading insurance salesmen in Asia”.

Feith’s insistence that volunteers should maintain the same standard of living as Indonesians was unusual for the Department of External Affairs, which, in many ways, still retained colonial-era notions of European ‘prestige’ in Asia. When Casey approved VGS in February 1952, he did so under the assumption that the Department would be supplementing volunteers’ salaries – and quite drastically. The VGS committee and volunteers refused the salary supplement. Undeterred, or simply unwilling to have Australians subsist in such low living standards, External Affairs tried to encourage volunteers to draw at least £25 per annum from a special £5000 Installation and Emergency Fund, so that they could afford to take annual holidays in comfortable, European-style hotels. Again, the volunteers resisted.

This conflict points to a wider shift in the concept of ‘prestige’. To VGS volunteers, ‘prestige’ took the exact opposite form to colonial times. Importantly, it appears that the Australian Embassy came to understand this very different sense of ‘prestige’. By 1955, the Second Secretary in Jakarta advised Canberra that the scheme ‘derives something from the fact that its members receive, while they are in Indonesia, rates of pay identical with Indonesian officials of similar status.’ The Department of External Affairs began to agree, reporting later in the year that ‘from a goodwill and prestige point of view the Volunteer Graduate Scheme is one of our most successful Colombo Plan ventures.’ After this point, the Department of External Affairs used VGS in its nascent public diplomacy program.

Yet, alongside the desire to overturn colonial norms, and to improve Australia’s image in Asia, lay another motivation. VGS was profoundly intertwined with religion, particularly through the Australian Student Christian Movement. The program’s very existence owed a great deal to the support of organised Christian movements, both in Australia and in Indonesia. In Australia, they formed a significant core of the lobby group that worked on Dick Casey after he initially refused government support. The Australian Council of the World Council of Churches, for example, wrote to Casey to commend VGS in ‘the warmest possible terms’. Along with Bondan and her network of well-connected nationalists, Christians also formed an important lobby group in Indonesia. Leading Indonesian Christians such as Dr. Joseph Leimena, who was the Minister for Health, and Dr. Roem at the Ministry for Information, shepherded the program through the approvals process. It was largely due to their work that VGS received unusually speedy passage through the Indonesian bureaucracy.

Individual volunteers were also motivated by religion. Until the late 1950s, every single VGS volunteer was also a member of the Student Christian Movement. It is very important, then, that there is evidence that VGS’ core principle of ‘identification’ arose not merely from a sense of postcolonial justice, but also out of evangelical aspirations. The National Library holds a collection of handwritten notes written by Feith during his early years in Indonesia. As far as I can tell, these were kept for himself rather than for any audience, often scribbled after meetings with Indonesian government ministers, expatriate missionaries, or friends. Feith’s desire to bring Indonesian Muslims to the Christian faith is a recurrent theme, and Feith also plotted out strategies on how this could be done. After some months in Indonesia, he could see that traditional proselytising wouldn’t work, as ‘some say it is 5 years before you can talk of religion’ with locals. He wrote as if to remind himself: ‘Don’t preach’. Spreading the Christian faith was to be done through subtle, slow steps; after a few months he began to think that the way to bring people into the Christian fold was to ‘open your house and your heart. Receive people at any time. Don’t stand on ceremony. Accept their standards’. Above all, it was ‘very necessary to know the people’ by living amongst them. As Feith wrote, this was ‘Identification’ – a ‘way of eating, sitting on floor, laughing, crying with them. Be natural, friendly. Speak the local language’. He closes with the reminder, ‘This is life-long work’. It is significant that in this note at least, identification was seen as a tool for the ‘life-long work’ of Christian mission in Indonesia.

It is also evident that some of Feith’s desire to build VGS as a program came from missionary considerations. Within five months of arriving in Indonesia in 1951, Feith was working towards the ‘idea that the people coming would be lay missionaries. They would be full time workers, clerical, commercial etc, and would in their spare time do Christian work with the Christian youth organisations here. Also they would live in hostels where they would have an opportunity to do Christian work.’ Importantly, as they were coming to work for the Indonesian government, ‘they would not in fact be classified as missionaries to be passed by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The fact that they would not belong to any missionary society would, it seems, give them greater popularity, since the fear of the organised power of the mission still exists...’

