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SCI as seen by the veterans

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

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SCI as seen by the veterans

The memories collected here refer mostly to individual experiences, but they also refer, directly or indirectly, to SCI as a movement or an organization.

Goals and orientations

After reviewing the evolution of SCI and the contributors’ pathways, the following three points could be discussed. They are probably still valid today:

The issue of internationalization can be raised with regard to the movement’s goals, and also concerning the attitudes and behaviour of the volunteers. As early as the late `50’s, Dorothy, writing from India, raised some of the issues resulting from new developments within SCI outside Europe:

Until 1948, SCI had only worked in one developing country: India. In the late 50’s, it was active in four African and six Asian countries. It then became increasingly important to analyse the problems and the needs of these countries, and not to be satisfied - as was commonly the case formerly - to think that what is good for Europe is also good for the rest of the World. Fortunately, very few people still think in this way, but many have not yet undertaken the effort to find how to prepare ourselves carefully to be well prepared for the conditions prevailing in these countries, so that the work of SCI could bring a lasting and diversified assistance to the community.

Today, for Phyllis, the initial concept of SCI was to some extent ‘Eurocentric’. On the one hand, the goals aiming at peace and international understanding are universal and could easily be accepted, but differences in ways of working, of attitudes between Westerners and South Asians are still there. For her, it is thanks to the exceptional personality of some Asian SCI leaders that complete harmony and deep friendship with European volunteers developed.

In his biography, when referring to divergences between Europeans and Asians, Sato felt that the former tended to look at the world through their own particular prism and to keep a subtle form of paternalism and of feeling of superiority. On the same theme, but giving it a different assessment, Elizabeth remembers that SCI organized volunteer exchanges on an equal footing, whereas other organizations only offered their assistance. At least, we can say that SCI has been a pioneer, not only for developing activities in Asia, but also for giving high international responsibilities to Asians themselves, which was not usual at that time.

From a more political perspective, was in a position to perceive differences of view and attitudes between Asian and European volunteers. The latter were more inclined to get into politics and some of them were tempted to replace the motto: ‘Deeds, not words’ by ‘Deeds and words’, which would have been very different from Pierre Cérésole’s initial concept. Nicole Paraire also observed differences of attitude between Europeans.

Arthur observed that, depending on their cultural environment, people are more or less predisposed to the idea of civil service. He refers to some African countries where education dispensed within the family implies learning about rights, but also duties towards the community. The idea that there should be a counterpart to rights (for example the right to go to school) is widespread. Therefore, people are more prepared to do civil service.

If we now look at the changes which have taken place over time concerning youth ideals and attitudes towards voluntary work, a reference may be made to E. Ottone who wrote in 1982: “Although international voluntary service work was initially inspired by a radical humanitarian pacifism, it later aimed at a great variety of ideals” .

Earlier, back in the `60s, Arthur felt that, compared with the development of many other workcamp organizations, the emphasis on high ideals and on Peace was specific to SCI. The most salient difference between SCI and other pre-war workcamp sponsors was the extent of SCI’s commitment to overhauling society. ‘Civilists’ were not satisfied with just improving social conditions; they sought to establish relations among men so new as to render useless, and replace, one of society’s oldest institutions: the army. ‘Civilism’ was more extreme, and ‘civilists’ more militant, than the ideologies and supporters of most other organizations supporting workcamps. SCI was the only body in the idealistic stream to use workcamping for a well-defined political purpose. Civilists did not have to be pacifists, but volunteers in SCI camps agreed explicitly to demonstrate the feasibility of alternative service for conscientious objectors. As a result, over the years SCI has played an important – sometimes, decisive - part in obtaining the recognition of conscientious objection from the authorities, and implementing conscientious objector civilian service provision in Britain, West Germany, France and Italy.

Martin writes that pacifist ideology was and still is valid, where conscription still exists, but with the abolition of conscription in many countries, he does not believe that SCI has found another ideology to substitute for the older one. For him therefore, its role as a pacifist organization has decreased. Martin adds that in many countries the goals related to pacifism and non-violence have appeared too limited, so that SCI branches have tended to put less emphasis on the traditional ideology and to give more importance to practical objectives, which could attract young people. For him, this has deprived SCI of some of its power and impact.

