The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1994Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech to the Voluntary Services Overseas Annual Meeting – 26 October 1994

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech to the Voluntary Services Overseas Annual Meeting, held at the Annual Meeting at the Institute of Education in London on Wednesday 26th October 1994.


I am delighted to be with VSO and its supporters today. You can look back with satisfaction on another year of outstanding VSO achievement, with some 1700 volunteers serving overseas. But the last year has also brought the sad news of the death of the VSO’s founder, Alec Dickson. We have seen in the tribute made to him today that it is because of his vision and determination in promoting the idea of voluntary service overseas that we are meeting here today. Of course VSO has moved on from the organisation he founded in the 1950s – but its fundamental ethos is as strong as ever.

Over recent years we’ve heard a great deal about the bad behaviour of that tiny minority of British people abroad – the louts and the hooligans. But in many parts of the world, this is a face of Britain people simply don’t recognise. The British people they meet are some of the many thousands of volunteers – many of them young – who go abroad to work for the good of others with VSO and other voluntary organisations. I would rather Britain was recognised by the qualities of basic decency, compassion and concern for the welfare of others that volunteers for VSO demonstrate. I wish that were given more recognition.

The heart of VSO’s work is humanitarian: to help other people help themselves through increasing their chances of making better lives and better prospects for themselves and their families.

Commitment to help others is an instinct for millions: a quality which we should all encourage. And Voluntary Service Overseas can be the entry ticket to a lifetime of service for others – a lifetime of commitment to voluntary work at home or abroad. It is not just the people in other countries who benefit – our own society benefits too.

The Government shares the aims and values of VSO. That is why we have increased the support we give to VSO. This year we are supporting your core programme with a grant of over £17m – more than double what we contributed five years ago.

It is an example of our similar aims that, more and more, VSO is working in partnership with Government Agencies – such as the ODA and the British Council – in areas as diverse as Nepal, Uganda, South Africa and Russia. On my recent visit to Russia I was particularly pleased that I was able to announce support through the Know How fund for VSO’s new programme under the East European Partnership to place volunteers in small business development, health service management and other areas. We hope there will be 35 volunteers in place there in the next 18 months.


But our commitment to VSO is only part of a much wider programme. Britain has a quality programme to help poor countries. We are the sixth largest aid donor worldwide but this is by no means the only point. Our agencies are dedicated, practical and effective. The quality of what we do is recognised worldwide. We are in the lead in working for more imaginative debt relief programmes for developing countries.

There have been three significant international initiatives to relieve debt over the last six years. All of them British initiatives.

First, the Toronto terms in 1988 produced a reduction of about one third in the cost of servicing debts to some of the most poor and most indebted countries.

Next, I proposed terms in Trinidad four years ago which resulted in an immediate reduction in debt of up to two thirds for the countries involved. It has been remarkably successful. So far twenty two countries have benefited and nearly 3 billion dollars have been written off. But more still needs to be done.

That’s why, most recently, Ken Clarke has proposed – with considerable support from Commonwealth Finance Ministers – that the IMF should do even more to help these poorest countries by carefully phased and limited use of its gold reserves.

Actually, Overseas Development is something the British are rather good at.

Most people, when they think of our aid effort think of our response to emergencies and disasters – floods in Bangladesh, famine in Ethiopia, fighting in Bosnia – or more recently the devastating consequences of tribal conflict in Rwanda. We are there with quick and effective help. And we make a huge difference. When Lynda Chalker reported back to me after her first visit to Goma in July, I do not believe I had ever heard a more harrowing account of human suffering and sheer horror. Since then – I’m glad to say – we’ve done a great deal to alleviate that suffering and improve conditions – an effort which continues.

But, emergency aid is only part of the picture. Most of our efforts, like yours, go into longer-term developments – helping poor countries find long term solutions to problems of poverty – imparting skills and techniques to enable them to make a living. Giving them the wherewithal and training to help them to earn their own self-respect. As a result – in part – of our help many countries, once heavily dependent on help from outside are now able to earn their own way in the world. But with over a billion people living in absolute poverty, there is still an enormous challenge.

Over the last year and half I have seen a variety of projects which illustrate the achievements of our aid programme. These achievements are as diverse as the countries with which we work.

– In India last year I saw one of our slum improvement projects; it is transforming the lives of some 80,000 of the poorest families: improving health with water supplies and sanitation and expanding opportunities for people to earn income and support themselves.

– In Russia earlier this year I saw how we are helping to promote the transition to democracy and a market economy. I visited a Privatisation Centre supported by our Know How Fund. In Nizhny Novgorod I met farmers who were learning how to buy and sell shares in land and new businessmen who were keen to learn more about marketing their products. The Privatisation Centre is playing a key role in the transformation of old-fashioned state-owned enterprises in the region.

