Asia, CUSO, Volunteers and CIDA

In 1985 I was hired by CUSO (Canadian University Service Overseas) to be the director of its Asia programme. CUSO was an interesting combination of placement of Canadian volunteers (or “cooperants”) and support for small scale projects – the latter much as I had been doing in Indonesia with OXFAM. Its apporach also varied across the world, with, for instance CUSO West Africa only placing volunteers, whereas CUSO Bangladesh hardly placing any. My predecessor, Raymond Cornoyer, a French canadian cleric, had concentrated in Asia on supporting small scale projects and had helped to create a network of CSOs whose focus was participation. These were Proshika in Bangladesh, PIDA in Sri Lanka, Process in the Philippines, and PRIA in India. CIDA relied to a very large extent on Canadian government funding from CIDA, however, and politically it was most interested in placing warm canadian bodies on the ground. To a large extent, at the time I was working for CUSO, it was paid by CIDA according to the number of Canadians placed – and if CUSO could use this money to support other work as well, t was able to do so.

CUSO in Asia was managed by one staff person in Bangladesh, two in Thailand, one in Indonesia (covering Philippines and Malaysia as well) and my self, based in Penang. It was a most particupatory organisation with a huge amount of devolved responsibility allowed to the Regional Directors (Asia, Southern Africa, West Africa, Pacific and Latin America) who were brought together once or twice a year to Otttawa to negotiate the future strategies of the organisation.

Findings opportunities for placing volunteers to a large extent depended on the interests of the staff of CUSO, and Ministries of Asian governments or NGOs who saw a place for Canadian volunteers in their work. It also depended on the availability of Canadian skills. When i started with CUSO there was a strong element of support to National Parks, and there developed a strong element of low input and sustainable farming, including fish farming. It was difficult to get congruity between this part of CUSO’s work and the support for quite political CSOs who were interested in landless people acquiring control of markets, and local governments.

I worked for five years for CUSO and was able to participate in two very interesting opportunities for its further development in Asia: the first was an invitation that came to CUSO from the Government of China who were interested in placing Canadian volunteers in remote areas inhabited by what the Chinese called “Minority nationalities”. Myself and Nigel Martin were invited to look for volunteer placement opportunities in Yunnan province, in the areas closest to the Burmese and Vietnamese borders. One of the most fascinating aspects of this was discovering economic opportunities that had been created by university professors who had been exiled to these areas during the Great leap Forward, and who had kept their thirst for knowledge and applied it in their exile. The second was an attempt to find placement possibilities in Burma. It was usually only possible to get tourist visas for Burma at that time, and so CUSO devised a cunning strategy to get me into Burma, and alongside those possibly interested in receiving CUSO volunteers. The University of Guelph had been receiving students from the National Agricultural College of Burma to undertake PhDs, and the Professors from Guelph regularly travelled there to supervise their students. I accompanied one of professors as his assistant and talked to the College, but basically was told that they knew the Government was only interested in untied aid, not in foreign bodies.



  • the placement of about 100 very committed and hardworking Canadians for at least two years (often longer) who were able to pass on considerable skills to their local counterparts
  • the support at important times in their development of valuable and innovative CSOs in Bangladesh, India, Philippines and Sri Lanka and Malaysia who pioneered work with landless people to get control of community assets, and start to develop their own political power.
  • my contribution to the management of a vibrant and innovative organisation , CUSO, while appreciating the extent that its long term strategy was always controlled by political decisions made in CIDA which changed often, depending on who was in charge of what office.


Having been a British Volunteer in Ethiopia I understood some of the complexities of using volunteers as a tool in internatonal development. Often with British volunteers, the individual volunteers gained more from their experience than the country did (and this aspect of “development education” was acknowledged by the British volunteer sending organisations, but I was impressed by the professionalism of CUSO – in finding good volunteer material, training them well in country, and supervising their work in collaboration with the managers of the local organisations for whem they were working.



Doing development – Government, NGOs, and the Rural Poor in Asia:
edited by Richard holloway. Earthscan London 1989


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