CUSO stays humble and gains justice

Everything, she was saying. Absolutely everything flows from social justice. Protection of the environment, decent standards of living, social vitality, strong communities, individual health.

« It’s the cornerstone of sustainability.’’

We’re sitting in a small, cramped, office — a couple of filing cabinets, a computer, a bookshelf, folk art from Peru on the walls. It is one room in an old, walk-up office building in downtown Guelph, and it is manned by one person: Brenda Doner « co-operant program officer.’’

It is one of fourteen such offices across Canada.

This is CUSO in 1997. Trimmed because of a 31 per cent cut over three years in its core funding from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Its focus tight. Its priorities in order.

The key part of its mission statement, says that « CUSO is a Canadian organization which supports alliances for global social justice.’’ Budget cuts have forced it to reshape its agenda so that it now concentrates on sustainable economic development and what it calls cultural survival, better known to Canadians as defending aboriginal rights.

« A solidarity model, not a charity model,’’ Doner says, and it’s a breath of fresh air to hear a person talking solidarity and social justice in these dark days when the Sheriff of Nottingham has been reincarnated and is occupying the office of the Premier of Ontario where he is busy redistributing income from the poor to the rich.

Not since the early eighties has CUSO’s acronym referred to Canadian  University Students Overseas. Now, the average age of someone serving abroad is forty and the name CUSO means nothing more than its letters.

Some 300 Canadians are serving with CUSO at any one time in about 30 countries. In its 35 years it has sent about 12,000 people overseas. What they’ve learned over those years is that the big solutions, the mighty projects, — the dams, the huge, cash-cropping plantations, the World Bank’s structural adjustment program — don’t ease pressure on the environment, haven’t produced economic stability, and don’t add much to the quality of life of ordinary people.

« The real solutions are local and particular,’’ Doner says. An organization of indigenous women in Guatemala needed help training leaders and preparing publicity. An indigenous group in Bolivia asked for help in defending land rights. In South Africa, community groups in Capetown and Johannesburg wanted expert advice on converting inner city buildings to non-profit housing co-ops. The Hill Tribes in Thailand had wide ranging needs related to sustainable agriculture, education, environmental conservation, and strengthening community organizations.

CUSO supplied volunteers — co-operants, it calls them. It pays co-operants their travel expenses and a salary pegged to local rates. The result is their living expenses are covered, but that’s all. Financial commitments back in Canada remain their own responsibilities.

The result also is that they fit in well with local communities because their income doesn’t set them apart as rich outsiders.

« Humble,’’ is a word that Doner uses often.

Among the co-operants CUSO is looking for right now are a journalist for Lima, Peru, a theatre director for Ghana, preferably with a spouse who can organize children’s clubs, an « agriculture documentalist’’ in Thailand — someone who can prepare information on the alternative agriculture movement that can be used to set policies and seek aid, and a business development trainer, with experience in a First Nations community, for Vanuatu.

Yesterday, piggybacking on the 16th Annual Organic Agriculture Conference at Guelph, CUSO sponsored workshops on promoting sustainable agriculture world wide. Major organizations from Canada were there as well as representatives from Peru, Thailand, and other Third World nations.

It was part of CUSO’s effort to create networks and partnerships that support people who are trying to gain democratic control over their lives. If they have that, Doner says, « they’ll look after their economic well being too.”

It’s a circular process. Apathy breaks down. Isolation is breached. Self confidence rises. Success breeds success. Social justice grows and standards of living improve — not one before the other but together and interacting.

And when that happens, people don’t need to plunder the environment.


NEXT WEEK: Social justice at home

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