The First Secretaries

For the first couple of years, the CoCo was run by several not very long term volunteers. The head of CoCo/CCIVS was not called Director until the time of Jean-Michel Bazinet (1964).

In 1950 Willy Begert, who had been an experienced workcamp leader and International Secretary of SCI and written a book entitled “Organizing Voluntary Work-Camps” officially took on the post of Secretary, working with his wife, Dora. Hans Peter Müller5 describes the scene in the Majestic Hotel where UNESCO had its temporary office: “Under a bright electric light bulb Willy was sitting at a rickety table absorbed in his task. Quite oblivious to all around him, he frantically pounded on an ancient typewriter, while his wife Dora, immersed in files and correspondence in another corner, was equally occupied.” Living on a volunteer allowance in Paris was not easy ( nothing changes!) and at the end of 1951 the Begerts left, to be replaced by Hans Peter Müller who had worked with former prisoners of war in Poland and in UNESCO. Hans Peter was Secretary from 1952 to 1959 and when he started it was a time when the number of volunteer projects
was diminishing. However, many new initiatives were taken: visits to new partners and projects in Yugoslavia, Latin America, and to an “Experimental camp for Arab Countries” in Egypt in 1955. Leaders training was organised in Germany and elsewhere; support was provided for five projects in south-east Asia in 1958; the first European regional meeting for workcamp organizations took place; “News from the Camps” was published regularly, reporting on international volunteering issues country by country, including a general overview of activities, needs and possibilities. Hans Peter remained active in the field, later working for UNA International Service in the UK.

An Early East-West Workcamp in the USSR: A Voyage by Columbus’s Sailors Testimony of Arthur Gillette

“In 1959-1960, I served as Hans-Peter Müller’s assistant at the CCIVS tiny UNESCO Headquarters Secretariat in Paris. A main Committee effort at the time was to develop East-West workcamp volunteer exchanges between Cold War adversary nations. The CCIVS 1960 General Conference took place at Niska Banja, in non-aligned Yugoslavia, and, attracting fairly widespread Eastern organisation participation for the first time, was a kind of ice-breaker opening the channel to more widespread volunteer flows in both directions.

I was learning Russian at the time, but had never been the other side of the “iron curtain”, and so decided to join an SCI Western team on a summer 1960 workcamp to begin construction of a middle school at Selishche village kolkhoz (collective farm) in the Ukraine.

I wasn’t and am not a Communist. But I had grown up in a politically progressive New Jersey family (this was during the McCarthy years) and was eager to experience the “other side” and cooperate in a joint effort with Eastern youngsters. This said, I wasn’t entirely sanguine about the adventure. I had done many workcamps in the USA and Western Europe; but this was a very different undertaking. I felt a bit like one of Columbus’s sailors, hoping that the “take” was right and thus that the world was round. But what if it turned out to be flat and we… sailed off the edge??

The SCI team went by train from Paris to Moscow via Warsaw (I remember the stink of the still prevalent coal smoke belched by Polish and Soviet locomotives) and thence to Kharkov in Ukraine. In mixed six-person compartments, that overnight trip southwards from Moscow with many Soviet volunteers now on board began in a tense atmosphere.

“So, you’re an American and learning Russian. Why??” one Soviet boy leered at me with “CIA” writ large across his expression.

I shot back, “Yeah, but why in heaven’s name are you learning both French and… wolof?” (This was the time of independence of French colonies, including Senegal, and the Soviets were reputed as intending to move in to fill the vacuum.)

“O.K., O.K.,” intruded one of the Soviet team leaders (he spoke excellent English and must have been all of 30, and some of the Westerners assumed ergo KGB): “We’re starting off on the wrong foot. So I propose a game.”

The “game” was to see how many of us could fit into a single train compartment. Just as we reached 19 (I was crouched in an overhead baggage rack) the train conductor came by to take tickets.

When he saw what we were up to he gave the team leader a terrible dressing down. “Whew”, said looks traded among Westerners, “this chap could definitely not be KGB”.

In fact, the Selishche camp went off practically without a hitch, either interpersonal or political. The daily work was hard and sweaty (the Ukraine is hot in the summer!) but in the cool of the evenings we gathered to sing and exchange ideas. For example, the Soviet young people described and lauded the Virgin Lands (tselina) scheme then being massively organised by the Communist Youth League (Komsomol) to bring agriculture to extended uncultivated tracts of the USSR. On the Western side, we described the workings of multi-party democracies and even ventured to broach the subject… of conscientious objection! The latter was not formally recognised in the USSR at the time. We learned to our surprise, however, that even in that totalitarian state at least some young conscripts in good faith were assigned solely civilian tasks and allowed not to undergo arms training.

