FOCUS ON NGOs : Voluntary Services Overseas : Impacting lives through Volunteerism

By Paul Ntambara Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) is an international NGO, with programmes in 33 countries around the world. VSO believes that people are not merely the victims of poverty – they’re the key to ending it; that people make lasting change.

By Paul Ntambara

Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) is an international NGO, with programmes in 33 countries around the world. VSO believes that people are not merely the victims of poverty – they’re the key to ending it; that people make lasting change. VSO volunteers live and work alongside local communities. They share ideas and inspire change.


The organisation recruits experienced volunteers through the UK, Canada, Philippines, Netherlands, India, Ireland, Kenya, but people from anywhere can volunteer through those offices.


Qualifications which would allow them to do a similar role in their own country and at least 2 years of work experience are required. In Rwanda, the average number of years of experience that VSO volunteers have is 16.


VSO has 81 experienced professionals currently working as volunteers in Rwanda working in education, disability, and National Volunteering/Youth Programmes. Its main partner is the Government of Rwanda. Volunteers under the education and disability programs are based at district offices and with the Ministry of Youth and ICT on National Volunteering/Youth. It also partners with Civil Society Organisations for example Rwanda Union of the Blind, National Union of Disabled Organisations of Rwanda and Rwanda National Union of the Deaf. VSO has 60 program partners many of which are districts. It operates in 21 districts.


Under the education program, VSO supports government to improve quality of basic education. This involves pre-service and in-service training, special needs education; working with centres that care for learners with special needs and policy engagement. 
Mary Sugrue, one of the volunteers in VSO’s education program says that students in pre service training are introduced to practical methodology to make their lessons more learner-centred.

“We expect our students to be able to use the very best teaching methods when they leave the Teacher Training College, so that they will be able to support primary school children to achieve all they can and contribute to Rwanda’s development,”says Sugrue, a volunteer at Rubengera Teacher Training College.

TTC Rubengera has 474 students in pre-service training to become primary school teachers. At the college, Sugrue has helped establish a Teacher Resource Centre which is both a classroom and workshop. It offers an opportunity for students to make and borrow teaching aids. It makes it possible for students to use their imagination, creativity and innovation to make teaching aids that are appropriate for the classroom. This program is funded by UNICEF.

One of the challenges teachers are faced with is lack of confidence in the use of the English language to teach. English replaced French as a language of instruction from Primary Four in Rwandan schools.

“The message that I pass on in the classroom and to my colleagues is that you don’t have to use complex language to have good teaching,” Sugrue adds.

Disability program

Under the disability program, VSO focuses on rights and services for people with disabilities through policy engagement and support to the disability movement. This involves working with organisations that support or advocate for people with disabilities and working with districts to ensure the inclusion of people with disabilities in district development plans.

Flavia Mugire, the Disability and National Volunteering Support Officer at VSO says that the disability program by VSO and other efforts by government have greatly helped the plight of people with disabilities.

“People with disabilities had low self esteem but this is changing. They have now realised that they can go on to live productive lives like any other person,” she says.

She however highlights the need for special needs education. Mugire also calls for the adoption of the Kinyarwanda sign language as one the official languages of Rwanda. This would empower Deaf people as their main method of communicating would be recognised as a language. Kenya, in their new constitution, has recognized Kenyan sign language as one of the official languages.

VSO has partnered with the Masaka Resource Centre for the blind, to help the visually impaired gain vital life skills. At the centre, the visually impaired are given skills in agriculture including animal husbandry, farming and learning how to use Braille.

“Most of them have never been out of their homes by the time they come here.  At the centre, they are given basic rehabilitation skills including washing themselves and walking by themselves,” says Antoine Rukebesha, a VSO volunteer working as a community development advisor with the Rwanda Union of the Blind.

Youth and National Volunteering

This is a new program in VSO where the organisation is partnering with the Ministry of Youth to empower the youth with skills. Rwanda’s population in the youth bracket is big yet many have not gone far with formal education.

Working closely with the Kimisagara Youth Employment and Productive Centre, a model centre, VSO is implementing the Youth Empowerment and Global Opportunity project (YEGO) aimed at developing various training opportunities for youth to help them get employment, vocational or entrepreneurial skills to start their own businesses.

According to a VSO Volunteer Andrew Nixseaman, an Entrepreneurial Skills Building And Job Creation Policy Advisor with the Ministry of Youth and ICT, the project seeks to look at each individual person to find out the skills and ambitions that they have and support them develop them.

“It is a very ambitious program that has the support of the Ministry, it is some thing that they are going to be focusing on in the next five years,” he says.

The centre in Kimisagara is expected to be a model centre on which similar ones will be set up in every Sector in the country.
“We want to get a model that works at Kimisagara before rolling it out in other districts,” says Nixseaman.

National volunteering is also seen as a way to contribute to the development of Rwanda. While volunteerism is not an entirely new concept in Rwandan culture, it has not yet been fully embraced by the youth.

“We hope that through sensitization and education the program will take root. We also want volunteering to be considered as job experience as demanded by employers. This will make it more attractive to the youth especially those that have completed school,” says Vianney Mutabazi, National Volunteering and Youth Program Manager at VSO Rwanda.


In 2011, VSO Volunteers worked directly with 12,000 people in Rwanda from teachers to civil organisation staff, district education officers to gender specialists. It is estimated that the 12,000 people worked with over half a million Rwandans including children, people with disabilities and rural farmers.

Charlotte Phillips, the VSO interim Country Director says the organisation supports the Government of Rwanda in policy development, both through placing volunteers with Government and directly through its staff working with decision makers.
VSO was heavily involved in the development of the new EDPRS and the development of the education sector strategic plan.

Challenges and way forward

Ms. Phillips says that the Government recognise the importance of quality education, but there remain big challenges to be addressed. “Teachers are key to improving quality of education.

It’s important to ensure that teachers are well trained and adequately rewarded. This is still a challenge but it is getting a lot better. The Kigali Institute of Education has taken over the management of Teacher Training Colleges. This will help the understanding that the Teacher Training Colleges are professional training institutions” She considers.

For people with disabilities, it is important to ensure that they are included in the development plans at district level – and also to ensure that children with disabilities and special needs receive a good quality education.

Finally for young people in Rwanda, it is important to prepare them adequately for the job market. This can be through learning vocational skills, or through building their catalytic skills – for example team working ability and their ability to be creative and innovative.

VSO is proud to be supporting the Government of Rwanda in attaining its development goals.

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