the SCI Archives the SCI Archives
Individual pathways

Origin of the text
Olivier Bertrand: Breaking down barriers 1945-1975, 30 years of voluntary service for peace with Service Civil International.
Paris (2008)

see Table of Content

voir version française 


Individual pathways

Origin, motivation and attitudes of the volunteers

The founders of SCI were European, usually explicitly Christian, often conscientious objectors, and they were primarily working towards peace, reconciliation and mutual understanding, hoping to substitute civil service for compulsory military service where it existed. During the period covered by these memories (1945-75) – and even more so afterwards – this context has changed completely. SCI has become truly international, developing outside Europe in countries with different cultures; Christianity has lost much of its influence; and the way wars are waged has drastically changed; military conscription has been abolished in many countries and has never existed in others. Keeping in mind this change of context, it is interesting to look at the volunteers of the second generation, from the point of view of their background, their motivations and their perception of their life in workcamps.

This raises three interrelated questions:

Firstly, there is a wide diversity in the contributors’ countries of origin, their cultures and of their social origins. This raises the question of universal values, concerning the objectives of SCI. Do they determine commitment to the organization? As for the diversity of the contributors’ social origins, it would appear that a lasting commitment to, or frequent participation in, voluntary service was possible for young people from lower or higher classes of society; however those volunteers with more financial resources in general are freer to volunteer. Thedy von Fellenberg sheds interesting light on this point and suggests that, at least in the West, the latter might have been perceived as a handicap.

This is probably less true for people from Southern Asia, where this could hardly have been possible for the poorest and least educated categories of the population, who did not have the resources and access to the information required in order to get involved.

Secondly, all the contributors to this work started doing voluntary work while they were youths, but many of them have continued or resumed their activity as adults and sometimes even as seniors. Let us recall in this connection that there seem to have been a good proportion of adult volunteers in the early days of SCI. Is it a specific feature of SCI? Has the movement gotten younger as time has gone by, and what could be the implications?

Thirdly, the older contributors grew up during the Second World War or the post-war decolonization period and, in one way or another, had been confronted with violence of some form or other: air-raid bombings for Dorothy Abbott-Guiborat and Roger Gwynn in London, also for Claire Bertrand near Paris and Hiroatsu Sato in Tokyo. There was also the brutal disappearance of Nelly Forget’s Jewish schoolmates, and the partial destruction of Nicole Lehmann’s home. In India, Valli Seshan was relocated from Madras because of perceived submarine threat, Devinder Das Chopra’s family was among the refugees after Partition, while Bhuppy Kishore’s family harboured refugees and Jean-Pierre Petit’s father came close to being shot by the Nazis.

Younger British volunteers had been horrified by stories of war and deportation. Later on, French volunteers were particularly sensitive to the struggle for Independence in Algeria and started by working with migrant families (Nicole Paraire and Paulette Rabier). Conversely, Kader Mekki states that Algerian volunteers, who experienced a kind of apartheid in their homeland, longed for constructive relationships with Europeans. Nelly underlines the fact that Algerians badly needed to be recognized as equals and to find a friendly atmosphere that was otherwise unknown to them under the French colonial regime.

It is likely that this context of War, and the fact that the contributors to this work had been confronted with violence, had a big impact on their motivation to do something for Peace . There are very few conscientious objectors (Arthur Gillette, Nigel Watt) in the sample. This is partly because the majority of the contributions are from women, and from Asian countries where military service was not compulsory. Anyway, seen from a worldwide viewpoint, there were not so many.

In the context of World War II, and the post-war era, travelling was almost impossible. This and the particular location where some of the new volunteers came from may explain why a number of them mention their desire to get out of their isolation and to see the outside world after the war.

Round about the `60s, war looked more distant. The concern for development in poor countries became predominant and many young people wanted to do something about it. Ann Smith/Kobayashi is an example of this tendency of the period.

Religious beliefs do not appear to have been an explicit element in contributors’ family backgrounds, or in their motivation to do civil service. Compared with the early years of SCI, this may be explained partly (as mentioned above) by the decreasing role of Christianity and by the fact that (at least in Europe) religious convictions were not expressed as overtly as during the time of Pierre Cérésole. However, even if these beliefs were discreet, they may well have been one of the factors governing an attitude of being considerate towards others in general, and of solidarity towards deprived people in particular. Although not clearly stated, a number of contributors do refer implicitly to their moral upbringing: “we are here not only to have a pleasant time, but also to use our privileges to help people who do not have them” (Thedy) or “fair shares for all” (Juliet Pierce).

