At the beginning of February, two health workers set out on a journey from Glasgow to Lilongwe in Malawi. Husband and wife Eric and Celia Taylor were beginning a two-year VSO placement at the badly understaffed Kamuzu Central Hospital.
Eric, consultant surgeon to Inverclyde Royal Hospital, is going as medical officer. Celia, senior adviser at Communities Scotland, will be administrative manager. They are only two of the 750 volunteers the charity sends to developing countries each year, but they are also pioneers. They are the first volunteers to benefit from a scheme that will ensure their pension contributions carry on being paid by their employer, NHS Scotland. They will also be able to slot back into their old jobs when they return.
For VSO this is an important part of its quest to make volunteering as attractive as possible. Recent research revealed a sharp fall in the number of professionals in their 30 and 40s taking on VSO placements. One reason is fears for job security.
"We often find that public sector workers leave their jobs when they volunteer," says Graeme Chisholm, marketing adviser at VSO. "We're looking at that secondment model and trying to ensure the employee isn't penalised for giving more."
The partnership was forged with NHS Scotland after the Scottish Executive formed its own partnership with the Malawian government to support the country's health service, which has only 266 practicing doctors. The executive has made £100,000 available from its newly established International Development Fund to pay the pension costs of health professionals working in Malawi.
Ten will start work there this year and a further 10 in 2008.
NHS managers believe volunteers will return to their jobs with extra skills. VSO is hoping other public bodies follow the Scottish model. It has contributed to Nigel Crisp's review of the English NHS's relationship with the developing world, due out later this month, arguing for the adoption of 'protected secondments' for English health professionals.
The Scottish Executive says: "A range of organisations, including other UK government departments, have expressed an interest, but want to measure the success and effectiveness of this pilot."