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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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“Willing Slaves”

by Arthur GILLETTE

Arthur Gillette

Have you ever wondered about the etymological origin of the words “voluntary service”? There are probably several possibilities. The least unlikely, however – and as far-fetched as it may be in light of our present usage - stems from two Latin words voluntas and servus. Connect the notions they represent and you get a result that can be roughly translated as “Do willingly the work of a… slave”! Oh, and for about the same amount of compensation.

Unremunerated service has been and still is at least occasionally viewed (e.g. by parents or peers of some volunteers, not to forget certain host communities) as curious behaviour. Yet, from a longer-term historical perspective it is no aberration. In virtually all pre-industrial societies and communities mutual self-help labour contributed to general survival, and more particularly that of vulnerable individuals and groups. To a degree (and here and there), the tradition continues to this day. In some African contexts, for example, teenaged boys are entrusted with the maintenance of widows’ huts. Their reward? The knowledge that they have helped needy neighbours, and the community recognition accruing to them in their transition to (pre)adulthood. Similar examples can be found Asia and Latin America, and even in certain industrialised country contexts. Remember the traditional collective barn-raising in the film Witness?

Observe the annual autumn grape harvest at small scale (single family) farms in the Italian province of Tuscany. “How”, you wonder, “can such modest farmers afford to hire the swarms of labourers required to bring in the harvest before the weather turns?” In fact, no money changes hands: everyone shares a host-provided luscious lunch, and the knowledge that “their turn” has either already happened or will soon happen.

Industrialisation is the “villain” in this interpretation, with its increasingly monetarised value systems: “What did her dress cost?” “How could he afford a new car?” - having rather than being, not to forget the isolation and anonymity that have frequently resulted from urban life, a concomitant of industrialisation.

I don’t mean to paint an over-rosy picture of pre-industrial societies, where life tended (tends) to be short and hard, but also shared.

And as is clear from the testimonials to be found in this volume sharing is at the heart of the individual and collective experience of volunteering with Service Civil International. From the start, that experience has tended to be unconventional. The very first SCI workcamp, begun in 1920 at the war-ravaged village of Esnes, near Verdun in eastern France, welcomed volunteers from a variety of backgrounds including two Germans who had been Wehrmacht soldiers. The villagers found the team curious but, egged on by Madame X (a relief worker), were not happy about having “enemies” helping rebuild houses, repair roads and so on. After five months, the team received an ultimatum: they could continue working only on condition that the “enemies” be sent home. This challenged a basic principle inspiring the experience, and so the camp ended prematurely.

Over the years, SCI has often found itself at the giddy borderline in a dialectic between reality and principle and, like at least some other voluntary service organisations, its teams have definitely tended to cause more raised eyebrows than shrugged shoulders.

As a university student near Boston, and at a time when at least de facto racial segregation was still rife in many parts of the U.S.A., I took part in many Quaker weekend workcamps in the Hispano-Black suburban slum of Roxbury. I will never forget the look of disbelief (no shrugged shoulders there!) in the eyes of a Puerto Rican head of a single-parent family when she realised that a group of white Harvard students was going to repaint her grimy flat. Our reward? A first-time and first-hand venture into a ghetto.

This kind of reciprocal enrichment is a real step forward compared with traditional philanthropy, under which mainstream society extends a helping hand to the “underprivileged” hoping to help them join a basically unchanged mainstream.

Not that SCI suddenly appeared as a full-blown innovation on all fronts simultaneously. If my information is correct, the cooking at the 1920 Esnes camp was left to a Dutch girl. But gender stereotypes have steadily eroded. Many of the male volunteers (including me) in an international SCI team that helped build the foundations for a school at a Ukrainian kolkhoz during the summer of 1960 were put to shame by the sheer energy and physical strength with which a girl volunteer from Leningrad dug trenches, mixed cement, etc. She was a professional ballet dancer – and all of about 1m40 tall! When her turn came for kitchen duty she laughed and said (or words to that effect) “I couldn’t cook my way out of a paper bag!” I think she may have ended up washing dishes.

Politicisation is an issue that rears its head repeatedly in the pages that follow, and remains at times, for SCI and other volunteer bodies, a delicate question with few if any obvious or easy answers. The 1956 Soviet crushing of the Budapest uprising (just when East-West workcamping was beginning symbolically – but at the time this was a startlingly strong symbol - to “rust” the Iron Curtain) and the later Prague Spring invasion left many with this quandary: “If we continue to participate in exchanges with the Eastern Bloc, are we not lending tacit support – or at least turning an inadmissible blind eye - to the Soviet ‘might is right’ policy? BUT if we don’t continue, won’t we contribute to shutting down one of the very few civil society channels of mutual communication and cooperation?” And, for SCI’s French Branch, a major cas de conscience in the 1950s was the brutality and overt racism of the Algerian War, with its inane propaganda: I remember one poster stuck up in post offices around Paris that said “The Army – artisan of Franco-Muslim fraternity!” The conundrum that at least some of us tried to grapple with, and put (with hindsight) in rather too stark terms, was “Which is better: a church full of sinners or an almost empty monastery?”

A related issue raised in following chapters: how far should SCI go in attempting to mainstream volunteering? In the mid-1960s the then U.N. Secretary General U Thant said “I am looking forward to the time when the average youngster – and parent or employer – will consider that one or two years work for the cause of development either in a far away country or a depressed area of his own community, is a normal part of one’s education.” “What,” some of us asked, “are the borders we must not cross – i.e. how much ‘water’ should we allow into SCI’s ‘wine’?”

Again, there were no simple answers. But, in a way, that did not and still does not bother me. In my experience, one of the virtues and values of participating in SCI was to be faced regularly with hard, cutting edge issues, both philosophical and practical. This constant individual and collective questioning of oneself and one’s co-workers has – I like to believe – helped keep me on my toes; and doubtless one reason why, aged 69, I am still a “willing slave”.

A final point on mainstreaming: of late, a new kind of international tourism has begun to complement, if not replace, conventional sun-sea-and-sand holidaying in the Third World by First World citizens: tourisme solidaire or ‘solidarity tourism’. An example is Bali where, until the recent terrorist bombing of discos and other foreign visitors’ hangouts, few if any Balinese other than servants and taxi drivers were to be seen (or allowed?) in the seaside tourism enclaves. Unexpectedly, the shock of the bombings produced a positive reaction: today foreign families can travel for a weekend to the lovely upland interior of Bali, take part in farm work and sample local delicacies they have helped (and learned how) to cook.

As far as I know, SCI had no direct role in launching such activities. But over 80 years of SCI workcamping have helped create an atmosphere conducive to this kind of welcome innovation.


Former Director of Youth and Sport at UNESCO


In 1968 Arthur pubslihed comprehensive history about youth voluntary service which was Published by PENGUIN BOOKS: One Million Volunteers - The Story of Volunteer Youth Service

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