AVSI was created in Italy by a group of friends to support the work of those friends who had left their homes and jobs in 1971to volunteer on a long-term basis in the Ruzizi Valley of Ulvira, Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in response to the invitation of the local community to cooperate in the reconstruction efforts following almost 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 accompanying these people rested less on either their technical skills or their compassion, and more on their desire and enthusiasm to share with these people their way of facing reality with hope, according to how they had been educated.
From volunteers in international service, AVSI (with the name of the organization a reflection of what was really happening and remains valid today) was born in 1972 and received official recognition from the Italian Government as an NGO for international development the following year. This new status set the stage for the different initiatives in the Congo to be recognized and supported by international agencies and donors as noteworthy examples of cooperation among peoples. The formalization of AVSI also paved the way for the small group of friends to reach out and support other volunteers who had also begun a relationship among the poor living in Brazilian slums and to expand their vocational training courses for youth, thus gaining trust and confidence from the public and private sectors.
From these humble yet enthusiastic roots, the AVSI Network has continued this same process of growth characterized by relationships, commitment and a clear mission of education. AVIS’s presence around the world expanded throughout the 1990s in response to requests from local communities, organizations, and leaders as well as in response to disaster, such as the genocide in Rwanda (1994) and the instability in Albania and Kosovo (1999).
In 1995, AVSI began to establish mechanisms for official linkages of 5 European NGOs within the structure of an associative network. From this beginning, the local institutions with whom AVSI had been partnering with in developing and in-transition countries were also invited to incorporate, and the Network expanded over time to its present size of 24 organizations. The composition of the network today includes 10 European NGOs which together support and collaborate with 14 member organizations in developing or transition countries: six in Latin America; four in Eastern Europe/Russia; and four in Africa. 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.
In 2001, AVSI opened an office in New York in order to serve as representative to the UN on a more consistent basis; in 2003, a second office in the U.S. was opened in Washington, DC to facilitate collaborations with multilateral institutions and other development organizations.
For more details regarding the history of the Association, please see the 2003 Social Report which includes a timeline of significant events.
The 24 organizations that now form the AVSI network each have a distinct history and path of development, yet many are united by a common story. Guided by the principles of participation and subsidiarity, AVSI volunteers and staff implement initiatives together with the local people and their associations, never substituting for them but enhancing their capacities and nurturing the responsibility of people to address problems collectively. Often times, the result of such engagement has been the formation of local non-governmental organizations, or the expansion of existing NGOs or associations.
In Uganda, for example, the local institution, Meeting Point, was created after a group of friends and volunteers found themselves face-to-face with people affected by HIV/AIDS and the widespread repercussions the disease was having on their families and communities. Informal assistance and support were formalized over time into an association able to coordinate services and provide a concrete place for relationships to be nurtured and sustained. Presently, there are four Meeting Points in operation, united by the mission of accompanying and supporting the sick, orphans and widows, and other family members touched by HIV/AIDS.
Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Apostolic Nuncio to Uganda, once provided a comment on AVSI’s work which illustrates the method and relationship with local institutions:
"People like those connected to AVSI are not staying idle in front of reality. Their approach is quite remarkable. They don't just go and do things for people. Instead they try to be present, to listen to what's going on, to create a network of relationships and to offer people the possibility of participating in their own rehabilitation - to receive, but also to give. As I've seen, AVSI's method is a kind of being together. This approach is as important as any amount of money we can put into a project. …."
In Argentina, AVSI has had a presence since the mid 1980s when, being involved in support for income generating activities, AVSI began to collaborate with ACDI (Associación Cultural para el Desarrollo Integral). ACDI was established in 1990 to support local social and economic development. Initial collaborations between AVSI and ACDI included feasibility studies and micro-projects, and gradually grew into an on-going partnership. In 1998, a collaborative program of vocational training in the agro-food sector and a Service Center for small businesses were established. Since the economic crisis of 2001, the partnership of AVSI and ACDI has overseen further programs in support of small business activity, including a consortium to provide assistance for the fulfillment of quality standards for agricultural exports and marketing.