In South Africa last month I saw some of the positive results of our aid – and not just cricket pitches. With President Mandela, I signed an agreement on the £60 million of aid we have pledged to support areas which are vital to the country’s future: education, health, good government and encouraging small enterprises. The tremendous optimism and energy of the people I met in the townships of Johannesburg brought home to me how much our help is valued – and needed.


Government programmes of this kind can achieve a great deal. But, as you know better than most, aid is not just the business of governments. We cannot and should not nationalise compassion. That would destroy the very foundation of what we want to achieve – the compassion of ordinary people and their desire to do something personally to help.

Contributions from private individuals and from businesses show the extent to which the British people remain committed to promoting development.

Volunteers who serve overseas play an important part in helping to give us in Britain a wider perspective on the world. They can help us to understand the needs and priorities of poorer nations. In international relations, volunteers can give us a unique insight into all the problems – social, economic, environmental which these nations face.

The experience of volunteering also develops the individual who volunteers. It draws out skills which might otherwise be under-used. It strengthens those values of self-reliance, responsibility, and respect for others – values which strengthen our society.


When I was Foreign Secretary – a few brief glittering hours, rather less than Peter Carrington – I was concerned that the challenge of volunteering should be more widely available to younger people. When VSO was first founded in 1958, most of the volunteers were school leavers. The average age of a volunteer is now about 33. I would like to see younger people also having access to this kind of opportunity and experience as they did in the first years of VSO.

Often, when young people volunteer to work overseas it is from a sense of adventure – a desire to be independent – yet what begins as adventure can become a way of life and a way of building a sense of responsibility and the ability to put problems into perspective. We ought to widen opportunities for young people to contribute as volunteers. I am delighted therefore to hear of the establishment of your Overseas Training Programme sending students on assignments in developing countries. I was particularly interested to hear at first hand the experiences of two of the trainees a moment ago.


The health and vitality of VSO depends strongly on its broad base of public support in the country. To maintain and develop this support, you have recognised the need to involve the public more actively in funding and providing practical help.

I welcome your plans to increase funding from the British public and from the private sector. Individuals and international companies and trusts should be encouraged to offer you financial support. Often, it is in their interests too, to do so.

It is also important to help the right people to serve overseas and so we welcome your ambition to involve employers in encouraging their staff to think about voluntary work.

Companies have much to gain from encouraging their staff to volunteer either in the UK or abroad. Increasingly, companies are working in partnership with voluntary agencies in the UK, sharing skills and experience.

Though there are practical issues which need to be considered, I believe more employers could derive substantial advantages by developing partnership with overseas voluntary agencies too – particularly companies with trading interests overseas. They need staff with initiative and experience abroad. Voluntary work can give those staff, especially younger staff, that experience much earlier in their careers than is often possible in the company itself. I know that VSO hopes to discuss all this with employers’ organisations and professional bodies. I should like to take this opportunity to express the Government’s support. But most of all I hope that those of you in the audience today from the private sector will be able to help and advise on the way forward.

The world we live in is changing faster than ever before. And, for all its turbulence, one of the irreversible features of modern life is the tapestry of links that we are constantly weaving across national and continental boundaries -links through trade, links through the electronic media, through travel, and through education and learning.

When I was a young child the outside world was far away; mass travel by jet airliner was a thing of the future. When the MCC toured Australia they spent weeks crossing the ocean by sea, not hours by air.

The young people of today see the world in an entirely different light. For them, experience of other nations is a commonplace. For them, it is the most natural thing in the world to reach out across the sea and work with the rising generation in other lands.

Young people have a curiosity and a breadth of vision many older people do not. They have modern skills many older people may never acquire. They are aware that, outside the highly developed countries, the huge rate of population growth makes this more than ever a young person’s world. Look at the townships of South Africa or the cities of Latin America and you will see the truth of that.

We must see this as an opportunity. We must make use of those young people’s enthusiasm for life. Understanding grows and cooperation follows when people meet and work and talk and build together.

People over 60 remember war right here in Western Europe. People under 30 find it inconceivable. And why? Largely because of the millions of invisible links between nations that they themselves have helped to develop in the course of their lives.

I have a hope – indeed, I have faith and confidence – that as we work for a new world order, it is the new world vision of so many younger people that will be one of the anchors of lasting peace.

A few weeks ago I called for an anti-yob culture. Well that culture is certainly alive and well in the. VSO. I am proud of your past achievements.

But even more, I am proud of what VSO and all its supporters will do in the years ahead and I wish you every success.