Interpersonal relations relaxed to the point where even political joking around became fairly current. An example: among the participants were two manual labourers from Italy, fervent members of that country’s Communist Party. They were not the hardest working volunteers, and when the heat reached about 40°C tended to leave the sun drenched foundation digging to others, seeking refuge by lounging in the shade of nearby trees. One day, a Western volunteer shouted laughingly at them “Come on guys – get back down here and show us how real Communist can shovel!” “Ma no, ma no!” One of the Italians chortled back: “You do the Communist work, we shall labour as… Christians!”

The Soviet youth daily Komsomolskaya Pravda had a correspondent among volunteers, who in addition to digging and laying masonry, sent despatches to his paper. We were a bit concerned about the possibility of being used for one-sided propaganda purposes. But no, the article represented who we were and what we were doing on the other hand, after returning to America following the camp; I stumbled on an almost full page photo of it in the popular weekly Saturday Evening Post. Its caption vilified the weak minded Western and Third World participants who allowed themselves to be brainwashed in such a crude manner. The Saturday Evening Post never answered – much less published! – my factual letter of rebuttal.

Too bad… I’m convinced that main effect of the Se- lishche workcamp was not the impression made on readers by such ill founded propaganda but the di- scovery by us, the volunteer “Columbus’s sailors”, that the world was, after all, round rather than flat“.

Testimony of Jean-Michel Bazinet

“Workcamps of those early years were definitely placed in the post-war context. The main objectives of most of them were to bring together young people who had been raised in hostile countries and ideologies, to make them meet and work together on socially significant projects with, as background, the Nazi extermination camps and Hiroshima. In France, for instance, the names of the main workcamps organisations were Jeunesse et Reconstruction (my organisation), Mouvement Chrétien pour la Paix, Compagnons Bâtisseurs and of course the French branch of Service Civil International. Which initiated this type of approach after the First World War.

Beyond this basic, simple but fundamental approach: meeting and working together will change the attitude of the participants and the stereotypes carried by nationalities, by giving a name and a face to the foreigner working with you, beyond this the various organisations might have stressed more specific objectives, religious ones for instance.

It must be noted also that many themes which are at the centre of the debate today were not at that time: Europe was still a vague concept, gay rights and environment were not recognised issues, and globalisation did not yet exist. All other issues such as intercultural learning, democracy, political awareness and civil rights were mainly by-products of the camp life and activities, emerging from the discussions among the participants, even if the leadership would have a role of initiative and orientation in these areas.

Two other historical contexts gradually developed during that period:
1. The collapse of the colonial system with the emergence of the “developing countries” and colonial wars taking place in various countries of Africa and Asia.
2. The erection of the Iron Curtain between east and West.

Obviously any international gathering of young people had to be affected by those contexts. The organisation of workcamps in developing countries started with the objective of involving young people in development projects. Long term voluntary service, organised by NGOs and then by governments took a new dimension. This is why the name of CoCo was changed from “Coordinating Committee for International Voluntary Workcamps” to the present name.

Of course we had strong convictions about the po- sitive role of workcamps in the social, political, cultural and international education of young people, mainly by generally observing how groups and individuals developed in the process. But since, to my knowledge, no scientific study was made, I would find it difficult to be more specific on how real and deep the effect of the workcamp experience would be on the majority of the participants.

The workcamps were of short duration and the contact with workcampers would be lost after they returned home, with the exception of those we were able to follow – in particular those we would select and train as camp leaders. No formal evaluation was really possible for the period I was directly involved as Director of Jeunesse et Reconstruction and then as Chairman of the Committee (1954-66).

Long term voluntary service being of a different nature, its evaluation would also be very different. One would expect somebody volunteering for one or two years of service, generally in a very different cultural environment, to be already equipped with the positive attitudes and approaches short term workcamps aimed at developing. The problem there was the confrontation of these volunteers with realities which were often more complex than they had expected and where their role was not always clearly defined. I remember cases where the result was an aggressive attitude or deep depression. This area of programming was new for many organisations. Evaluation of the first experiments led to more sophisticated training programmes for volunteers before they leave“.