Building bridges through international volunteering: Q&A with Dr Peter Devereux

Peter’s passion for volunteering began in Nicaragua, where he and his wife Leigh spent seven years in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s volunteering with not-for-profit organisations. Ever since, Peter’s career has centred around volunteering – from doing his PhD on international volunteering for development and sustainability to working for United Nations Volunteers (UNV) and researching how volunteers and their hosts see their contributions to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We spoke with Peter about volunteering with a family, and how he sees Australian volunteers’ contributions to making Australia, and the world, a better place.

Peter children on beach

Peter and Leigh's children Salvador and Tomas at the family's favourite beach spot in Nicaragua.

You spent seven years volunteering in Nicaragua – four of which were with the Australian Volunteers Program – what was that experience like?

I volunteered first at a university ecology department and then with a Nicaraguan NGO, the Sandino Foundation, as part of the Australian Volunteer Program. My role with the Sandino Foundation was to help integrate environmental considerations into the organisation’s development programs throughout Nicaragua. I was inspired by the Nicaraguans I worked with—their tenacity, resilience and local wisdom—which allowed them to take action in the face of adversity.

One of the most rewarding experiences was working with my colleagues to develop a comic style education booklet to share knowledge amongst poor farmers. From the information in the booklet, farmers were able to make their small and medium size farms and cooperatives more productive and sustainable using permaculture principles. The booklet was based on the innovations of local farmers and told through a jovial conversation between two farmers.

It was exciting to do this work around the time of the first UN conference on environment and development in 1992, which connected human and environmental needs; just as I was learning to do in Nicaragua.

Family in Nicaragua

Australian volunteers Peter Devereux (far right) and Leigh Dix (far left) with their children Tomas and Salvador, Irish volunteer Molly and Nicaraguan friends Petrona and Carolina. 

What have been the most rewarding and challenging aspects of living as a volunteer with your family overseas?  

Initially in Nicaragua we didn’t have children but while we were there we had three! Having three young kids in Nicaragua was very rewarding because we got to see things through their eyes, and they helped us integrate better into the local community. At home we mostly spoke to our kids in English but they always responded in Spanish! They were a great bridge to local friendships and understanding that opened doors for our work.  

Leigh and I had our first wedding anniversary on 12 September, 1988 while volunteering in Nicaragua, and we celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary on 12 September, 2017, while we were volunteering in Myanmar.

Why is international volunteering important, and how does it contribute to the SDGs? 

 International volunteering builds bridges between people in an interconnected world. It shows that all of us can learn from other people, cultures and contexts and make a difference to our world both overseas and on return home.

“International volunteers are ambassadors for the universal SDGs by taking their skills and Australian experience overseas; and then taking what they learn from local people and contexts back home to make Australia a better and fairer society.”

From 2017 to 2018 you accompanied your wife Leigh on her Australian Volunteer Program assignment in Myanmar, and while there you researched how volunteers and partner organisations saw their contributions to the SDGs - what were your main findings?

The research found most Australian volunteers and partner organisations recognise the distinctive and crosscutting role that volunteers play with their partners to achieve multiple SDGs simultaneously.

Interestingly, 54% of the volunteers felt they had gained a new understanding of the importance of the Australian Government emphasis on ‘public diplomacy’ between Australia and the Indo-Pacific. Seventy-five per cent of volunteers were keen to share their life and work in Myanmar with family, friends and the wider Australian community. This highlights the power and motivation of volunteers to share their personal stories within their communities in Australia.

Peter and Leigh

Peter and Leigh celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary while on assignment in Myanmar.

You were an Australian Government-funded volunteer with the UNV in Fiji for two years, and worked in the UNV headquarters in Germany - what did you learnt about volunteering in that time? 

As a volunteer in Fiji, I coordinated the work of UN volunteers in 10 Pacific countries. I also saw the collaborative efforts of many volunteer organisations from AVI (where I was seconded from my position as Perth State Manager) to Japanese, Korean and United Kingdom volunteers, amongst others. We had monthly meetings to coordinate work, partnerships and activities. One example was working together to leverage the International Year of Volunteers in 2001, to bring awareness to the contribution of volunteering in the Pacific.

I later worked in the UNV headquarters in Bonn, Germany, where I forged partnerships between national and international volunteer organisations, including the International Forum for Volunteering in Development. These partnerships allowed for the volunteering sector to unite to contribute to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Cementing collaboration between UN member states and not-for-profit volunteering organisations seemed at times a relatively slow process. However, this work was very satisfying because these organisations’ contributions to international agreements had the potential to contribute to long-term change in governments’ support for volunteering.

Peter with child

Dr Peter Devereux was on assignment in Nicaragua from 1991 to 1995 and in Fiji from 1999 to 2001 as part of the Australian Volunteers Program. He accompanied his wife Leigh on her volunteer assignment as an Occupational Therapist in Myanmar from 2017 to 2018. During this time, Peter carried out his research on how volunteers and partner organisations see their contributions to the Sustainable Development Goals.