Importantly, Feith was not the only volunteer interested in Christian mission in Asia – far from it. Gwenda Rodda came to Jakarta in 1952 to work with the Ministry of Health.  However, in her tract ‘Pegawais and Christian Witness in Indonesia’, it is evident that she did not see this as incompatible with evangelical motives. Intended for circulation among Christian groups but marked ‘Not for Publication’, the tract opened by stating that ‘Christians among “pegawais” – i.e. Australians coming here to work for the Indonesian government under the NUAUS ‘Plan for the Employment of Graduates from Australia to Work as Indonesians’ can be used by God to further His purpose in Indonesia’. Rodda went on: ‘This is a missionary situation. Only about 4% of the 77 million Indonesians are Christians’, and ‘There is a great need for more Christian workers’. Much like Feith, Rodda thought that Christians could ‘bear witness by their daily work’, and ‘by disregarding the distinctions of rank, being friendly and polite to both the bosses and the servants’. But where Feith was adamant that volunteers had to avoid preaching, Rodda thought that life as a VGS volunteer presented myriad opportunities for evangelising. ‘Of course, you meet many people at work’, she wrote. ‘Travelling in the same vehicle, working with them, you…often get the chance to talk about God’.

Of course, religion and politics are not mutually exclusive. Many Protestants thought evangelical Christianity was entirely compatible with social justice and racial equality, and in Australia, the Student Christian Movement was engaged with the politics of decolonisation.

Yet, the Christian influence was so pervasive that even VGS had to admit it was something of a liability in Muslim Indonesia. As Herb Feith wrote, ‘of course we must be careful to see that neither of the governments come to regard the scheme as something specifically Christian or Protestant.’ He was right to be wary: the papers of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta report that Sugarda Purbakawatja, a key figure at the Ministry of Education, for one, held strong antipathy ‘to what he seems to regard as the missionary impulse behind the scheme, and the element of patronage which it seems (to him) to embody’.

The volunteers’ blurring of development and evangelical work complicates the VGS image and significance. The organisation claimed that volunteers’ eagerness to share the life of ordinary Indonesians came from their desire to overcome racial and colonial divisions. Yet, there was also significant continuity with previous forms of missionary endeavour. It was a radical innovation, but VGS also represented a translation of colonial-era notions of Christian service and uplift into the post-colonial period.

This is interesting because VGS in all of its public manifestations presented Identification as a political, rather than religious, aspiration. Jemma Purdey, Feith’s biographer, and others interested in his contribution to Australian-Indonesian relations have almost entirely removed the evangelical aspect, and reframed his as a secular story of a visionary Australian working towards closer relations with Asia. But here, at this moment in the early 1950s, we see a complex range of motivations – post-colonial and post-racial empathy; the desire to contribute to development; but also Australian nationalism, Cold War realpolitik, and even missionary aspirations – coming together to create the Volunteer Graduate Scheme.

So these were the aims, but what was life as a volunteer actually like? To what extent did the reality match the rhetoric, whether post-colonial, nationalist or Christian? Forty-eight volunteers served in Indonesia from the Scheme’s beginning in 1951, until it was folded into a different organisation in the mid-1960s. Seventeen of them, or just over a third, were women. Most were in their mid-twenties or early thirties, and about a third were either married or got married during their terms. They lived all around Indonesia – in Jakarta, Bandung and Bogor in West Java, Malang in East Java, Yogyakarta, as well as the outer islands – Sumatra, Sulawesi, Kalimantan and Flores.

Indonesia underwent vast changes during the 1950s, and to a large extent, the nature of an individual volunteer’s experiences depended on when they went. The early volunteers – those serving before 1958 – had overwhelmingly positive experiences. Not only were people ready to welcome foreign idealists, but the pay was pretty good. Volunteers worked for the Indonesian government, and were paid according to the PGP civil service pay scale, roughly the equivalent of the APS. Pay was determined by level of education, with university graduates earning a fairly comfortable wage – which was part of the reason why this was a scheme targeted at Graduates rather than people with a Diploma or other training. Most volunteers also subsidised their official incomes by teaching English outside work hours.

The result was a fairly comfortable life-style. In 1952, Herb Feith wrote that ‘It would be very difficult for me to say whether I am living at a higher or lower standard than I was in Australia in a more or less middle class home …but I am quite certain that I haven’t felt any worse off in the things that go to make up a standard of living.’ A 1954 Information sheet produced for intending applicants noted ‘Living conditions are those of the Indonesian middle class, which are by no means hard but call for some adjustment…Indonesian food, consisting basically of rice, is strange at first…However female participants have been known to put on weight here, much to their disgust!’