For a number of former volunteers, building peace remained the main goal, in keeping with the origins of SCI, but with a broader interpretation, as indicated for instance by Nicole Paraire in her conclusion: "SCI primarily means building peace through concrete action. Together with conscientious objectors, we have struggled to explain that when there is injustice in the world, of course this is the origin of War. If we fight against injustice, we are building peace". Similarly, Jean-Pierre said that: “When something is happening in accordance with the spirit of SCI, with the participation of people of different origins, in a spirit of tolerance, in a concrete job of work - preferably manual -, rendering useful service to society, it is an act of Peace, strictly in accordance with Pierre Cérésole’s views”.

One may wonder whether excessive broadening of SCI goals does not risk diluting its efforts and calling into question its specific character. At least this seems to have been Bhuppy’s concern, when he considers that SCI is not a social and humanitarian organization.

While the ideal of Peace has played a more important role for SCI than for others, we have seen that Christian convictions are less explicit than they used to be in the movement’s early years. There does not seem to have been any problem of independence vis-à-vis the churches and religion. However, the orientation of SCI has been affected by other ideological and political influences: from without by the national and international political context, and from within, through ideologies with political implications. Finally, with the spread of SCI to predominantly Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist countries, its non-sectarian nature was emphasized, and Christian language was not appropriate.

SCI and politics

The international political context has played an important role, firstly in the confrontation of East-West. Dorothy and Nelly were the first to go and work in Central European countries, where they encountered quite different attitudes from their Polish and Czech counterparts. Later on, exchanges were organized, as reported by Max Hildesheim, and by Arthur, who stresses the pioneering role played by SCI. It created some tension, on the one hand with communist organizations, who wished to further their cause by trying to enlist SCI, and on the other with those who were afraid such a commitment would violate a core SCI principle of working with all sides, as begun in Verdun. Arthur concludes that SCI was able to prove that systematic distrust between the two sides could be avoided. Max still has a very positive impression of the workcamp he went on in Moldavia. (It was during the Khrushchev era and not in Russia).

In France and in North Africa, the commitment to helping Algerians during the civil War which led to their Independence, played a very important role for SCI (particularly, of course, for the French branch) and raised difficult problems: how to fight for a subjected people’s Independence against one’s own government and face repression (particularly Nelly, but also Claire). There are also examples of the indirect influence of politics on SCI action. For instance, one volunteer regrets that her workcamp in North Africa was rather abruptly closed down, apparently because the institution, which financed the work, was shocked by the attitude of the volunteers from other Arab countries, who were volunteering for the war with Israel (1967).

In Asia there were also political disputes that impacted volunteers. Tension over Kashmir made exchanges of volunteers between India and Pakistan eventually impossible. The Indo-Pakistan War closed the Kasuali project with Tibetan refugee children, diverting volunteers to other projects. Linda Whitaker writes of being evacuated to Singapore during the civil war between East and West Pakistan. The Emergency in India affected the issuance of visas and the Satos were forced to leave. The subsequent difficulty in obtaining one year visas forced the Indian Branch to revise its exchange programme. In Sri Lanka, volunteer movement was restricted because of the Tamil Tiger clash with the government. Reading the contributions makes one recall the historical context of the individual volunteers.

It is mostly the ideas and demonstrations of students during the late `60s and the early `70s which ushered in ideological differences inside SCI, as mentioned by a number of former leaders (Bhuppy, , Jean-Pierre, Sato, Thedy, Valli). They refer to two types of differences that partly overlap: firstly, between those who wanted the movement to get more politically involved, and those who were against the idea on the grounds of traditional SCI ideals; secondly, between Europeans and Asians, the latter being far less concerned with these ideas and who had other priorities.

At a national level, several conflicts had implications affecting the organization of workcamps and for discussions between volunteers. Asian leaders succeeded to some extent in their attempts at overcoming hostility between Indian and Pakistani volunteers by mixing them in some camps. Devinder and Claire remember that it was very difficult for Arab volunteers to overcome their distrust of Israel.


