On a sultry night in Freetown, Sierra Leone, 19 years ago, a groggy Ian Smillie answered the
door in his underwear—and quickly found himself under arrest. At the time, the 22-year-old, Toronto-born volunteer with CUSO (Canadian University Service Overseas) was on holiday from his job teaching secondary-school English, French and history in Kaidu, a diamond-mining town in the West African state. Recalled Smillie: “There had been a coup, and the new president had warned of the threat of invasion by mercenaries. But on the radio it came out sounding like ‘missionaries,’ and police started rounding up foreigners.” After spending hours in the waiting room of criminal intelligence headquarters, Smillie convinced the authorities he was not a security threat. He is now an international aid consultant living in London, England, and this week he is especially conscious of his CUSO experiences: June 6 is the 25th anniversary of the organization which is still sending volunteers to aid developing countries.
More than 9,000 CUSO alumni, including teachers, doctors, nurses and engineers, have served in 65 countries since representatives from 21 Canadian universities met in Montreal in 1961 to found the independent, nonprofit agency. Its purpose: to place university graduates willing to work for such remuneration as the $56 monthly salary-excluding room and board—which the Ceylonese government paid to one
of the first volunteers. Wage levels have risen, but the arrangement between CUSO and host countries remains unchanged. CUSO recruits the volunteers, pays for their transportation and arranges housing for the 500 men and women now working in such countries as Bangladesh and Peru. In return, the host governments pay salaries comparable to those of local workers in the same jobs—up to $8,000 per year during the two-year postings.
Canada was one of several countries to set up volunteer programs in the 1950s and 1960s, and in the United States the desire to channel youthful idealism to the Third World led President John F. Kennedy to form the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961. But CUSO beat the U.S. volunteers into the field. Because of the organizing abilities of such people as Keith Spicer, then a 27-year-old political science graduate, 15 Canadian volunteers arrived in India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Sarawak (now part of Malaysia) in August that year—one month before the first Peace Corps workers left the United States.
Spicer, who served a seven-year term as the first federal language commissioner and is now the editor of the Ottawa Citizen, was part of the group that founded CUSO. Among the first workers he recruited was Bill McWhinney, a 22-year-old University of Toronto commerce graduate who was nervous about his assignment at a new rural co-op banking system in
Ceylon. But he survived his tour of duty and is now senior vice-president of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the federal government department that provides most of CUSO’s budget.
Over the years CUSO’s allure has remained essentially unchanged: an opportunity to help others, coupled with the prospect of adventure in foreign countries. By responding to those inducements many volunteers, including United Way of Greater Toronto president Gordon Cressy and Metropolitan Toronto councillor (and Cressy’s wife) Joanne Campbell, found their lives profoundly influenced. Before Cressy left for a two-year assignment to run a Trinidad YMCA in 1963, his principal
goal had been to go into business. But after his eventual success in importing and selling 1,600 Christmas trees from New Brunswick in order to buy new table-tennis tables for the YMCA, he decided that his future lay with social agencies. Ten years before her 1983 marriage, Campbell spent two years teaching typing and shorthand to women in Chingóla, a copperbelt town in northern Zambia. She said that seeing their attempts to master new techniques sharpened her awareness that immigrants to Canada may be encountering similar difficulties.
For other volunteers, CUSO provided an opportunity to work in their chosen field under drastically altered conditions. Penny Williams, for one, is now the editor of the Toronto-based publication Your Money. But in 1967 she left a job as a Maclean's researcher to help a Catholic priest establish the first radio station in a remote
mountain village in Peru.
At the same time, the organization that assigned those volunteers has also changed: CUSO is no longer a shoestring operation fuelled by private donations, college contributions and fund-raising campaigns. Now, $16 million of its $25-million annual budget comes from CIDA. CUSO officials further underlined the fading connection with universities in 1981 when they decided that the acronym alone would serve as the organization’s name. As well, recent volunteers are likely to be at least 30 years old and have skills in such areas as agriculture and plumbing instead of the youthful graduates in English once chosen for overseas teaching positions.
Meanwhile, Ian Smillie says he is concerned that CUSO’s evolution into a large organization may have encouraged a tendency “to navel-gaze and to debate development at the expense of actually doing something in the field.” But Smillie, whose history of CUSO, The Land of Lost Content, was published last year, added that the organization achieved one of its most significant successes within Canada itself. He declared, “The number of returned volunteers in all walks of life and in powerful jobs can only expand Canada’s horizons.” And like the older workers they now try to recruit, CUSO officials hope that the skills and experience they have gained in the past will keep the organization thriving for at least another 25 years.
-MALCOLM GRAY with NORA UNDERWOOD in Toronto, HILARY MACKENZIE in Ottawa and KATHRYN LEGER in Lima
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