Last week I visited India, a country I was keen to see again after visiting with the International Development Select Committee in 2012. The invitation was from VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) and its purpose was to better understand their work, meet volunteers, hear about their experiences, build relationships and provide an assessment of their current programmes.
It is strange how some countries affect you more than others. I suppose it might have something to do with my father having been born in India – a natural link, or fond memories of people and places from my previous visit. I was genuinely excited to go and to be driven through Delhi late at night through slow-moving and chaotic traffic, patiently moving forward; you know you are in a different world. Struck by the warmth of welcome, genuine friendliness and natural curiosity of everyone you meet, it is a magnificent place, steeped in tradition and complexity with a strong heart. It was great to be back.
VSO is a well-established NGO with a reputation as one of the world's leading development charities working through volunteers, with a presence in over 30 countries. In India, their themes for development are securing livelihoods, promoting youth engagement, inclusive education and participation and governance. Underpinning all of this is an ambition to create more opportunities, whether that be through promoting entrepreneurship, greater use of resources or improving and extending the education system. For example, India is seeing a decline of child enrolment and retention in schools and VSO is rightly structuring programmes to reverse that trend. Similarly, the infant mortality rate is 57 per 1000 and as India's prosperity is on the rise, it is critical that these issues are addressed.
After a briefing in Delhi I took a domestic flight to Vadodara where I met with representatives of the MS University and the Faculty of Social Work, which has a specific focus on volunteering. I saw first-hand some of the teams in action and heard about a range of projects that the young volunteers were working on. There was clearly a huge amount of passion for the change they are a part of, making a very real and sustainable difference to people's lives and the communities in which they work.
The VSO volunteers were seriously impressive, with confidence, strong communication skills and a commitment to 'giving something back'. The organisation is well structured with a clear strategy and direction. They see a growing appetite for volunteering, not least in collaboration with UK programmes such as the International Citizen Service, which will initially see 150 UK volunteers paired with Indian counterparts. I was particularly pleased to meet the British High Commissioner, who was enthusiastic about VSO and keen to re-establish links.
If Delhi is representative of India as a whole, there is much to be positive about. Growth is almost tangible and developing lasting, positive relationships between the UK and India, particularly through young people, can only be beneficial. Building on existing successes is important, aided by our historic cultural links. India will develop rapidly, its population is already at 1.3 billion and will continue to expand exponentially. For the Indian economy and society to develop in a way that benefits the whole country, it is important to promote social mobility, improve health services and foster an environment in which business and commerce can flourish.
I wholeheartedly support our commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on international development, but our efforts to make a significant difference are enhanced through the work of voluntary organisations. I pay tribute to VSO for all that they do and thank them for the chance to support their work. Volunteers are so often unsung heroes, but I am grateful for the opportunity to promote their invaluable contribution.
India is a wonderful country; vibrant, challenging and dynamic. I hope to visit again and see the long term impact that organisations such as VSO have made, but in the meantime, I would like to thank my hosts for their hospitality and professionalism. I am sure we will keep in touch!
In this section you can read my articles in the local press relating to my work - both in Westminster and in the constituency. Please get in touch with any comments you would like to make.