Perceptions of SCI as a movement or an organization and its activities

Before discussing the few comments received on this issue, a preliminary question may be raised as to whether SCI is an organization. gave a very interesting answer  , ‘I have frequently used the term ‘movement’, rather than ‘service’, ‘organization’ or – worse – ‘agency’; This has been intentional, for I have known SCI as a movement of people for whom the methods of doing things has generally been more important than what we are trying to do’. Valli says almost the same thing when she stresses that for SCI the important thing is people and not the organization, a rather specific feature as such, compared to other institutions, which she has known. Jean-Pierre, on the other hand, regrets that too much importance has sometimes been attached to problems of structure, while the organization itself was rather weak.

adds a nice description of the way SCI operates when he says, “SCI has never offered ready-made ideas or blueprints, and your ideas had to be tested first”. An outstanding example of this is Ralph Hegnauer, who always used to show great enthusiasm when someone came up with a proposal, but he would soon add, somewhat quietly and persuasively, “That’s really a good idea, now go ahead and start to implement it”. Naturally, many ideas that were put forward would not get much further than that, but a few would, and in the process, those concerned would get great satisfaction while contributing considerably to the movement.

Nevertheless, SCI has an International Secretariat, branches with their national secretariats and their staff, as well as committees and assemblies that make the main decisions. It is therefore difficult not to talk about a form of organization, even if it is rather specific. Like any other organization, SCI has been (and probably still is) faced with a dilemma: should priority be given to faithfulness to its origins and the specific character of the organization, at the risk of remaining small and marginal; or should the movement try to develop on a larger scale, at the risk of losing its soul? The latter orientation implies a more professional approach, at least with regards to management.

This dilemma (mentioned by Jean-Pierre) has, of course, implications with regard to financing. Here we may refer back to the UNESCO document from the `80s (see above), according to which the cost of volunteer work has become increasingly acute with the development of voluntary service. Undoubtedly, although there is little direct reference to the issue in the contributors’ memories themselves, the operation and even the orientation of SCI has been seriously affected by a permanent shortage of resources. Bhuppy refers to the issue, but he seems to regret the initiative of some branches who tended to work in a more professional way (using publicity, increasing bureaucracy), thus to some extent losing the voluntary character of the movement.

Already back in the `50s, Dorothy, writing from India, expressed reservations with regard to a very large official organization like the Bharat Sewaj Samaj, as she feared that SCI might lose some of its independence. More recently, Nicole Paraire has underlined a permanent feature of SCI: its independence from any institution and its different relationship with money, as she feels that developing exchanges on an equal footing and maintaining a friendly relationship are not compatible with expensive bureaucracy and big money. However, minimum amounts of resources are required: where to find it without losing one’s independence is a common problem: Nicole has found the solution by organizing voluntary money-raising activities

Another theme concerns decentralization. Paulette was concerned about the possibility that it would go too far, at the risk of losing the unity of the movement. Conversely, Sato appreciated that SCI was, at one and the same time, a national and an international movement: the autonomy accorded to the regions and to the national branches allowed them to adapt to their own specific culture.

The memories, whilst only briefly touching on traditional emergency, summer and weekend camps, provide an illustration of the diversification and internationalization of SCI’s activities:

The development and diversification of these activities are only some examples of a more general trend affecting voluntary service, but SCI has played a pioneering role. This is particularly true of East-West workcamps and of the concern for development. Is this diversification faithful to the origins of the movement? There is a reference to this issue in Sato’s biography. He thought that adaptation was necessary, whilst maintaining Pierre Cérésole’s ideals. He believed that following the core principles would prevent SCI activities from becoming simply social gatherings. He was always ready to invent innovative actions, adapted to a variety of contexts, from India to the US.

Martin regrets that SCI has not always been confident enough in using the workcamp method in situations where political and social change is possible and that, during his time, preference had all too often been given to safe ‘arrangements’ rather than to challenging projects. As already mentioned, Bhuppy recalls that SCI is basically a workcamp organization and he apparently regrets that this has sometimes been forgotten.

Dorothy and Nicole Paraire emphasize the need for more continuity, a point already brought up by Pierre Martin in the UNESCO Courier in 1948. He was afraid that, apart from doing concrete work, little would be left from the workcamp in Kabylie with regard to what they tried to teach the villagers. For Dorothy, SCI has not sufficiently built on what has been done: spending two months in a village may create a friendly atmosphere, but after the volunteers’ departure, nothing is left. She feels that some follow-up would be desirable. Similarly, Nicole Paraire insists on the time required to establish and maintain a friendly relationship. During volunteers’ training period, they are told that the most important thing is to go back to the same place. On an individual basis, the memories give many examples of such lasting relationships.

