A Century of Issues, Integrity and Engagement

Paul Winter Glastonbury 16 May 2020

The First World War, the so-called “war to end all wars” devastated Europe and much of the globe. Colonial powers shipped in battalions from their empires to join swathes of working-class lads from the “home” countries to die alongside them in the killing fields of France. Altogether some seventy million were under arms of whom nine million perished together with seven million civilians who were killed.  

A ten month battle ending late in 1916 was in the area of Verdun, devastating villages and countryside, leaving three quarters of a million dead, equally sons of France and of Germany. While the war formally ended in November 1918 its legacy of devastation was manifest in the populace throughout Europe, a legacy of hatred, retribution and xenophobia. Pierre Cérésole a Swiss pacifist and conscientious objector joined with others to discuss how hearts and minds could be cleared of such a virulent infection.

Tiring of too many words in a talk shop Pierre and a few friends determined that practical action was required. So was born the first workcamp.  Intending to reconstruct the war damaged Verdun village of Esnes-en-Argonne a small group of international volunteers assembled and began work. The project was to be a symbol of reconciliation between France and Germany. Among the small group of international volunteers there were three Germans. When the villagers realised this they insisted that the Germans should be expelled. Impossible for Pierre and the project. They packed their bags and left.

So our first workcamp ended in failure. But do we not learn more from our failure than from our success? Lesson one: “Know your host community, you have to work with them and through them.”

Nothing dismayed, Pierre embarked on a series of workcamps in Europe the foundation for “Service Civil International” (SCI) a non-violent alternative to military conscription. Most camps were giving assistance in the wake of floods, avalanches and other natural disasters. However a project at Brynmawr on the South Wales coalfield, an area of high unemployment and deprivation, was in 1931/32 an early forerunner of social and environmental workcamps. An international team cleared rubbish, dug a children’s pool and brightened drab houses in fresh colour.

The movement identified with the struggle against colonialism and Pierre met with Gandhi. An earthquake and floods in the Bihar region of India in 1933/34 became the focus for a workcamp with four European volunteers. An India National Congress activist commented, “This is the right way for Europeans to come to our country. They come not to command but to work hard for our community under the direction of that community.” Lesson one learned!

The nascent movement was severely tested in the 1930’s with the growth of militarism and fascism one aspect being a grab to establish and extend colonial possessions. Workcamps responded to the needs of the oppressed in Spain and the refugees who fled to France. In Switzerland the group gave assistance to Jews and others escaping persecution in Nazi Germany. In that country those giving expression to the SCI philosophy of civil rather than military national service were arrested, imprisoned and tortured.

The vision and commitment that had given birth to the movement after the first world war was yet more evident after the end of the second. Determined to avoid further armed conflicts the United Nations Organisation was created, together with its various agencies. Under the aegis of one , the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), in 1948 a committee was formed to bring together the work of national and international volunteering associations, becoming known as the  Coordinating Committee for International Voluntary Service (CCIVS).

Yet serious conflicts were to surface in the post war years. They were marked by two underlying factors: a division between former allies espousing contrary economic and societal ideologies and an intensification of struggles for decolonisation and independence.

In Europe an Iron Curtain descended between former allies. To the West international volunteering clung on, run on a shoestring, often chaotic. To the East, state sponsored cadres organised to provide labour for the common good. But contacts persisted despite western media labelling as fellow-travellers volunteers who in the east were at the same time regarded with suspicion as potential fifth columnists.

There may have been a standoff in Europe. Elsewhere decolonization was rarely bloodless particularly where colonial settlers formed a substantial controlling minority e.g. South Africa, Zimbabwe, Palestine, Northern Ireland. Especially vicious was the struggle in Algeria where by 1952 SCI had an independent branch. The long war from 1954 to 1962 disrupted work camps but activists held on with support and social work. Running a school for deprived children on the outskirts of Algiers a former SCI secretary and his wife were in May 1962 abducted from their school and murdered. They paid the ultimate price for activism and solidarity.

Other terrible conflicts arose when departing colonists left a vacuum filled by opposing factions espousing one side or the other of the East West divide. And if one or more of the great powers in that divide went further than backing “their” side with finance and armaments and committed their own military, the result was sustained and bloody – Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan.  In the Americas, Africa and Asia oppressive post-colonial, post Marxist regimes looked to maintain their grip on control underpinned by a greater power. Commercial exploitative colonialism replaced the model of empire.

Remarkably, with this background, in the second half of the twentieth century, around the world new visionaries emerged. Subscribing to no all-embracing dogma, they observed needs and deprivation in local communities close to their homes. Instead of rejecting the stranger, the outsider, the different, they saw that to build a sustainable society living in dignity, it is necessary to reach out and join hands with those who have other ways of life and cultures. So fresh branches of volunteering organisations blossomed across the globe inviting CCIVS partners to join them, together to roll up their sleeves and side by side to experience other ways and cultures, developing understanding and respect for one another.

And now? Entering the third decade of the twenty first century the tasks confronting IVS appear no less daunting than those faced by our forebears.  Round the globe populations are moving, fleeing war and tyranny, fleeing rejection of their culture and ethnicity, fleeing poverty, hunger and destitution. Where can they find shelter? In those countries that sparked the conflicts, that stoked the fires of war from which they flee? In countries no longer driven by guilt at the ethnic cleansing and holocaust of the second world war, incapable of recognising their recrudescence? In countries enjoying lifestyles predicated on cheap overseas labour? In countries where wealth and power are concentrated in ever fewer hands?

The planet itself groans under the burden of pollution, shortening lives, hastening intense climate change, threatening deluge and desert, a shrinking resource for a rising population. Globalisation creates a smaller world. Living closer to one another is there more harmony or greater discord? Does an explosion of communication bring increased understanding or rising dissension? Will pervasive information technology with application in artificial intelligence be an instrument of oppressive control or a tool of liberation?

Finally we are visited by pestilence. A pandemic circles the planet. If national borders were closed to migration and sanctuary, now each one of us has their own sacrosanct border, their two metre square independent territory into which to retreat and from which to repel invasion; a swift diminution from macrocosm to microcosm.

Finally we are visited by pestilence. A pandemic circles the planet. If national borders were closed to migration and sanctuary, now each one of us has their own sacrosanct border, their two metre square independent territory into which to retreat and from which to repel invasion; a swift diminution from macrocosm to microcosm.

This appears as a triumph of fear over hope. Already nations were retreating, throwing up barricades to each defend their own nationalist self-aggrandizement. International structures serving cooperation have become fractious; members secede. Faced with these challenges can IVS remain strong, keep hope alive?

The purpose of this short piece has been to demonstrate how in the course of one hundred years the pioneers of IVS have striven to recover reconciliation from conflict, to build healthy harmonious community, to treasure and celebrate the diversity of peoples, to create a world capable of sustaining life and wellbeing for all. The background is this world’s history of disaster and aggression.

Only my demise will bring to an end my journey in international volunteering, beginning in 1958 with an event under the auspices of the United Nations Association. The temptation to give way to fear is a constant presence. But my fears are assuaged every time I attend a gathering of IVS colleagues. On each occasion I encounter youth who are intelligent, perceptive, caring, committed, yet still with capacity for joy and celebration.

Time and again in the past century International Voluntary Service has had to stand up and be counted. Today’s call for solidarity and comradeship is as urgent as ever. I know that in every country there are young people who will come forward to answer that call.