WUSC is one of Canada’s oldest development organizations and is one of the largest in terms of volunteers sent abroad. It came out of the International Student Service movement in Europe after the First World War and the World University Service movement after the Second World War.
WUSC started its history in Sri Lanka in 1953 when it sent Canadian students to take part in a one month international seminar in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India. Some of those Canadian students went on to become big names in international relations, politics and government including Senator Eugene Forsey and Warren Allmand.
Senior government officials today remember World University Service (WUS), a home-grown Sri Lankan group affiliated with other similar groups abroad, including WUSC. A WUS Secretariat in Geneva provided support to them all. WUS Sri Lanka engaged on campuses in Colombo, Peradeniya, Moratuwa and Sri Jayawardenapura. WUSC Canada engaged more closely with WUS on scholarships in the early 1990s and both chapters worked with Sarvodaya for decades.
A book was published in 1976 by the Sri Lanka National Committee of WUS at the University of Sri Lanka, Colombo after a regional workshop with 81 participants and one Canadian, Carol Malette of the University of Toronto, was held to discuss non-formal education. The very first line of the book states, “Education hitherto has meant formal school and university education. Changing requirements…necessitate the introduction of new and non-formal types of education” and this included workers education and family life education. The Minister of Education Dr. Al Haj Badi Ud Din Mahamud wrote that “WUS is not so rich, working on a low budget and on a self help basis”. The book also described WUS as “an independent organization made up of students and staff in universities throughout the world and its purpose is to bring these persons together to work for economic and social development”. Chancellor Siriwardhane spoke of his memories starting a bookshop in a section of King George’s Hall, later expanding its activities to canteens and hostel facilities.
WUSC’s major development work in Sri Lanka really got started in 1989. WUSC was galvanized into action by young Sri Lankans searching for meaning for their lives in a culture that valued knowledge but where often practical skills were lacking to find employment or start businesses.
From the beginning, WUSC was determined to work with communities in many regions but by 2012 there were fewer district offices in Colombo, Vavuniya, Jaffna, Batticaloa, Badulla and Kandy. A steady flow of Canadian young volunteers (32 from 2006-2012) to Sri Lanka has helped keep the organization directly engaged with youth. Since 1994 a variety of Canadian volunteers, not just youth, were active.
WUSC partnerships are key to its approach – with government, local civil society, private sector and donors.
This includes the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Skills Development as well as the Tertiary Vocational Education Commission, Vocational Training Authority, National Apprentice and Industrial Training Authority, and National Youth Services Council. Without their involvement young people’s dedication to demanding vocational training course work would not be recognized in the national vocational qualifications certificates many of them currently receive.
The national partner organizations, local peoples organizations and private sector regional plantation companies are also critical to delivering results in 17 out of 25 districts in all regions of Sri Lanka. Local partners are nearly always located “out station” meaning outside Colombo and in the rural districts. Finally, WUSC’s partnership with UNICEF in particular, as well as the major funding from the Norwegian and Canadian governments round out further the WUSC partnership portfolio which has involved over a dozen donors at any one time in the past, including the Saskatchewan Council for International Cooperation.
WUSC’s longest running vocational training effort celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2009. The Project for Rehabilitation through Education and Training has helped an estimated 30,000 marginalized youth and women enter the labour force. It also helps women enter non-traditional trades such as electric wiring and carpentry while opening up to the private sector and supporting self employment opportunities in the areas of engine mechanics, construction, computer/IT, tourism services, photography and jewellery production.
The Plantation Communities Project works in four hill districts with tea plantation workers and managers. A dialogue has grown that has seen notable improvements in relations involving needs, rights, grievances, capacity building, and mutual understanding. The Regional Plantation Companies, Plantation Human Development Trust and local organizations including Estate Workers and Cooperative Societies are the most important players in this empowerment effort which tackles some of the historically worst poverty and discrimination in the country. Street dramas are one of the small but most colourful of the activities sponsored and it is a means to highlight a big subject – gender based violence and alcoholism.
Women Defining Peace was a WUSC consortium effort (2007-2012) that included MATCH International and Cowater and focused on preventing gender-based violence. The work demanded creative solutions ranging from lofty legal and justice interaction to very practical, street level, innovative communication work with radio stations and tackling harassment on public transport.
With UNICEF, the Youth in Transition Projects, started with post-tsunami work with traumatized youth in the South then moved to conflict-affected youth in the East years later and finally in 2012 moved to the north to work with youth job creation. Meeting young people who were part of the leadership and confidence building dialogue reinforces how important life skills are to awakening potential and eventual success. Technical learning tends to be the focus of traditional schooling and class work but is rarely enough to really help young people think through their future career options. Researchers know that resolving this mismatch between youth skills and the needs of employers, is important to resolving youth frustration and conflict.
There are so many stories to tell but what really encourages WUSC’s longest serving field manager in Sri Lanka and now WUSC Program Director worldwide, Doug Graham, is the “impact that WUSC’s programming has had on the lives of people in all communities. It is rewarding to meet former trainees who now run their own business and hire others to work for them. Equally, walking into a partner organization to see them continuing to support youth in an effective programme without ongoing direct support from WUSC, also makes the work worthwhile”. Change can happen and make a big difference.