In fact, this was exactly where Feith wanted to be. As the Scheme’s publicity ran: ‘There’s a plan working in Indonesia now for this new kind of European in Asia – the European who lives as a brother and not as a boss… [But] Are they then ‘slumming’? Far from it. They are living in middle-class Indonesian hostels and homes, seeing friends, going to wedding parties and festivals, teaching, going to the movies with Indonesian friends; in short, seeing Asian life from the level of the Asian.’

The story changed during the late 1950s, by which time Feith had left Indonesia to do his PhD in the United States. By now, Indonesia was in the throes of a political and economic crisis. Politically, an uprising in the outer islands (covertly supported by the United States, who feared that Sukarno was becoming too friendly with Communists) caused great instability and ultimately helped usher in a period of ‘guided democracy’.

Politics was everywhere in Indonesia, and it directly affected the life and work of every volunteer in some way. The National Library of Australia holds a letter from Elaine Wills, a volunteer teacher in Medan in Northern Sumatra (at the heart of the uprising), who wrote of a situation in which 60% of her students were no longer attending lectures, of classes with ‘no teachers, unreliable electricity…[and students] having to sit on their desks with umbrellas up if it rains!!’. She closed with an almost audible sigh: ‘Oh there is much to be done!’

Things were not looking good in Jakarta, either. The uprising caused a surge of refugees to Jakarta, adding further to a population that had been booming since the war. The population tripled in size during the 1950s, and the city struggled with a crippling housing shortage. Early volunteers in Jakarta often wrote that they were ‘very lucky’ – they had been put up in government hostels or comfortable middle class homes, often with their own rooms and numerous servants.

After 1958, however, the tone changed. Now, accommodation presented a huge problem. The government could no longer organise adequate accommodation, and private families were often unwilling to take on Australians as tenants. In light of this, volunteers had to do whatever they could. Some, like Joan Minogue and Noela Motum, shared a hotel-room during their posting to Semarang in Central Java in 1957 and 1958. They received some criticism from other volunteers for doing so – after all, by living together, in a hotel, they were not living with and as Indonesians. Arriving in 1961, Jeff Miles managed to find private board at a decent price – but only on the condition that he spoke English to his landlord’s family. He wrote to the Melbourne Committee to defend himself: ‘Some people may think this clashes with classic VG doctrine that we should live with Indonesian speaking families’. But he could see no way around it – to him, the ideals of development volunteering were no longer realistic and had to be abandoned.

Housing wasn’t the worst of the problems. The Indonesian economy suffered terrible shocks in the 1950s. The terms of the independence treaty negotiated between Indonesia and the Netherlands had saddled the new nation with a huge debt in foreign currency, which had been accrued by their colonial masters but had to be paid off by Indonesians. The interest began to bite just as the global rubber market collapsed, undermining one of the nation’s primary industries. The political crisis further added to the troubles, with the end result that Indonesia suffered terrible inflation. The cost of living doubled every twelve months or so in the early 1960s, and runaway inflation of more than 200% per annum was reached in some years.

Desperate times called for desperate measures, and the Indonesian government called a freeze on hiring in the civil service. From 1959, VGS was never sure whether their next candidate would be placed or not. The situation was uncertain and rumours ran riot: Australians were excluded from the freeze one month, but the freeze was on again the next.

For those volunteers who managed to get accepted, getting by became extremely difficult. Because of inflation, PGP salaries were barely enough to keep food on the table. In early 1962, VGS Honorary Secretary Jim Webb reported that ‘The earlier volunteers were able usually to obtain a balanced diet fairly readily, but this is more difficult now with commodity shortages and very high prices’. Again going against the basic principle that volunteers should live ‘as Indonesians’, he wrote that ‘in my view volunteers should now arrive in Indonesia with some food supplies – tinned milk and cheese, dried fruits, for example. This will tide them over the initial months of settling into a strange and now less adequate diet.’

The development volunteer model, designed for Indonesia in the early 1950s, was reaching breaking point. Some volunteers grew disillusioned. In 1960, the Melbourne University magazine Farrago wrote an expose. The reporter admitted that ‘the name has an aura of adventure, good will, sacrificial giving; of friendship with Australia’s near neighbour Indonesia’. But the aura, it was claimed, was no longer related to reality: ‘now conditions have changed and some of the volunteer graduates I met were disillusioned and underfed. They were preoccupied with their day-to-day needs and making the best of a bad situation until it is time to return to Australia’.

