In January 2015, I volunteered in Bangladesh for four months with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) on a UK government funded development programme called International Citizen Service (ICS). ICS bring together 18 to 25-year-olds from all backgrounds to fight poverty in overseas and UK communities. I volunteered as a team leader with ICS Entrepreneur, providing pastoral care to a team of UK and Bangladeshi volunteers and helping run the project.
We were based in a rural community in the northwest of Bangladesh, near the city of Rangpur. Our project worked alongside local youth volunteers to help set up two small handicrafts businesses. The project particularly targeted marginalised women providing them training and a safe space to work together. We also supported the development of the businesses by conducting market research and linking the women with local entrepreneurs and business networks.
Working on the project was ultimately very rewarding but there were times when it was very frustrating. Life in-community operates at a very different pace to life in London. Beneficiaries would arrive hours late for meetings, or fail to arrive at all, and even the simplest job seemed to take forever to complete. However, just when you thought an event would fall apart, suddenly everything would seem to come together. We also came up against social attitudes towards women in the community. Our targeted beneficiaries could often not leave their house without permission so we spent a lot of time with their families explaining the project and its benefits. It was all worth it in the end; seeing the women come together to start on-the-job training, wearing their best saris because they were so proud to be there, was amazing.
I also found working with the youth volunteers really fulfilling. They all grew in confidence and became much more self-aware during the programme. I loved being part of their journeys and seeing them gain so much from working on the project. Working with such a diverse team was not without its challenges; the language and cultural barriers between the UK and Bangladeshi volunteers were more subtle and harder to overcome than I had expected. However, working along Bangladeshi volunteers ensured that our work was sensitive to the needs of the community
Bangladesh can be a very challenging country to work in but I fell in love with it straight away. Bangladeshi people are very hospitable and friendly; they are very curious about newcomers so I quickly had to adjust to the constant stream of questions from strangers. Despite the presence of numerous development organisations, Bangladesh remains a very poor country with approximately forty per cent of the population living below the poverty line. I experienced some of this first hand as I lived with a host-family for the duration of my time in-community. The lifestyle was very basic. We had brick buildings, electricity and running water but the roofs are made from corrugated tin, there is no glass in the windows and no hot water. We showered using a bucket and our host-mother cooked using an open fire built into the ground in the courtyard. It is a very simple existence but we had everything we needed; when the weather was colder, our host-mother would boil water for us to shower with and the food was always really good, if a little spicy sometimes! Communicating with the family was difficult to start with, as no-one spoke English, but learning Bengali quickly reaped rewards as I started being able to talk with my family and other members of the community.
I would recommend volunteering to everyone, whether they are planning a career in international development or not. Working in a community gives you a much better understanding of the challenges faced by developing countries; the realities of gender inequality and poverty are not as simple as theory suggests some time. Fieldwork is hard but seeing the impact of your work on the beneficiaries makes it incredibly satisfying.
Vix Anderton specializes in women’s issues in development, peace and security, following a career as an RAF intelligence officer. She volunteered as a team leader in Bangladesh with Voluntary Service Overseas and continues to serve as an ambassador for International Citizen Service. @vix_anderton