We take a look at the past 58 years of impact Cuso International has had on communities around the globe and the lasting influence the organization has had on its volunteers.
THE 1960s: The beginning
For Lynn Graham, one of her favourite memories as a volunteer was something that happened shortly after she arrived in Techiman, Ghana in 1964 with her fellow volunteer Marlyn Horsdal. The paramount Chief and his entourage, dressed in traditional robes, came to meet and welcome them. Lynn and Marlyn received many gifts, including a live chicken, eggs, yams, plantain and fruit.
Lynn was among the early volunteers with Cuso International—back when it was known as the Canadian University Service Overseas)—a recent graduate from the University of Western Ontario looking for an opportunity to experience another part of the world and contribute in some way.
“I didn’t feel any trepidation,” recalls Lynn. “Rather I felt joy at finding like-minded folk who were energized by the opportunity.”
Ken MacKay volunteered in Ghana just prior to Lynn, from 1962 to 1964 and recalls the impact of his first posting. “What did Ghana want to accomplish immediately after independence? They wanted to increase the number of secondary school graduates. So, they built 25 new schools but there were no teachers and not enough English expatriates to fill the posts. That is where Cuso, Peace Corps and VSO (Volunteer Service Overseas) came in.”
He says Cuso did more than just bring in volunteers: “Yes, we filled teaching slots, but by so doing we increased the access to education for many young Ghanaians.”
Ken and Lynn have both returned to where they volunteered to find thriving schools and successful former students.
THE 1970s: Changes and challenges
The 1970s were a time of change and challenge in the world of international development. By the start of the UN’s Second Decade of Development, Cuso was recruiting experienced professionals. Overseas partners asked for increasingly varied technical skills plus experience in community development.
David and Lynn Addleman travelled to Papua New Guinea in 1973 to work as a doctor and a nurse for two years, after a brief placement for David in Uganda in 1971.
“In the summer of 1973 we arrived in Wabag, a town of 1,000 people clustered around an airstrip, where there was a health centre, a high school, several government departments and many church missions,” says David. “We were the only doctor and nurse in Wabag, but we had colleagues at a hospital 10 km north of Wabag, and others at a hospital 20 km south of us. At the time, PNG was largely administered by Australians, and all the government department heads, school principals and shopkeepers were expatriates.”
David and Lynn recently returned to PNG and noticed a significant change. “Everywhere we went, Papua New Guineans were in charge. We were the only white faces to be seen.”
Forty years later, the once modest health centre they worked at is now a full-fledged hospital with eight doctors and many nurses. A nurse Lynn had mentored during her time there, Jenny Leto, took over her position. Jenny is now CEO of the Lutheran Hospital.
The same year David and Lynn left for PNG, the Dar Declaration committed Cuso to working for human rights and equality. And with the 1970s being declared the UN Decade for Women, gender in development approaches gained popularity and Cuso’s pioneering gender programs began to take shape.
THE 1980s: Global solidarity, local work
The 1980s saw the beginning of Cuso’s efforts to build links between groups with similar interests in Canada and the global South. The people Cuso worked with in the South began to ask what Cuso was doing to help people like themselves in Canada.
So Cuso added another dimension to its program: creating partnerships between Canadian and international groups working for social justice. One of the first examples was a 1985 Cuso program that led to cooperation between the Saskatchewan-based Grain Services Union and SINITAB, the workers’ union at Mozambique’s largest food-processing plant.
THE 1990s: Successes and more change
The 1990s ushered in successes like international debt relief arrangements and the signing of the Ottawa landmines treaty, proving that advocacy could generate tangible results.
But the decade also brought heavy cuts to the Canadian government’s support for development. This meant downsizing in volunteer-sending organizations like Cuso. VSO established its Canadian branch in 1995.
THE 2000s: New volunteering models
A more globalized economy and a more multicultural Canada created new interest in global experiences. Now the goal was to benefit Canadians as well as people in developing countries.
Financial pinches and a desire for efficiencies, overseas and in Canada, led to Cuso’s 2008 merger with VSO Canada.
2010s: Cuso International
The merger with VSO ended in 2011, spurred mostly by various funding limits and by the complexity of managing the priorities of two large international organizations. With change comes opportunity, and the 2010 period saw Cuso pursuing new volunteer programs and approaches. Cuso now actively recruits diaspora volunteers, so that Canadians who have ties to a country can return there to contribute as volunteers and has expanded its volunteerism in another way. Volunteers now contribute their expertise virtually and can make an impact without leaving their homes. In 2018, we expanded our e-volunteer partnerships and saw 169 Canadian post-secondary students collaborate with nine post-secondary academic partners across Canada. Jacqueline Musabende, an Assistant Professor with Mount Royal University’s Bissett School of Business in Calgary, connects her students with the Business Commerce of Choco (Cámara de Comercio del Chocó) partner in Colombia. “It’s been an invaluable learning experience for students on different levels, from enhancing their knowledge of various concepts to developing their soft skills. The project had awakened their curiosity to explore the world and many of them are planning to visit Colombia” says Professor Musabende.
There is also new programming with Indigenous partners in Canada. Today Cuso collaborates with Winnipeg’s Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata to enhance delivery of a Truth and Reconciliation Toolkit, and is working with youth in Beaufort-Delta, Decho, Tlicho, and South Slave regions of the Northwest Territories.
Decades of impact
Lynn Graham has recently come full circle back to Cuso International, joining the Board of Directors. Fifty-some years since returning home from Ghana, Lynn has seen changes in the organization.
“The emphasis is on training and the transfer of skills. It seems there is more focus now, with placements and projects that relate to the three areas of community, health and livelihood. The UN Sustainable Development Goals provide the context.”
While she wasn’t directly involved in the organization over the years, she remained a supporter and her dedication has not wavered: “Many of these early volunteers have had distinguished careers in development, politics, the media and other walks of life. I would wager that all of us have been deeply affected by the experience overseas and have brought a more international lens to our personal and professional lives.”