The article evoked a range of responses from volunteers, including a particularly thoughtful one from Ken Thomas, who had served two terms in Indonesia over five years. He warned that volunteers who went up expecting to be showered with gratitude ‘will be disillusioned. And to be honest, I think all of us vaguely felt this way at first…’ On arrival, ‘I guess I was more idealistic then than I am now, though I like to think I still have some idealism left, an idealism tinged with realism…’ Yet he remained hopeful. ‘To anyone wanting to help out, I’d say give it a try. You may go up feeling like a ‘knight in shining armour’ out to do a good deed; you’ll come back feeling just like an ordinary human being, realising that the problems of a country like Indonesia are immense, that the daily routine can be far from glamorous. But it will surely have been worthwhile…’

Despite all the problems – of overcrowding, poverty, and even unfriendly reception from locals who resented their presence – young Australians remained hopeful about the development volunteering model. In his 1962 report, Jim Webb found that despite the fact that ‘conditions are more difficult for them now than at other time previously’, ‘the morale of all the volunteers I visited was very high’.

Now, interestingly, it is at this time that the scheme’s publicity and influence peaked. While the conditions worsened and the number of volunteers plummeted, the rhetoric got louder and spread further. From 1957 until 1962, VGS produced a quarterly newsletter, and in 1959 with UNESCO funding they produced a glossy special edition with a print run of 5000. Although some of the articles spoke of the difficulty of budgeting and learning to get by with less, they always did so with a positive tone, and the full assurance that they were participating in something truly worthwhile. VGS also subsidised the production of a book, Ivan Southall’s Indonesia Face to Face, which portrayed the volunteers as inspirational, almost heroic, figures. To some extent this book was the climax of VGS publicity, but by which time it was published in 1964, only one volunteer was living in Indonesia.

The late 1950s and early 1960s was also the period when VGS had its widest international impact. VGS came into existence as a solution to specifically Australian and Indonesian problems. However, from the very beginning, the Melbourne Committee hoped to spread its model of development volunteering to other countries and contexts. Even as early as 1950, they wrote letters to Australian diplomats including Tom Critchley, asking for advice. Should they go to Indonesia? Or would another country be more favourable? On Critchley’s advice, they began to think quite seriously about Burma, India and Malaya as potential destinations. The aim to extend to Burma, in particular, took up quite a bit of volunteers’ time and focus for a number of years. A number of overtures to Burma were made, but negotiations were never pursued to success.

Yet, VGS continued to feel it was ‘desirable that the symbolic value of the scheme in terms of racial equality should not just be limited to one country.’ Moreover, not only did the group look to extend their activities to other receiving nations; they also wanted young people from other ‘developed’ nations to have the same experiences. In the same month that he arrived in Indonesia, Herb Feith wrote to the Australian Association for the United Nations to propose that his experience serve as ‘a forerunner of possible other similar ventures in other parts of South-East Asia’, possibly in cooperation with UN agencies. He thought that ‘Australian graduates can pioneer the way for students of other nationalities’.

To this end, VGS attempted to lobby other ‘developed’ nations to begin similar programs. New Zealand was identified right at the beginning, and from early 1951 contact was initiated with the NZ University Students’ Association and the NZ Student Christian Movement. The correspondence continued and in 1955, Jim Webb shared a flight from Indonesia with the New Zealand Minister for External Affairs and the Department’s Secretary. By the time the plane touched down on Australian soil, Webb had convinced the Secretary, who became ‘very keen about some of the principles involved’. Within months, the New Zealand Volunteer Graduate Scheme was formally established, funded by the NZ government but administered by the Australian VGS.

In 1954, young Canadian Lewis Perinbam heard of the Australian scheme and immediately decided to try and set up a similar program in Canada. Perinbam visited Indonesia in 1955 hoping to set up an arrangement there, but within a couple of years he decided that Ghana would be a more appropriate receiving nation. Ghana was in the Commonwealth, which would make the scheme an easier sell politically, and it was on the cusp of decolonisation. As Perinbam wrote to the Canadian government, ‘…Arising from the Australian experience, it is suggested that a similar program be established with Ghana…in whose progress and prosperity Canada is greatly interested…’ This would result in the establishment of CUSO, or Canadian University Service Overseas, of which Perinbam became founding executive director in 1961. CUSO is still one of the world’s major development volunteering programs.

In 1957, VGS also began corresponding with Alec Dickson, who went on to establish Britain’s Voluntary Service Overseas, or VSO. Dickson had initiated contact through his brother, who was Director of Education in the British colony of Sarawak (later part of Malaysia). He wrote to VGS to explain that Alec Dickson was ‘anxious to develop something of the kind in the United Kingdom, for voluntary overseas service by young people’. VSO was launched the following year; it is now a major organisation that has sent over 40,000 Britons to developing nations.

