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Member Profile May-June 2016



Anne Loranger-King and Alicia Chavez.
Photo credit: Ly

This month CCIC met with the Executive Director of SUCO, Richard Veenstra. SUCO (which means Solidarity, Union and Cooperation) is a Montréal-based NGO that just celebrated its 55th anniversary. We discussed SUCO's focus on agro-environment and the volunteer sending program, among others!

CCIC - SUCO is celebrating this month 55 years of engagement in international development. Can you point us to some key moments of your history, and reasons for the sustainability of your organization over the years?

Richard Veenstra - Over 55 years, there have been a lot of key moments.  SUCO volunteers were among the first in many former British and French colonies in the 60s. They worked alongside liberation movements in southern Africa in the 70s and labour movements in Latin America through to the 80s.  Our participation in these movements formed our identity in that era.

Today, our identity is more about empowerment.  It’s less about the struggle for democracy than the strategy to keep it alive.  How will citizens play the role that a democracy needs them to play?  How will civil society foster and nourish its own institutions to represent citizens’ needs?  Local development focuses on empowerment and asks « What can we do with what we have? ».  When SUCO volunteers alongside their Malian partners were asking in 1991 “How do we make this democracy work?” or alongside Nicaraguan partners in 1994 asking “How do we protect ourselves from El Niño?” they were laying the groundwork for what we do now.  I think those are the key moments that set us on the path to where we are now.

I think it has been our connection with the public, especially with our volunteers, that has allowed us to survive and follow our mission for 55 years.  At the outset, SUCO was completely a volunteer-driven initiative in Canadian universities.  Once we got rolling, the field experience of returned volunteers rapidly permeated our organisational culture.  Their commitment even saved us for a few years in the 80s when we were without government funding. Being close to volunteers, and the close relationship between volunteers and populations overseas, I think that’s what keeps us alive and gives us our soul.


CCIC - SUCO is one of the Canadian Volunteer Sending Organizations. What makes volunteering still relevant 2016?

Richard Veenstra - Development practice has changed a lot, obviously, over the last 55 years.  SUCO, for example, has moved from local technical assistance to a “solidarity in struggling for social justice” model to a capacity building model.  I think that about 10 years ago, the Canadian government was ready to support volunteering of a different nature, moving away from a “North developing the South” model to a “We’re all in this together” model.  The last government moved away from that back to the more traditional North-South model, but today’s reality is more complex than that.

Minister Bibeau has framed the present actual consultation process on Canadian development assistance around Canadian values, including compassion, respect for human rights and generosity.  But what about cooperation? Our partners tell us that Canadians are great collaborators, so our development programme should put forth those values and skills, and look forward towards a world full of examples of initiatives to which our nation has contributed with the full participation of the people most concerned. The world has just adopted a development plan for itself, the 2030 Agenda, and has committed to halt climate change.  It sends the message, for the first time ever, that we’re all in this together.  So with Canada’s reputation as a convenor, there’s an important role we can play. 

Canadian volunteers exemplify that role.  They come with technical and professional skills and an open mind. They’re not just technical trainers. Their mandate is not to show people how it’s done, but rather to work with people and be part of a process to find solutions to problems and help move things forward.  Volunteers’ roles today are more fluid: they are still trainers and advisors, but also motivators, facilitators, connectors, all of that, too. I think that with the general acknowledgement that our problems are global, Canadian volunteering is more pertinent than ever.


CCIC - Over the years, SUCO has developed an expertise in sustainable agriculture (with an agro- environmental approach). What is the singularity of this approach? And can you tell us about a project that you are particularly proud of?

Richard Veenstra - About 20 years ago, very much in a post-Rio Summit world, one of SUCO’s volunteers, in collaboration with Nicaraguan partners, technicians and farmers, began to develop some techniques and training tools in sustainable farm management.  Water management and soil erosion have long been two of the big challenges farmers face there, and these challenges are just exacerbated by El Niño, and now El Niña, and by the then-recent trend of using harmful chemical fertilizers and pesticides instead of other techniques. So by taking a look back in time, asking people what their grandparents used to do before chemical inputs became ubiquitous, and also looking to more recent developments stemming from the emerging interest in organic farming, new, environmentally sustainable techniques were developed and older ones were modernized.  The tools were embodied in a set of 21 manuals called El machete verde.  In the early 2000s we developed a similar set of tools with Haitian partners called the Djakout peyizan.  But aside from the tools, which are designed to suit the local culture and agriculture and even the level of literacy, with lots of illustrations and an accessible level of Spanish or Créole, the accompaniment is very much driven by the principles of adult education, focussing on participation and concrete experience.  That’s probably the key to the success we’ve had.