Efficiency of the organization

According to the UNESCO document from 1982 every type of voluntary service has three aspects:

The stories collected here provide a good illustration of the relative meaning of the concept of efficiency in voluntary service. Referring to the above distinction, we can look at the stories from the point of view of the concrete short-term results, of the long-term impact on the environment, and of the implications for the volunteers themselves (end of the chapter). At the same time, we have to look at conflicting intangible goals. For example, in the immediate post-colonial era in the Indian sub-continent, there was an aim of demonstrating the dignity of manual labor (carried over from Cérésole’s first work there) and breaking down barriers between the local people and former colonial masters. In order to give deference to the leadership of local organisers, many times LTVs found themselves abstaining from Western concepts of efficiency.

The former volunteers in our sample take a modest, objective, and sometimes critical view of the short-term concrete results of their work. However, we should recall that this limited sample is not representative of all SCI volunteers, particularly since there is little reference to large-scale emergency workcamps, which were expected to give more concrete results with more resources. One of the most positive assessments comes from Jean-Pierre, when referring to the work in the Tlemcen area in the early sixties, which allowed a number of lives to be saved and which contributed to the re-building and re-birth of several villages. Likewise in Algeria, before-Independence, Nelly’s memories show that SCI played a pioneering role in the beginning of the social centres, an historical development.

This overall positive assessment contrasts with a number of more critical impressions at the local level, which can be explained either by lack of adequate resources or by poor workcamp management. They primarily concern the traditional ‘pick and shovel’ workcamps, but even the long-term volunteers assigned to medical or social tasks have sometimes a modest idea of their contribution. For Elizabeth, its usefulness was limited by the shortage of resources. Marie Catherine and, even more so, Nicole Lehmann feel that African and Asian mothers did not have much to learn from them.

The efficiency of reconstruction projects is discussed in more detail by David, who compares his experiences in Algeria and in Iran, where the latter project was run by an organization with substantial financial resources. This discussion raises two issues:

Talking of professionalism, Thedy has a straightforward, but particularly interesting conclusion, which is worth reproducing here. "After the end of my voluntary work, I was completely disillusioned: I thought that it was not serious. The amateur character of SCI and the fact that the voluntary work did not imply any obligation were discouraging for me. As an active man, I felt that I was wasting my time. But, strangely enough, among the number of organizations with which I have worked, no other had had such an impact on all my life. This is despite – or maybe precisely because of - the lack of professionalism, the weakness and, I would say, the naïve character of SCI. It is precisely this deeply moving simplicity which has been warming my heart, in spite of all my disappointments: a concrete service for those who are suffering, regardless of their colour, religion and culture, based on love and compassion”.

Similarly, Martin says that, “One wonderful aspect of SCI has always been that, for the most part, its volunteers may not ‘have a clue’ or be highly productive, but their aspirations and their commitment are what makes the difference”.

Already in the `50s in India, Dorothy raised the question of the practical value of the aid provided by volunteers. She underlined that the costs, apparently modest, were in fact high compared to local standards and that there was plenty of cheap labour available. Her conclusion was that the important thing was the human value of work which, until then had been associated with the lower classes. That these human relations are more important than concrete results for the majority of contributors, is illustrated by Thedy, when Valli was visiting his workcamp in India and he told her of his frustrations. She simply asked him, “Did you make any friends?” A similar conclusion is drawn by most contributors.

Likewise, after long international experience with a variety of organizations, Valli draws a very positive conclusion of the pioneering role of SCI. She writes that: “Almost 50 years ago SCI could envisage women volunteers from India working in Europe, volunteers from France participating in actions in Algeria during the war of Independence, East-West work- and-study camps whilst continuing efforts to support conscientious objectors. SCI was also active in negotiating with the Indian and Pakistani authorities for setting up workcamps simultaneously after partition, exchanging volunteers between both countries as well as being forerunners and a model to many overseas volunteer programmes”. She concludes that SCI workcamps enunciated modern-day principles of personal growth, team work, leadership, conflict-resolution, process-orientation empowerment (without labeling them as such or theorizing) and that these principles have been successfully implemented."

Other volunteers (e.g. Juliet, Sato) draw similar conclusions from their experience and point to the specific character of SCI and its contribution to mutual understanding between different peoples.

  1. Arthur Gillette: One Million Volunteers. Penguin, 1968.
  2. Ernesto Ottone : Antécédents, potentialités et possibilités d’utilisation de volontaires par l’Unesco, Unesco, 1982.

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