In 1957, Herb Feith left to pursue a PhD in Indonesian politics at Cornell University, and he embarked on a vigorous publicity campaign during his time in the US. He wrote dozens of letters and met a range of influential Americans, urging them to send volunteers not only to Indonesia, but also to other parts of Asia and Africa. In a letter to the American Committee on Africa, for example, he encouraged ‘American-African parallels to the Australian-Indonesian Volunteer Graduate Scheme’, noting that not only was Africa in similar need of trained expertise, but ‘that an American-African scheme of the type I am envisaging would draw its strength in part from a sense of guilt about the national past which is similar to that felt by young Australians’.

The Peace Corps, finally established in 1961, didn’t cite VGS as its immediate inspiration (the Americans preferred to see this as a ‘US ideal’), but it was nonetheless influenced by it. John F. Kennedy commissioned two research reports on overseas volunteer programs before firming up plans for the Peace Corps in early 1961. These reports drew on the experience of VSO and CUSO, as well as several American proposals that had been inspired by VGS. Several of Kennedy’s advisors also knew Herb Feith from his time at Cornell. US historian Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman acknowledges the influence of VGS on the Peace Corps, writing that the programs ‘shared a cultural kinship that made for a certain likeness, including the sense of a special mission’.

Now, while these programs borrowed the basic model of development volunteering from VGS, there were significant differences. Above all, they differed in size and scope: VSO had overtaken the total number sent by VGS within its first two years, and both were put in the shade by the more than 1000 Peace Corps volunteers who served in its very first year. More than 220,000 Americans have now served in the Peace Corps, which has become a cultural icon.

Notably, the religious aspects of VGS were erased from these international programs, which were firmly focused on the secular goals of modernization and international development. The Peace Corps also placed the Cold War at the front and centre of its early activities.

While some of the details changed, the export of the fundamental development volunteering model was seen in an unproblematic way. ‘Developed’ nations would help ‘underdeveloped’ ones; by the 1960s, the terms being used were First World and Third World. All the evidence suggests that VGS did not spend much time debating the meaning or location of development. It was assumed that all poor, post-colonial countries such as Indonesia, Burma and India were in need of volunteers from rich, putatively ‘developed’ nations such as Australia, New Zealand and America. This suggests an organic or ‘natural’ sense of who was, and wasn’t, developed – even though the concept of ‘development’ was rarely defined and in fact formed the subject of a good deal of debate amongst economists.

Of course, this idea of a natural or organic connection between developed, Western nations, and a gulf between Western and non-Western ones, was not unique to the development sphere. The ‘organic’ ties between English-speaking nations, and racial ties between whites or ‘Europeans’ in general, lay at the heart of politics and culture in the colonial world. However, its continuation into the post-colonial period, and into the spheres of development and foreign aid, is very important. Again, it suggests that VGS and the development volunteer concept was simultaneously translating colonial-era assumptions, even while it sought to overturn them.

Just as the idea took off overseas, Australia’s VGS was quietly wrapping up. The instability of the situation in Indonesia saw VGS folded into a broader program, the Overseas Service Bureau, and later into AVI, which still exists today. VGS no longer existed on a stand-alone basis; by 1969, even the incoming Australian Ambassador to Indonesia didn’t know of its existence.

By this time, however, it had already made its mark. Many of the volunteers’ future lives were profoundly shaped by their early experiences. Herb Feith became a renowned Indonesianist; as did Ken Thomas and the very last of the Volunteer Graduates, Harold Crouch. Several others went on to prominent careers in foreign aid and international development, including at the policy level, where they set Australian and UN priorities in these fields. Others became more intimately connected to Indonesia. Several female volunteers, including Ailsa Thomson, Joan Minogue and Thelma Ashton, married Indonesian men and lived their lives between Indonesia and Australia. They retained strong connections to Indonesia for the rest of their lives.

Moreover, volunteers felt that they had also improved relations between East and West; North and South. Betty Feith, Herb’s wife and herself a volunteer in 1954, later reflected that there was ‘a growing conviction that the Scheme itself was part of this making of history, in its role in establishing…a new way of relating to the needs of Third World peoples and nations’ - and it’s significant that she saw VGS’s impact as affecting the Third World, and not Indonesia.

So, by way of conclusion, I want to pull back a little. Why is this important? Why should we trace these small stories and their impact?

Foreign aid and international development are largely regarded as economic processes, based on quasi-scientific principles. The notion that underdeveloped nations must follow a number of processes towards economic development, as modelled on the West, is so deeply entrenched as to seem sacrosanct. It is both common and political knowledge. It structures economic and diplomatic systems and has a profound effect on the lives of millions of people around the world. 