In Nicaragua, we are currently in the final year of a six-year project called PROGA-JOVENES.  Working with vocational training institutes and the Ministry of Education, we developed a curriculum in sustainable farm management and offered the program to young people in northern Nicaragua.  For the first time, the Ministry was offering post-secondary, certificate-track training to youths who had not completed secondary school education.  In fact, half of the graduates had not even gone past primary school!  Young people were “dropping-in”, so to speak.  Another item of note, the program was decentralized, and provided accompaniment on family farms, so rather than leaving the farm to learn how to farm, which as contradictory as that sounds is how most formal agricultural training happens, young people could stay on the farm, and immediately apply what they’d learned.  So what happened here is that, in addition to curbing rural exodus, the youths’ parents were learning the new techniques from their sons and daughters. Literally, thousands of family farms have benefitted from the program in addition to the 2000 plus young men and women (44%) who were trained.  After graduation, young people are offered the chance to have technical and financial support for starting a business related to their production, so now the North-Nicaraguan countryside has markets and beehives and chicken farms and vinegar plants and other activities, all local, all youth driven, on a totally different scale.


CCIC - SUCO recently launched a new exchange program for entrepreneurs, called "B2B in the Field". Who is the target audience for this program and what are the expected outcomes?

Richard Veenstra - This program was designed for two reasons.  We wanted to find a way to motivate youths to consider small rural business as an option for their future, or even to approach their family farm as a business. Also, we wanted to engage with diaspora communities in Canada and leverage their skills and understanding of local realities to the benefit of these youths.  So we designed this program, based on short-term mandates overseas for entrepreneurs from the diaspora.  We reached out to groups here in Montreal such as the Chambre de commerce latino-américaine du Québec and the Regroupement general des Sénégalais du Canada to see their interest in involving their members, and the response was immediate and positive. 

After consulting our overseas partners about their specific needs, the program took on a more technical bias.  So rather than being mostly motivators, our “B2B in the Field” volunteers are also technical advisors on restaurant management, organic farming, beekeeping etc. The program is still new, but what we’ve seen after the first two mandates, is a strong capacity-building focus, with new practices being adopted right away, as well as the possibility of maintaining the links over time, through distance-mentoring or repeat mandates.


CCIC - Global Affairs Canada recently launch an international assistance policy review process; what are the top three priorities or recommendations that SUCO will be formulating for the consultations? 

Richard Veenstra - First of all, the focus of climate change measures for developing countries should be on adaptation, rather than on mitigation.  Mitigation of climate change and its effects—saving the planet, as some would put it--is not primarily the responsibility of developing countries. The 20 countries that account for 80% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, developed and emerging economies with big populations, will play the decisive role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions to an acceptable level.  Developing countries need to find and exploit adaptive strategies that will save lives now while contributing to an economic, environmental and demographic dynamic that is sustainable and will therefore contribute to mitigation.  The problem is that the discourse on mitigation is being reduced to renewable energies, which are obviously of utmost importance, but shouldn’t replace a focus on more sustainable dynamics. 
This leads naturally to a focus on local development, my second recommendation. Western economies have developed a huge reliance on an interconnected global economy, and we all need to refocus on local and regional economic dynamics that cultivate the relationship people have with their local community and environment, that delve into an appreciation of that, and view international elements contributions as a complement to what we have locally rather than the essence of our consumption patterns. This implies an important focus on agriculture for local consumption, family farms, not to the exclusion of export products, but striking a sustainable balance. 

My third recommendation is to have a deeper understanding of how development results can be planned and attained.  Over recent years, the perceived need to focus our efforts, to make the best use of limited resources has resulted in planning and management models that actually limit the results we attain with the limited resources we use.  This has been attained through the silo effect of the dominant logic model, and by the dictation of frankly quite unambitious intermediate results for the sake of greater control over the mechanics of reporting.  This is just so wrong.  It is clearly in everyone’s best interest to aim high for profound, sustainable results, not to aim low in order to guarantee successful reporting.  Limiting the activities in a project and establishing coherence at the activity level, that makes sense, and that is where the financial gains are.  But not even attempting to realise the potential of those activities in terms of various results amounts to wasting resources.  For example, a vocational training program for young people will have impact on employment prospects, but also on poverty, on environmental sustainability if the fields are chosen that way, on gender relations, on women’s economic empowerment, on literacy.  Small, strategic decisions and investments in a simple project can have huge impact on the breadth of results it can attain.  Current program design discourages that systematically.  The approach I’m suggesting is consistent with the way CIDA trained NGOs in results-based management over 15 years ago, and is very consistent with the UN’s take on the SDGs right now.


CCIC - Two years ago, SUCO became a member of CCIC; why is it important for the organization to be part of CCIC? 

Richard Veenstra - CCIC plays a very important role on different levels.  In good and not so good conditions, CCIC has been able to establish and maintain a constructive dialogue with our federal government for years, and is a constant source of stimulation by maintaining a scan of our political environment both nationally and internationally.  SUCO could not invest in all those areas of analysis which are so vitally important to us, so we focus mostly on the specific areas related to our programming.  As a CCIC member, we access those analyses and can participate in a constructive dialogue with the government.  The annual fees seem expensive at first, but actually, they come to about 7 weeks of salary.  We couldn’t hire someone to do that work in so little time, so it’s a very good deal.



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