50 years later the impact of our work is still visible
Last year SNV celebrated its 50th anniversary, after having been first established as 'Stichting Nederlandse Vrijwilligers' in 1965. Two years prior to that, also due to the enormous success of John F. Kennedy's Peace Corps, the Dutch government announced the setting up of a programme for young development volunteers - the 'Jongeren Vrijwilligers Programma' (JVP).
"At the time of the press conference there was nothing yet: no idea, no organisation, no desk, no pencils – we started from scratch," so recalls one of the former volunteers. In the end, the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) arranged education and training, and Cameroon in West Africa became the first country where JVP would be active. Via advertisements young people who had already finished their education were recruited as volunteers. "We soon realised that to ensure proper work a volunteer would need to dispose of a high degree of stability, and thus people who 'seek an adventure' often appear to be more useful than those who primarily 'want to do good'."
And so, in November 1963, after having had tea with then Queen Juliana at Paleis Soestdijk, the first group of young Dutch development volunteers left for Cameroon. Upon arrival it became clear that no one really knew what needed to happen: "It was not missionary work, but development aid. We started at grass root level, with nothing much to go on and we each simply had to find our way." With the enthusiasm of the young they went to neighbouring villages to introduce themselves and ask the villagers what they could help them with. The volunteers started sharing their knowledge; a cooperative for farmers was established, a shop with products as opened, pit latrines were constructed, nutrition and cleaning lessons were provided, and many things more.
After months of pioneering, the group of volunteers found its way. Everyone had their own way of working, the volunteers all did what they felt was best at that moment. There was no central project vision or attempt to streamline activities, the volunteers simply looked at what people faced in their daily lives and tried to help them improve their circumstances. In the years to follow, several thousand young people were sent all over the world. No longer via JVP, but via SNV – Stichting Nederlandse Vrijwilligers. The way of working then changed too: people would not run their own programmes anymore, but would work more with the government and people in Cameroon and focus on their way of working.
But, as one of the volunteers concludes: "The agriculture cooperative and our literacy work in Bamenda still exist; all the work we performed back then had and still has value. We did not preach 'revolution', we simply did every day work at grass root level, together with the people for whom we worked – people without money or opportunities. As a group, we made a difference."
Recently, Vice Versa shared the story of Wil Verschoor, a former SNV-employee who came to a similar conclusion when she recently revisited an old project she worked on in Nepal between 1987 and 1990. Back then, project activities included building irrigation channels and drinking water systems, training villagers in their use and maintenance, introducing improved agricultural methods and seeds and training women in leadership and participation. Now, 25 years later, she was happily surprised to see the continued impact of their work: "Was our work of any use? Were and are people better off because of our project? After this journey and the results of the project evaluation in 2010, the answer is a resounding 'yes'."
Up until this day, people have clean drinking water, irrigational channels, improved agricultural profits, and they themselves take care of maintenance and continuity. Men and women have formed village committees, have learned from one another and have developed further. "We have fast-tracked developments in that region, or as a Nepali colleague said at the time: 'It was not just the knowledge you brought, but very much also the way you operated and approached things. Methodically, reflective and evaluative – bringing in new things and focusing on training, exchange and learning from experiences. That is what ultimately benefitted us most'."
This news article is based on a 30-minute radio fragment which was aired by Dutch historical radio show OVT (NPO Radio 1) on Sunday 10 January 2016. The fragment is part of the documentary ‘Idealisme en avontuur - Jong Nederland gaat in ontwikkelingshulp’, developed by Gerard Leenders, which details the journey of the first group of Dutch volunteers. As part of the ‘Jongeren Vrijwilligers Programma’ (JVP) they went to Cameroon for development work in 1963.