But taking a historical approach reveals a different perspective. First of all, it destroys the facade of coherence. Once we strip away decades of economists’ and politicians’ rhetoric, we can recognise foreign aid as a process that was invented, and invented piecemeal at that. Looking at its invention reveals that theories and practices of economic development were not created whole, but rather were stitched together from trial and error; debate and compromise; translation and transposal.

Most importantly, by investigating foreign aid as a historical rather than economic process, you allow people back in. As we have seen, people have multiple, and sometimes contradictory, intentions and experiences, and acknowledging them can help us understand the tensions in the systems they bequeathed us. The people who contributed to the system of development volunteering were of their place and time. Their ideas were shaped by personality and also by society; by religious and political views, but also by broader assumptions about the nature of East and West, Old and New Nations, Developed and Underdeveloped worlds.

As we have seen tonight, ordinary people – even students – could have a profound impact on the invention and practice of foreign aid and international development. Their invention, development volunteering, was made to suit specific contexts and times – Indonesia and Australia in the early 1950s. However, it soon breached these borders and was implemented by other actors, for different purposes, and in different contexts. Looking to its origins can help us understand not only how foreign aid practices came into being, but can also help explain some of the tensions and contradictions in the system as it continues today.


R:            I think you can see that Agnieszka’s got a very big vision and ... but being incredibly focused on getting all of that detail and all those stories that have come directly out of the papers. I’ve seen her every day for about 10 hours in that room, in the Special Collections Meeting Room poring through box after box after box to create this story which probably has never been quite told in this way before so with that I think ... and we are very fortunate to have a volunteer who I did not quite realise when I said you were the oldest volunteer in the room, Jeff, that you were actually there so I think you’ve got your hand ... is there somebody else here too? Ah how wonderful, welcome to you and I’m sorry I didn’t meet you first. Perhaps we should give you the microphone to start with to ask any ... and give you the first right of asking or commenting on anything that Agnieszka has to say. We ask you to ... for the microphone simply because we are podcasting the talk and that way we can get the questions so it’s not for hearing, it’s for recording. Thank you. So you would like to comment, anybody?

J:             Well firstly congratulations, I thought that was a masterly presentation about a subject I’m glad to see a number of people want to know about and care about. In particular I was appreciative of the remarks about the earlier days of the scheme when I was there and Lindsay before me, in particular the way in which you developed the theme of how the scheme changed and the way in which the role of government also changed in relation to the scheme and how notions of foreign aid developed after that and subsumed the scheme but nevertheless volunteers to continue to go from Australia and from other countries around the world to what we think of as less developed and that aspect of activity is really to be distinguished and added to foreign aid and I think it’s a very, very important point and I thought you made it very well if I may say so.

A:            Thank you so very much, that’s obviously a historian’s worst nightmare to have their subject speak back so thank you. That’s brilliant and I think ...

J:             [unclear].

A:            Of course. It is absolutely right and there’s something you know the element which I couldn’t really add to tonight’s presentation ‘cause there’s just so much that I wanted to talk about is that relationship to aid and Geoff makes a really good point you know this is coming to be at the same time, I mean within a matter of months as the most experimental of the UN foreign aid schemes towards development in the you know what came to be known as the third world. So 1951, the same year that Herb Feeth goes is the year that the UN sends its first sort of development experts who are paid at a much greater salary. The Colombo Plan of course comes into being at the same time and there’s an immediate tension there you know the volunteers are talking back, they’re saying actually, you’re doing it wrong before you know and sort of trying to intervene at a time when this huge system which later becomes a behemoth especially during the ‘60s which was the decade of development, comes into being so there’s a real tension and a conversation I think you know the critique of aid but also how it fed into aid systems that could be had and one day I will unpick it further.


Other comments and questions?

D:            There are two other volunteer graduates here, Lindsay and Sylvia Cleland and also Patrick Anderson who went as an AB ... was ABA for a year in Indonesia. There are spies here. I was Chairman of the Volunteer Graduate Scheme from 1951 to 19 ...

R:            Don Anderson?

R:            Don Anderson’s my name. And congratulations, that was a superb presentation and I think you’ve captured the essence and spirit of the scheme and you’ve raised questions that some of us hadn’t really thought much about but are important questions. Politically from the beginning the scheme had people within the Australian government ... had the ear of people. Alf Parsons, later become Ambassador, was in the Embassy when I visited Indonesia with Herb in ’51 and he was a great supporter of the scheme. The committee which you referred to was a commi ... committee which I chaired was mainly volunteer graduates but Jim Webb whom you mentioned was a critical figure and without Jim’s drive, energy, organising ability, the scheme wouldn’t have been the success it was and the successor, the ABC and so forth which Jim of course continued working there.

