Young people in Loitokitok, Kenya throw pots of brightly-coloured powdered paint as part of the ICS-organised ‘Colourfest’
VSO/James Boosey

Triumph, heartbreak and breakthroughs: Reflecting on 2019

Reflecting on a year of inspiration, celebration and challenges that made us stronger than ever.

As the year draws to a close, it's a time when many of us like to take stock and evaluate. We celebrate what we have to be thankful for, and look at what we can learn from those things that didn't go to plan.

For VSO, it was another year in which thousands of inspiring individuals took collective action as volunteers, reaching millions more with better education, health and livelihoods opportunities. But there were also several milestones which we'll remember when we look back at 2019.

1. Our biggest humanitarian response to date

Community volunteers supporting post Idai relief, Mozambique
VSO/Peter Caton

Community volunteers who were recruited in the wake of Cyclone Idai

Cyclone Idai made landfall in Mozambique on 14 March 2019, bringing with it three months' worth of rain in just 24 hours. Homes, crops and classrooms were all lost to the floodwaters. Hundreds of people tragically lost their lives.

While no one could have predicted then the ferocity of the storm that would come, natural and climate-related disasters are becoming more common around the world. A year before Cyclone Idai hit, VSO began training its hundreds-strong network of community volunteers in resilience and disaster response.

This strong network of trained volunteers on the ground and ready to respond allowed VSO to deliver its biggest humanitarian response to date. More than 13,000 people received a month's worth of emergency food aid, along with items like soap. Community volunteers cleared debris, distributed mosquito nets and worked on improving hygiene to prevent the spread of disease.

Just as inspiring was the amazing generosity of everyday VSO supporters, who dug deep to give more than £130,000 to our emergency appeal, without which the response would not have been possible.

While nothing will bring back the family members, homes and possessions lost to Cyclone Idai, the aftermath reminded us of the generosity and ingenuity of the human spirit.

We also responded to many lesser-reported disasters.

While Cyclone Idai hit the headlines, there was less coverage of floods in Myanmar, Nepal and Sierra Leone, or of the drought in Pakistan that affected five million people. In each of these cases, VSO was on the ground and able to respond. In many cases, community volunteers provided vital support coordinating the distribution of lifesaving aid and information.

In photos: Grassroots recovery in Mozambique

2. The climate crisis entered the public consciousness

Young people hold placards as they march in the street in Bangladesh

Children and young people in Bangladesh march for action on climate change as part of the global Fridays for Future movement.

2019 was the year that the issue of climate change had a major breakthrough with the global public. From 'climate strikes' in Dhaka, London and Manila, to a state of climate emergency being declared at the highest levels of government, a sense of urgency and anger about the lack of action on mitigating climate change and adapting to its impacts pervaded much of 2019.

Much of the grassroots action has been led over the past year by the world's youth, with figureheads around the world calling for older generations to consider the world they will leave for younger people to inherit. VSO and ICS youth volunteers took action in countries as diverse as Bangladesh and Nigeria.

We recognise the urgent challenge posed by climate change, and the fact that the world's poorest and most marginalised are the most at risk. Our programmes are helping people adapt and survive among changing conditions, and will continue to do so for years to come.

How we're prepping the world's poorest for climate change

3. Global prize for innovation in education technology

Two young schoolchildren sit on the floor at Mdzobwe Primary School and use their tablets to learn
VSO/Jeff DeKock

Children in Malawi use education software designed by partner onebillion, which in 2019 was awarded the Global Learning XPRIZE

On 15 May 2019, onebillion was announced as one of two grand prize winners in the $15M Global Learning XPRIZE.

Onebillion is a UK-based non-profit creating the revolutionary software that powers VSO’s Unlocking Talent education programme, with the goal of providing literacy and numeracy to at least one billion children around the world. Its CEO, Andrew Ashe, is a former VSO volunteer who was inspired by his time volunteering in Papua New Guinea.

Since the first pilot in Malawi, we have now reached over 90,000 learners across 110 learning centres in 14 districts in the country. There are plans to significantly increase reach by 2023, helping onebillion to move ever closer to its goal of one billion children, and VSO to its vision of a world without poverty.

We're looking forward to celebrating more successes in education in 2020. Over the past year, exciting new partnerships have been agreed to deliver large scale education impacts in Kenya, Mozambique and Myanmar.

The award-winning tech that's transforming education

4. Setting a global standard for volunteering

A group of four ICS volunteers laugh and talk together as they sit on a stairwell
VSO/Cesar Lopez Balan

ICS youth volunteers in Kratie, Cambodia

At VSO, we live and breathe volunteering. We know that, applied responsibly, it can be an incredibly powerful tool to build fair, equitable and resilient communities.

But the efforts of volunteers must be properly supported to make sure their hard work and energy is harnessed in the most positive and impactful way. That's why we were proud to play a leading role in launching the world's first 'Global Standard for Volunteering in Development' at the International Volunteer Cooperation Organisations’ Conference (IVCO) in Kigali, Rwanda in October 2019

Over a billion people across the world volunteer each year. The new Global Standard will help ensure that their work is as responsible, effective and impactful as it can be.

Setting the standard: Leadership in responsible Volunteering for Development

The progress didn't stop there! October also saw VSO and its International Citizen Service (ICS) youth volunteering programme partner with Lumos on a campaign to raise awareness around volunteering responsibly.

The campaign sees the ICS network of over 35,000 youth volunteers joining in efforts to end orphanage tourism and other harmful ‘voluntourism’ schemes. Research shows that orphanages can be harmful when used as a long-term solution.

We even created new resources to help young people spot responsible schemes and avoid inadvertently doing more harm than good.

ICS responsible volunteering checklist

Support another year of breakthroughs

None of these achievements would be possible without the generosity of our kind supporters.

Every pound helps us reach more of the world's most marginalised people, to help deliver sustainable change and tackle some of the worlds biggest issues head-on.

By making a donation today, you'll be helping to create a fair world for everyone.

Make a donation

Read more

Inza, age 12, in the classroom
Suraj Ratna Shakya

The right to education for girls with disabilities

Izna was born with a hearing impairment and her school in Nepal didn’t have the resources to support her, forcing her to drop out. With the help of the ENGAGE project, Inza is now back in education and thriving.

Woman harvesting crops in field.

Investing in small farmers, agroecology critical to get us out of current food crisis

Already battered by the climate crisis and COVID-19, Africa is now facing rising food prices in light of the war in Ukraine.

Women and youth making briquettes for fuel. Uganda.

Meet VSO’s youth innovators and climate champions

Meet Hosea Tumwine – an extraordinary young person and enthusiastic champion of women and girls’ rights in Uganda. Hosea is a member of VSO’s global youth network.