IVCO 2014 Closing Speech

Excerpt from the closing speech of the International Forum for Volunteering in Development (Forum)’s annual conference of International Volunteer Cooperation Organizations, in Lima, Peru, October 19-22, 2014.

–        Richard Veenstra, Executive Director SUCO – Solidarité Union Coopération

This conference opened with a wide-angle lens, with the encouraging perspective of the international volunteering sector needing, or at least wanting, but clearly feeling able, to position itself strategically in the global development agenda post 2015.  So we started out with remarkable assurance, especially given the context of my first IVCO two years ago, in Ottawa, when 10 organizations met in a corner of the Lord Elgin hotel somewhat pessimistic about their future and very pessimistic about their national government’s commitment or desire to support them in that future.  But you all heard Canada’s Ambassador to Peru publicly and even proudly call to your attention, you, an international audience, a commitment our minister made earlier this year.  Things seem to have come around.  So why not think of ourselves in the global agenda?

And then, as soon as we were done hearing about what looks like an open window to position ourselves globally, you evoked that we should position ourselves at all levels yes, nationally and globally, but also at the European Union, and other regional levels and municipally.  Well, yeah!

And then a new theme came up, still on day one, when Chris asked: As we reach out to the business sector, why should we be subordinate to their language, to their way of thinking?  How about a little give and take?

And it was similar the next day when Rebecca responded to a comment about integrating youths into the mainstream, by turning the question around, asking: How do young people bring the mainstream into their world?

So in both these examples, aren’t we simply affirming our role as civil society organizations?  I know we’re not all civil society organizations, but I’ll get to that later. As CSO’s and as IVCOs we need to be making communications easier, bringing people together, making bridges between different groups and sectors so that dialogue and exchange and inevitably common understanding can come about.  If the volunteer sector learns the business language, if youths learn how to speak a mainstream language, it has to be, inevitably, in order to make the values of our sector better known, better understood, stripped away from the prejudices.

Inevitably, this is what I think is the value of talking about cross-sector collaboration.  So we can build common understanding, which doesn’t mean adopting the logics of other sectors.  It doesn’t mean we have nothing to learn, because we do. Everyone does.  But we also have something to give.

I said I’d get back to my comment about civil society organizations.  Forum is itself a cross-sector collaboration; it’s a grouping of at least three sectors: Civil society, governments, multilateral.  And it seems to work.  There’s probably some work to do to make it a perfect. I found myself giving my head a shake once or twice in order to realize that the person speaking didn’t have the same frame of reference as I did, but it works.

So who is better positioned to do this? Even in the sector of development, we are probably the group that has traditionally invested most in cross-cultural training and reaching cross-cultural understanding.  So, if we speak of the language and logic and way of thinking of businesses and universities, aren’t we just speaking of culture?

It’s actually quite remarkable and probably very telling that the intercultural communications topics, north-south relations and biases hardly came up in my experience of this conference.  We’re looking at a different set of cultural differences now, ones that are enshrined in different sets of values, in privilege.  So if it took us a few decades to get over one intercultural complex, maybe not get over it, but at least to feel more comfortable about it, it might take us awhile this time too.

We demonstrated courage to invite speakers on mining, a potentially divisive issue. But we didn’t push on the issues that could divide us.  That’s possibly another part of how we work, and how we’ve succeeded in establishing relations across cultures and sectors, by focussing more on our similarities than on our differences, which allows us to build trust.  From the basis of trust, we may be able to have conversations that get at the nitty-gritty of our differences.  As brokers or intermediaries of relationships, that seems to be our role.  But it certainly isn’t easy. And it certainly isn’t done without hurdles.

So I’ll look to the young Guatemalan women who reminded us yesterday that as entrepreneurs, they were standing in front of us, just as you’re all facing me, all happy and branded with success.  But there were ups and downs in their process. There were hurdles.  But as she said, failure isn’t failure.  It’s not the end. You just have to begin again.

So summing up now, I’ll point to three things:

-Our remarkable assurance

-Cross-sector collaborations. We have what it takes to do this. It’s part of our DNA as cross-cultural specialists.

-Who is better positioned to spearhead the changes we’d like to see in our world?

I’ll close by thanking Uniterra again, and by thanking all of the participants who came from near and far, because inevitably it’s their participation that made the event a success.  Thank you.

– See more at: https://www.suco.org.org/suco2/ivco-2014-closing-speech/?lang=en#sthash.T8Km9RgR.dpuf