My CUSO experience began two years before my posting to teach in Ghana in September of 1971. It started when I attended regular meetings of the local CUSO committee on campus at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, listening to the experiences of RV’s, discussing the pros and cons of various development approaches, gaining a better awareness of development issues in the world.
It continued after my return in 1973, again attending meetings (irregularly because I did not live in the city), and maintaining contact with other RV’s, following up on issues that pertained to the organization. Like most who had gone through the CUSO experience, I valued it as a life-changing one, and I wanted to repay it. I made financial contributions, initially rather modest based on my financial ability, and increasing as my circumstances improved.
Then the CUSO office in Saskatoon was closed. The local committee ceased to function. I felt that CUSO’s supporters in Saskatchewan had been marginalized. I continued to make my contributions, but I did so begrudgingly. In 2001, I left Canada and returned to Ghana to take up permanent residency in that country. My contributions ceased – I turned my financial resources towards development issues that I personally encountered in Ghana. Contact with CUSO also ceased.
This summer I have been visiting in Saskatoon. My name was added to an e-mailing address with SCIC and through it I learned of the recent CUSO meeting in Saskatoon, held to inform potential volunteer applicants about CUSO-VSO, followed by a get-together with CUSO RV’s. I attended the meeting.
Several observations came out of that experience. There were only a handful of barely interested people who attended the first part of the meeting, and only a slightly larger number of RV’s who showed up for the potluck supper which followed. These numbers are in stark contrast with the numbers of enthusiastic RV’s and potential volunteers and financial supporters who attended similar events during the 70’s and 80’s.
I was not surprised. The level of dissatisfaction here in Saskatchewan with the direction that CUSO took when the regional offices were closed continues to impact upon the interest, or rather, lack of interest, in the organization. An analysis of numbers would most certainly show the disproportionately high number of recruits that Saskatchewan placed overseas during the time up until CUSO closed the office in Saskatoon. If the recent meeting I attended is any indication, that niumber must be greatly reduced. It would be interesting to also know how the level of financial contribution compares – has that also dropped off?
It appears that CUSO has not kept in touch with the large base of people who at one time supported it in a very significant way. Some of the RV’s at the Saskatoon meeting were shown a list of RV’s for Saskatchewan. The list was a long one, not surprisingly, and it was particularly noteable because it was so obviously out of date. At a time when communication has become much easier, it would appear that CUSO RV’s have chosen not to maintain contact with the organization which most would agree has had a profound impact upon their lives.
It is not my intention to revisit decisions that were made in the past. I was not privy to those decisions or the discussions that went into reaching them and there is little to be gained by rehashing old issues. However, it does seem to me that the organization, now with the amalgamation with VSO, may well benefit from reconsidering past decisions.
We should not underestimate the many positive effects created through the maintenance of regional CUSO offices and their associated local committees. The Saskatoon office operated on a shoestring budget, relying heavily on voluntary help from the people who made up the local committees. The ongoing involvement of these volunteers evoked valuable commitments from these individuals. It generated awareness in the public of development issues and of the activities of the organization. In addition, it also attracted the financial contributions of these committed individuals and those with whom they had contact and ensured a steady stream of potential recruits.
This is in stark contrast to the current approach that the organization is taking. One “Public Engagement Officer” is expected to somehow “engage the public” in the four Canadian prairie provinces single handedly, and if that were not enough, she now is expected to also “engage the public” in Alaska and a sizeable part of the Western United States of America!!! It is not surprising that she has only made it to Saskatchewan on two occasions in five years – she is, after all, only one person. It is also not surprising that the “public” did not show up at the meeting, or that there is very little awareness of an organization which, in the past, had become almost a household name in the province.
Most certainly the primary work of a development organization must, by definition, be done in the countries in which it has designated to be its target area. The question that comes to my mind is this: how much does the success of that work rely upon the support – political and financial and social – from its home base?
Times change – organizations also change. Nostalgia has little value. The Sankofa bird symbolizes for the Ashanti people in Ghana the importance of looking back at where we come from as we make our plans to move ahead. I would encourage those who sit on the Board of Directors of CUSO-VSO to give serious thought to ways in which RV’s and former CUSO supporters can be drawn back in and included in its operations rather than left to feel alienated.
RV’s from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s especially represent a considerable resource pool. Many are either retired or nearing retirement age and have accumulated valuable life and work experience. Some may consider being reposted, and they can provide valuable advice for projects that are being undertaken by the organization. In addition, most are in the best position of their lives to contribute financially. Here in Saskatchewan, I have the very distinct impression that this pool of resources is not being tapped and if that is the case, then it is at the loss to the organization.
This year’s anniversary provides a special opportunity to look at the past in order that the future can be improved. I will soon be returning to my home in Africa, and I wish the very best for CUSO-VSO as it maps out the course that it will take in the next 50 years. Nante yie (walk well).