"Returning, there is only one clear, overwhelming thought: gnat against elephant. Your work has been that of a gnat, cleanfaced and valiant, straining at the end of a tug rope against a dysenteric, powerful, starving, self-tortured, awaking, ancient, immensely humane, knowing and surprisingly unembittered elephant.”
The soul-searching gnat who wrote that is Canadian man-of-letters Dave Godfrey, author, publisher and professor of creative writing at the University of Victoria. His battle with the elephant is his elliptical description of working in Cape Coast, Ghana, in the early ’60s as a volunteer teacher with Canadian University Services Overseas (CUSO), a unique organization that celebrates its 20th birthday this month. He is one of 8,000 volunteers who have followed the CUSO motto, “To serve and to learn,” from the middle-class comfort of Hamilton, Swift Current, Kamloops or Shawinigan to the mind-jarring, soul-wrenching difference of Cochabamba, Dar es Salaam, Ogbomosho and Kuching. Some of those gnats have since stopped their furious straining, indeed have all but disappeared into the bland, complacent Canadian landscape. But not all.
CUSO was born out of rarified studygroup discussions in British Columbia, Montreal and at the University of Toronto campus where they were led by Fred Stinson, a Conservative MP, and a graduate student named Keith Spicer, later to be Canada’s first language commissioner. When CUSO began, “Third World” was not even part of the jargon, let alone “North-South.” Volunteers raised their own expenses, $2,000 a head for one year. It was not until 1964 that the Canadian government helped out with free rides on RCAF transport planes. Today CUSO runs a $14-million budget, $11 million of which comes from CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency), Ottawa’s sprawling development bureaucracy which was not around when CUSO was born.
Since the first 15 volunteers left Toronto for Asia in August, 1961, CUSO has played a model role in the politics of development in Canada and abroad. Its programs are copied, its techniques borrowed and its facilities used by major international agencies. Its graduates are everywhere but figure most prominently at the centre of the Canadian
international development community which in the 1980s is becoming a growth industry. If CUSO has peopled that growth industry, it also embodies the tensions and philosophical differences that bedevil this area of foreign policy. As the government’s recent decision to pull its CUSO money out of Cuba indicates, the questions of tied aid and political compatibility are as difficult today as they were in the early ’70s when Tim Brodhead and Ian Smillie left CUSO, as Brodhead puts it, “in search of a new mould.” That turned out to be Inter Pares, a smaller, more flexible agency that Smillie founded a few years later. Brodhead took over Inter Pares when Smillie left in 1979 to return to CUSO as its 11th executive director.
What drove both Smillie and Brodhead away from CUSO was their belief that too many CUSO programs served Canada better than the needy countries
for which they were designed. Says Brodhead: “Offering to develop agriculture with Canadian tractors and fertilizers is no different from fighting illiteracy or malnutrition with Canadian teachers or health workers. What we were beginning to hear in the field was that these countries wanted our help to do it themselves. And CUSO in the early ’70s was slow to change.”
Change was slow to come and it was convulsive. Throughout its second decade CUSO thrashed through its own ideological debate, internal management problems and outside political pressures. Volunteers in its French wing, SUCO, did not help by advocating support for the PLO in the same breath as support for Quebec nationalists. (The two have since split into separate organizations.) Firings, layoffs and budget cuts followed an external review of management procedures. CUSO field
workers pushed for self-sufficiency in developing countries; Industry, Trade and Commerce, backed up by the business community, argued that trade must follow aid. And External Affairs mandarins grimaced when the media labelled CUSO as “soft on terrorism” for its work in the guerrilla-run refugee camps that sprang up on the borders of Ian Smith’s Rhodesia. By 1979, CUSO had wisely changed its ’60ish rhetoric from “Liberation Support” to “Refugee Relief” and both sides have since maintained a cordial stand-off. At the Zimbabwe Independence Day ceremonies in April, 1980, one of the special guests was David Beer, the CUSO field officer who had spearheaded the work in the ’70s with Patriotic Front refugee camps. Another guest was Mark MacGuigan, Canada’s secretary of state for external affairs, and it was Beer who introduced MacGuigan to members of the new government.
MacGuigan may well think wistfully of his CUSO guide on that inevitable day when black South Africans celebrate their independence. But CUSO’s appeals for government funding for the southern Africa refugee camps run by the African National Congress go unheeded. The difference here is that Canada recognizes the South African regime of Pieter Botha. It did not recognize the breakaway government of Ian Smith.
And then there’s Cuba, where MacGuigan recently waived his chance for a CUSO introduction to Fidel Castro should he ever want one. Since 1971, Canadian agriculturalists and language teachers have been part of a $150,000a-year program that has brought Cuban cowboys to ride the ranges of the Holstein-Fresian Association in Brampton, Ont., and produced a Spanish-English technical dictionary. One result of the CUSO program is that most Cuban pigs have Canadian cousins, and most tropical cattle herds developed over the past decade are part Canadian Holstein. Cuba’s cattle-breeding expertise, enriched by Canada, is now being transferred throughout Africa and Latin America. But so are Cuban armies. And MacGuigan’s rationale last year when he put an end to 10 years of government funding for CUSO in Cuba was clear. If Cuba is going to divert its own resources to military intervention in foreign countries, then Cuba can look after its own pigs.
If Cuban pigs are now personae non gratae with the Canadian government, there are other problems on the horizon. But Smillie has the satisfaction of knowing, as he guides CUSO into its third decade, that the new mould, if not yet set, has at least been poured. Volunteers are still going into the field but there are half as many of them, they are
older than they were 20 years ago and they are more likely to be technical specialists than English professors. In the Kab Cherng Refugee Camp in northeast Thailand for 8,500 homeless Kampucheans, one CUSO field officer, Paul Turcot of Quebec, works with Thai doctors, nurses and volunteers. Through CUSO’s $700,000 (from CIDA, the Alberta and B.C. governments and private donors), Canada became the first country to give the Thais the wherewithal to manage their own staggering refugee problem.
A product of both old and new CUSO moulds, Smillie has a story that applies
to both: “When I was teaching in Koidu, Sierra Leone, in 1967, I thought I was filling a gap that would close in 10 years. But one of my students from Koidu was in Ottawa recently at Carleton University and he told me there are three schools there now instead of one and the windows are broken and the lab equipment gone and the teachers unpaid. Now the Sierra Leone government is paying CUSO $100,000 to train local teachers and start adult literacy courses. Because you see, all my oneroom schoolhouse in Koidu did was make the gap bigger!” t;£>
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