"It’s all about the relationships”: Sam McLachlan has been studying the UniVol programme and its impact on both volunteers and hosts.

Sam McLachlan Congress 17 full

Sam McLachlan presents his research findings on the UniVol programme at VSA's Congress in November

Otago PhD student Sam McLachlan has been analysing how VSA’s volunteering model works for university students and host organisations.

“The model is all about that one-on-one relationship level, which is really beneficial and quite different to a top-down model. But because it’s based on an exchange of skills, talking to people and working alongside them, it’s complex and hard to measure.”

The strengths of UniVols include their flexibility and willingness to contribute, ability to learn local languages and empathy to hosts’ situations and local cultures.

Univols celebrate 10 years

Ninety-four students have been on assignment under the UniVol programme since the first group headed off to South Africa, Tanzania and Vanuatu in 2007.

The programme is the brainchild of Professor Tony Binns, Ron Lister Chair of Geography at Otago University, who had earlier been involved in Volunteer Service Overseas’ (VSO) intern programme in the UK. The UniVol programme now involves Otago, Victoria, Auckland and Massey universities.

Students who take part must have taken some development or development-related papers at 300 level.


Problems can arise however when host organisations don’t know how to use UniVols’ skills, when age or gender creates barriers and when there’s a poor balance between host and expat communities.

Sam presented his research, “Relationships Matter: the Role and Impact of Younger International Development Volunteers” at VSA’s Congress in Wellington in November. It’s based on responses from 54 UniVols who were on assignment from 2007 to 2015, and interviews with VSA employees and host community members.

His own experience as a UniVol in South Africa has also shaped his thinking. In 2010 he was a youth programmes adviser in East London. A trip up to Zambia gave him an idea for his Masters and, back in New Zealand under the guidance of Professor Tony Binns at Otago, he decided to research the UniVol programme and VSA’s volunteering model.

His research also reveals the careers that UniVols take up on return. Some who had been in the workforce longer had taken up multiple roles but across all respondents, one-third had carried on with more study, 19 percent worked for NGOs and 18 percent took up roles in government or local authorities. Twenty-nine percent moved on to areas such as teaching and science, or part-time jobs and further travel.

Sam hopes to complete his PhD early next year. In September, he travelled with Tony Binns to present his research to the Royal Geographical Society in London. Two years ago, he talked to the American Association of Geographers’ conference in Chicago about young people volunteering in the Pacific.