I ... the comparison with the Peace Corps is interesting and probably instructive to follow that one up. I visited the Peace Corps people in America late ‘50s and we compared notes and I said how do you select your volunteers? And they said we’ve got a computer program, computers you know the size of a house then but they had all of the attributes that were required in the field and they matched those with personality characteristics and sort of ... in that way. They said to me how do you select your people? I said well our ... we have a ... they have to be able to withstand frustration and maintain a hard and frustrating task and those were ... the frustrations were the volunteers inevitably have to wait I'm sure, Geoff and Lindsay and Sylvia will confirm this but there were delays and difficulties getting post. The graduates, those there in the field by the way were important in attempting to get places for the others. And the hard task was learning Indonesian and perhaps learning about Indonesian food and chilli but we found that anyone who stood the distance on those things were admirable guarantees and we had no need of personality tests.

A:            Thank you, Don. I’ll have to have a chat with you afterwards, I’ve attempted to stalk you but unsuccessfully in the past. I think you’re absolutely right firstly about Jim Webb so when Robin says that I spend hours and hours reading the records, they’re largely Jim’s papers. The man was an inspirational and sometimes frustratingly thorough administrator, he got absolutely everything on paper and it was just incredible so reading those papers is fantastic. And as you say I think that difference with the Peace Corps is very instructive you know the idea, the sort of ... the germ of the model that comes from Australia is picked up but it’s fu ... infused with such American qualities by the time it becomes the Peace Corps and this is something I want to look at in that broader project. You point out computers but there were also ... there’s a psychology industry that was going into this, I mean this is the same time as the rise of psychology and social science as part of everyday life so they were doing psychological testing of every single volunteer who got beyond an interview.

Also publicity so the advertising industries and publicity industries which America does so well and unfortunately better than VGS did with its lovely typewritten newsletters. By the time the Peace Corps get their hands and budgets on it it becomes you know there’re sitcoms which feature the Peace Corps, there are so many ads and ... in so many magazines using professional advertising agencies, that it takes on a life of its own not necessarily to the benefit of the idea itself though because by ... if you look at what they’re talking about and what the advertising is, it’s not about the job, it’s not about the role, it’s about the person and how great they are that they’re volunteers and aren’t they glamorous and aren’t they good-looking? You know these sort of selfless Americans who are the best of what America is so yes, I think you’re very right, there is a huge difference between this scheme and what becomes a peace corps but I’d very interested in that chat that you had which one day I’ll follow up.

P:            Hi, Paul Bird, I’m honoured to be the current head of Australian Volunteers International and it’s brilliant of be in such esteemed company and Don, absolutely, I’ve been stalking you too so you’re not going to escape this room for very long. I just wanted to say well done, it’s fascinating and it really builds on Gemma’s book, and look forward to working with you and actually you know supporting your work.

My observation is I think the approach around development and some extent diplomacy is as relevant today as it was back then. I’ve had the last 30 years working developing world. I found those communities happier at ti ... most of the time and have more purpose and tradition than our communities and my frustration is that we live in Australia ever becoming more insular, more consumerist and I’m desperate to enable more Australians to experience that ... a world which I think has more purpose but also to play a meaningful role in that so my other frustration is having worked in the development field, is that ... including as a technical consultant I’ve got to say but working with INGOs is I think the building of that mutual respect and trust which you talked about over a period of time with communities over a long period of time and AVI’s as you’ve alluded to has been working in those communities for the last 50, 60 years including the Pacific, around the Pacific for the last 50 years. That change is incremental so the question for me is how do we take those lessons? My job is to make sure that DNA still flows through AVI which is really important but how do we influence the government and the developed world? That is the approach development that should continue and should build.

A:            Yes, it’s not a question I can answer I’m afraid but thank you, it is a really important point that you’re making that this is still of continued relevance and I think perhaps becomes increasingly so as the voluntourism industry rises up as a sort of competitor to development volunteering as it’s you know officially set up so if long-term projects and long-term contact with communities is as you’re saying so important then what happens when there’s a sort of a shadow industry that sends kids for a couple of weeks sometimes you know to do jobs that they’re not trained in and that locals would probably be better off doing and being paid for? So yes, I think you’re exactly right, I mean there is so much more here in terms of the politics of this.

