The first volunteers were young Italian men and women who had graduated from university and left homes and jobs to lend their time, talents and energy on a long-term basis in the Ruzizi Valley of Ulvira, Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Their initiative was in response to an invitation from the local community and institutions to assist in reconstruction efforts following ten years of rebellion and violence. Amid the timid signs of willingness of the population to recover and rebuild, the volunteers’ decision to remain and their commitment to accompany the people rested less on their technical skills or their compassion, and more on their desire and enthusiasm to share with these people a way of facing reality with hope.
Back home in Italy, friends of those first volunteers were excited to be part of this adventure and to take on the challenge of providing resources needed for their friends to continue their work in Congo. In 1972, papers were filed in Cesena, Italy, for the creation of the Associazione Volontari per il Servizio Internazionale (AVSI). Official recognition from the Italian Government as an NGO for international cooperation soon followed. This new status set the stage for the different initiatives in Congo to be recognized and supported by international agencies and donors. The formalization also paved the way for the small group of friends to reach out and support other volunteers who left for the mega-cities and slum neighborhoods of Brazil.
From these humble yet enthusiastic roots, AVSI has grown through a process characterized by relationships, commitment and a clear mission of education. AVSI’s engagement in a country or area has always followed a request or invitation to work together, rather than imposing a project upon a community.
AVSI’s early growth was linked to the availability of numerous professionals, from the fields of education, health care, and agronomy, to commit years of service on AVSI projects in Africa and Latin America.
Whether in pro-bono or paid capacities, these long-term volunteers shaped AVSI into what it is today. Over the years, AVSI staff have consistently engaged in deep reflection on the experiences of this work in contexts of poverty, marginalization and instability.
In time, central elements of a method emerge. For AVSI, methodology does not imply having a ready-made solution in hand, but instead the points of method suggest a way of looking at reality and engaging with it, and with others, which is more adequate.
In 1995, AVSI began to formalize its relationship with other organizations, first by linking 5 European NGOs into a structured network. Gradually, AVSI invited local partners from developing and transitioning countries to join the growing network.
The value proposition of the network is primarily an educative one: united by a common vision of the human person in his/her infinite human dignity, the AVSI network serves as a platform for deepening this vision, sharing reflection and collaboration. The AVSI network has expanded to include 36 organizations from Europe, Russia, Africa, Latin America, USA and Canada. Beyond the formal network, AVSI continues to collaborate with a number of other local partners who are central to the daily work of project implementation.
Also in these years, the Distance Support Program (DSP) was begun, providing Italian families and individuals who wanted to support a child with their health and education needs on a long-term basis the opportunity to do so. AVSI has since grown this program, carried out through close partnerships with hundreds of local community based organizations and schools, to reach over 30,000 children each year.
In 1996, AVSI became a special member of the United Nations Economic and Security Council (ECOSOC), a step which reflected AVSI’s stature on the global stage.
The past 15 years have been ones of significant growth and tumultuous change. In 1999, AVSI received a first grant from USAID’s Displaced Children and Orphans Fund in northern Uganda at the height of the conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army.
- In 2000, AVSI opened an office in New York City to serve as a representative to the UN on a more consistent basis.
- In 2001, AVSI-USA was formally registered with the support of a group of friends of AVSI in New York who were convinced of the value of bringing the distinctive AVSI identity and mission to the US public. In 2004, a second AVSI-USA office was opened in Washington, DC to facilitate collaborations with multilateral institutions and the US Government including USAID.
- Also in 2004, AVSI was awarded a significant project through the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) under the funding umbrella to support orphans and children made vulnerable due to HIV/AIDS. AVSI launched a 3-country, 5-year project which was a turning point in the relationship with USAID.
The years 2008-2010 presented many challenges in Europe and around the world, and AVSI was not immune to the turmoil. The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs suffered severe reductions in budgetary resources for development and was later restructured, leading to the creation in 2014 of a new ministry with a renewed focus on development. These changes have created opportunities for AVSI going ahead.
The European Union has since become a more significant partner for AVSI, and we have intensified our focus on building relationships and sharing learning with EU officials at various levels. On the US side, AVSI’s portfolio continues to expand, reaching an average of 12% of the AVSI consolidated budget.
Looking ahead, AVSI is ready to chart a new path for international development and solidarity. The vehicles used to get there may change and will certainly include new forms of partnership with businesses and donors, but the path will continue to be focused on reaching the “last mile”, or the final stretch connecting dignified, quality services and information to the most vulnerable individuals, groups and communities.