Some contributors, either in relation to religion, or in their clearly non-religious attitude, express moral concern. Juliet refers to Christian values but also to the new ideals of the United Nations, rather than religious beliefs. Michèle Buijtenhuis wanted to be useful while keeping away from any religious ideal. Similarly, Thedy, marked by a Calvinist upbringing - but critical of his church - was looking for a form of solidarity unrelated to religion.

There was also sometimes a will to do something concrete, like Shigeo Kobayashi at the time of mass demonstrations by students in Tokyo; he felt that there should be something more meaningful to do.

Several former volunteers say that a normal job was not sufficient to meet their desire to be useful and to fight against injustice. This is said forexample by David Palmer, who adds that he chose SCI rather than other organizations, in view of its moral goals. Martin Pierce was also looking for a more gratifying occupation than his job as a lawyer.

Finally, a few young people joined SCI just by chance, simply as another way of spending their vacations. However, there, they found a spirit and an ideal that fitted very well with their deeper convictions, even though these were not always explicit nor maybe not even conscious. This happened to RL in Gibraltar when, by chance, he met young people returning from an SCI camp in Algeria, to Claire, going to Norway with a friend, to Martin, who thought that it would be fun to go on a workcamp in India with a friend, and once there, he felt ‘at home’.

On this basis, it would be interesting to look at the historical development of attitudes towards voluntary work. However, this is a wide area of research, to which our sample of volunteers’ memories only offers limited elements. We can only recall Dorothy’s memories; according to her, in the United Kingdom after W.W.II, the volunteer spirit was widespread though in a context of poverty; she wonders whether this has lasted and if it still exists elsewhere.

On the other hand, Bhuppy Kishore referred to Ethelwyn Best, a pioneer, who, already in the `70s thought that the serious-mindedness of the volunteers was lost in India. Is this a question of generation - the typical reaction of a senior, or of the context? This is probably a universal and permanent debate. Elizabeth Crook also found that the volunteers that she met in the `90s were more concerned with practical and personal objectives than in her early days, but, there again it was with another association. One of these volunteers told her: “In the 1960s you were idealistic; we (in the 1990s) are more realistic”. Similarly, the daughter of a former volunteer recently said, “Your generation hoped to change the world. Ours does not believe one can”. Or perhaps the urgency for change in the aftermath of two catastrophic world wars gradually faded from peoples’ memory.

Volunteers in the workcamps

Most of the contributors went abroad, often for a long period of time. Did SCI prepare them for it? At least two volunteers (David and Claire) observe that SCI had a rule requiring volunteers to have experience in their own country before being allowed to go on camps abroad, but that the rule was gradually relaxed. A number of other volunteers did not get any training before leaving, others do not mention it. Dorothy, among others, regrets that it was so. This situation seems to have persisted for a certain period of time, but we lack more specific information about it. On the other hand, Jean-Pierre and Nicole Paraire underline that they had participated (and still do) in SCI training programmes which they consider most important. The French Branch conducted formal orientation at Ariege in southern France and there was the Asian Regional Training Centre in India, continued by the Indian Secretariat under Bhuppy.

Particularly for the older volunteers (Dorothy, Nelly, Nicole Lehmann), the work was hard and the working hours were long. This may be partly explained by a shortage of resources and the poverty of the environment, and the example set by Pierre Cérésole was still fresh. Several volunteers (Dorothy, Nicole) state that they liked the hard manual work, or at least they did not mind it. Anyway, it was in accordance with the original spirit of the movement. Dorothy adds that, at least during her time, it was specific to SCI that one had to pay the price with hard work and that it was positive, because it was the best way to create a feeling of solidarity and warm friendship, whilst abolishing differences. Phyllis pointed out that manual work transcended language barriers, enabling everyone to participate/communicate through work. Martin Pierce wrote that manual work was a practical means of giving people the experience of solidarity and of connectedness, beyond divisions of ideas, attitudes, customs and privilege. Others share this view, which seems to be important. Conversely, Emile Bernis remarks that the development of new non-manual activities does not facilitate the creation of group spirit. Linda Whitaker gives an example when she remembers that her work at the hospital in Bangladesh made her feel somewhat estranged from the rest of SCI team.