I’m not exactly sure that I can fix it but I think that looking back at the history is an important thing that hasn’t necessarily been looked at you know a lot of the debates in development studies are does it work? Does it not? You know what are the benefits? Well if you can sort of take it back a step and look at how did it come to be, you can sort of step outside of the Manichean sort of divides, good, bad and sort of see well the reason why it’s complex is because it has conflicting sometimes elements that went into it at its very creation. So unpicking some of those threads and seeing that it was complex from the beginning can sort of help people understand why it’s still complex and why you know it has mixed effects. But I think it’s quite important to do that in the first place as opposed to just yeah debating good, bad, fund or not fund.

R:            I think we’re drawing to a close, is there anybody ... yes one more? Any more comments then?

N:           Thanks very much. My name’s Patrick Anderson, Don’s son. I was a volunteer for six years but four of them funded by Australia Volunteer Program in Jakarta. I worked with Friends of the Earth Indonesia and I think it’s an interesting topic that goes beyond where you’ve gone but how the framework of the volunteer program moved from support to government to support for universities and nongovernment organisations and so my work was all you know with non-government groups, often criticising or opposing the Indonesian government. I knew Herb from when I was a kid and I wasn’t aware of his Christian values in that sense, I thought that they were more from his experience as a refugee and from a Jewish family and I thought ... and assumed, I suppose, that his approach was more framed around those more general human rights about you know the problem with totalitarianism and you know basic human rights of you know the right to exist as a people, the right to be able to speak, to be able to organise and so on and that’s very much how much work is.

I work today with a group called Forest People’s Program that works with forest peoples throughout the world and it’s ba ... you know it’s a human rights organisation so ... but in the context of Indonesia and my work, I work with an environment group but in Indonesia in the you know this is from 2001 ‘til 2006 with Friends of the Earth Indonesia, there wasn’t really a difference between environment issues and human rights issues. We had common enemies which were you know the corruption, collusion, nepotism between government and industry and the you know the abuse of the rights of communities and so on but I think that’s an interesting issue which probably goes beyond your study of where the program evolved and how it actually evolved into a program that doesn’t so much actually provide placements in government but more in the nongovernment sector. Thank you.

A:            Thank you. No, that is actually a really good point and I suspect, although I haven’t done the study of it in sort of detail yet, that it’s part about the broader shift in aid funding which happens in the ‘70s and ‘80s as a lot of the really big funders sort of lose legitimacy, the World Bank for example stops being seen as right and INGOs sort of step into that space. That work’s largely been done in the UK context so there is a little bit about you know how UK NGOs stepped in and gained legitimacy so I suspect it’s part of that. I think ... I do want to say something about Herb Feether and that religious question ‘cause that is a huge and quite interesting one. And I know Gemma Purdy, who’s Herb Feeth’s biographer, and I’ve had this conversation with her actually in Indonesia. And she you know I was telling her well I’ve found all these things in Herb Feeth’s papers, it was ... it’s actually evangelical you know it sounds like he wants to send missionaries to Indonesia.

At this stage he’s very strongly Christian and Gemma’s like you know looking from the longer perspective of Herb over his life, she was just like Agnieszka, he’s not an evangelical Christian like he doesn't have those strong beliefs. He went through many phases where he really believed lots of things at different times you know he’s always a spiritual person who’s searching for things but you know she will say I don’t think he’s an evangelical Christian. And I don’t think he is except perhaps at this point in time you know a couple of years in the early ‘50s which happened to be so productive for him but he was very clearly on some level influenced by these schemes, it’s there, it’s in his handwriting so I think you’re right, I mean over a lifetime if you look at Herb, he’s not ... he’s not trying to push religion on anyone, it’s very much a private journey which is always imbued with those ideas of social justice you know it’s never a nasty Christianity or nasty anything. But I think at this point in time, which is why I think it’s so important to sort of make it a small story, he’s very strongly influenced. So yeah, I don’t know what to make of that, it’s an interesting debate.

R:            Well, Agnieszka, I think you’ve taken us to ... from the very small to the very big and back to the finishing small but very important point and I think what you’ve also done is engendered such living history, I would call it, as part of this conversation and it is a conversation that’s obviously very resonant in today’s world as much as it was in the beginning of the 1950s. And I too think we would all concur with the comments that have been made that this was an exceptionally wonderful talk and a fantastic piece of research. We look forward to the very big book but we also look forward to the individual stories that come out of it so will you please join me in thinking Agnieszka ...

[End of recording]