In Romania, AVSI has been active in supporting the needs of the population of HIV/AIDS affected children and orphans through rehabilitation and training initiatives in public hospitals. Through these activities, AVSI came to know the Foundation for the Development of Peoples through Mutual Support (Fundatia), an independent NGO. This partnership, initiated in 1996, has allowed for stronger planning and implementation, as well as more effective and sustainable results. Together, Fundatia and AVIS have launched a number of ambitious programs to serve the needs of this distressed group, social services for HIV+ children and their families, efforts to recover family relationships and the establishment of three family-style foster homes. Fundatia’s projects have continued to expand to address the needs of the community at large, and now include a range of programs, including educational activities, attention to the disabled, and support for pregnant mothers in difficult situations.
Relationship between AVSI and Member Organizations
The relationship between the headquarters and leadership of AVSI and official member organization is one of long-term commitment and familiar support. On a practical level, the relationships rely upon the pillars of implementation support, technical assistance, frequent interaction and mutual learning, and fundraising/financial support. The provision of these “services” happens in a fluid manner at the levels of day-to-day operations as well as at the institutional level of organizational leadership and management.
At the level of project implementation, the presence of AVSI professional expatriate staff working in close collaboration with the staff of local organizations facilitates a learning-by-doing approach to technical assistance and on-the-job training. The synergy that AVSI strives for in human resources confirms the importance of local people as real actors of their development, thus promoting sustainability and local capacity building. The expatriate staff in the field ensures frequent communication between local institutions and AVSI headquarters, and often opens up opportunities for ad hoc technical assistance in response to the needs and requests of the implementing organizations and tailored specifically to meet those needs. In particular, support for accounting and financial management of an organization’s activities is often extended. Resources and training for professional development support are also provided for the staff of member organizations when needed, including opportunities for learning internships at the AVSI headquarters or with other member organizations in the same region or area of intervention.
Regionally, AVSI convenes meetings of member organizations by region in response to expressed interest of those organizations. In addition, AVSI frequently supports the efforts of local partners in organizing conferences or meetings to network with and learn from other organizations working in similar technical areas of intervention, thus facilitating learning and exchange.
At the institutional level, AVSI supports the development and capacity of member organizations through frequent interaction and mutual learning focused on improving all aspects of the organizations’ work. All member organizations are encouraged to participate in the annual General Assembly at which the Association’s financial accounts are presented and decisions are made regarding strategic direction. In addition, AVIS hosts week-long conferences up to three times a year to address issues of interest to member organizations and to provide forums for discussion, exchange, training and planning. These conferences are structured around thematic presentations and discussions which address a variety of topics relating to working with communities for social, economic and cultural development. In the past, presentations have addressed issues of methodology, questions of evaluation or performance, and the international context for development work. Training sessions are often held to address topics of administration, financial management, communication, and others. Working groups are also convened to address specific technical issues; for example, HIV/AIDS, nutrition, and agriculture. Presentations of success stories as well as challenges faced in the field also form an important component of these conferences and draw upon the variety of rich experiences which come together from around the world. Within the framework of the conferences, significant segments of time are designated for technical support of programming for individual organizations, thus taking advantage of the opportunity to meet and discuss concrete plans with experts. Countless opportunities for networking and communication among the project implementers from the diverse countries represented in the AVSI network are made available.
In addition to the annual meetings, it is frequently the case that AVSI professionals with years of experience are asked to sit on the board of directors of member organizations. Through this channel, AVSI can support the institutional development of its members.
AVSI International supports member organizations by assisting their staff in the identification of funding opportunities, and oftentimes in the preparation of proposals. The AVSI Network is uniquely poised to learn about and take advantage of funding opportunities available throughout Europe and in the United States, and years of experience in the field through local institutions greatly substantiates AVSI proposals for funding.