That nationals from countries which formerly considered themselves (or were seen as) superior, should do hard manual work has impressed many people, who sometimes could not believe that volunteers were working for free. It is amusing that, in Algeria as in India, people thought SCI volunteers were convicts. Similarly, when volunteers from very different social backgrounds did manual work together, it was particularly meaningful in countries where the social structure is very rigid and non-egalitarian. This is of course especially true in India, where it was probably only possible at that time because Gandhi had set an example. Incidentally, at that time, when the first volunteers arrived, shortly after Independence, his example was still very present. Today, it appears very far away indeed. This being said, the memories illustrate the decreasing importance of manual work and of its duration. There are possible explanations for this change. The decreasing importance of manual work is probably partly related to the fact that nowadays there are more and more mechanical devices - particularly on emergency workcamps - and to the diversification of SCI’s activities. Less arduous work is also likely to be related to rising expectations and standards of living, at least in Western countries. The duration of work for people in general tends to decrease in most countries, and attitudes towards work are evolving. In Asia a move from manual labor to community development work took place as a result of British government funds available to send qualified long term volunteers: for example, Ann to Thailand to teach English and Juliet to India as a physiotherapist.

Notwithstanding the emphasis on manual work and on the motto: ‘Deeds, not words’, already in the initial concept of workcamps, discussions used to be organized after work, in a rather systematic way. Themes were often related to SCI goals, such as non-violence. The memories vary on this point, but a number of volunteers do not remember any organized discussions. Dorothy regrets it and would have preferred organized discussions to have been more systematically alternated with manual work. Phyllis recalls that a regular feature of all her workcamps in India were cultural exchange evenings, during which information on one’s country’s educational system, social customs, and marriage customs were exchanged in addition to national songs and dances. Spontaneous but meaningful discussions frequently accompanied the organized evenings.

The position of female volunteers in workcamps was theoretically related to the fact that the work was so hard physically. Initially, their specialization in housewives’ tasks as “sisters” was supposed to spare them this hardship; but it is ironical, when Nelly observes that their work was sometimes even harder than that of the boys. Actually, it was mostly the predominant paternalistic culture of the time, which explained the particular status of female volunteers. The simple fact that they could actually participate in camps was seen as progress. Their emancipation can be seen in the stories, and Dorothy contributed to it. After Dorothy, a Westerner, the most extreme situation was that of Valli, who left India as a long-term volunteer at the end of the 50’s and was later called to international responsibilities: but this is probably exceptional. With regards to SCI volunteers from Mediterranean countries, the under-representation of females as compared with males has remained a permanent factor. Likewise, it is interesting to observe that female volunteers from North Africa were more easily sent to India than to Europe (Jean-Pierre). Several contributors remember that not only was the work physically hard, but living conditions in the workcamps were sometimes very rough. The lack of basic facilities was such that, thinking back to the Tlemcen project in 1962, Jean-Pierre believes that no volunteer would accept such conditions nowadays. On the other hand, Martin felt that the very simple living conditions in his camp were a welcome contrast with his previous experience where he had been treated like a ‘privileged’ person.

Overall, it is worth underlining that volunteers adapted very well to their environment, and to local standards of living, whether in Africa, Asia or North Africa. This greatly facilitated their integration into the community and the creation of personal relationships, on an egalitarian and friendly basis. Workcamp life-style strongly contrasted with that of settlers or Europeans in the former colonial states (Dorothy, Nelly, Nicole), as did the attitude of the later ‘foreigners’ towards the indigenous people. The development of a constructive relationship between the colonizers and the colonized was usually difficult and often impossible. This was also due to different ideologies and attitudes. Clearly, the spirit of friendship and equality of SCI was not compatible with the traditional colonial or post-colonial mentality. The most extreme example of this was in Algeria, during the period of tension experienced by Nelly. This ideological and cultural gap was also evident amongst traditional Christian missionaries in Algeria (Nelly), and elsewhere in Africa (Nicole Lehmann).

  1. Although voluntary service is not always undertaken by ‘young people’, on the basis of statistics one can state that it is basically a youth activity’. Ernesto Ottone : Antécédents, potentialités et possibilités d’utilisation de volontaires par l’Unesco, Unesco, 1982.
  2. Pierre Martin disagrees with the tendency to look for specific (religious, philosophical, political) motivations of the volunteers in Algeria in 1948. For him, “what is common between them is that they are men, and these men want to do something for peace“(In Kabylie). Nevertheless, for several contributors to this collection of reminiscences, the main idea was a broader concept of mutual understanding. The fight for conscientious objection was a marginal aspect of SCI goals.

Service Civil International - International Archives (2004-2024) - Conditions of Use - Contact