Chris Eaton (Class of 1989): From intern to executive director

Chris Eaton

From passion to a critical perspective

“I’m sitting in the office of the Executive Director who interviewed me for my placement 24 years ago,” says Chris Eaton, IDS alumni and Executive Director of World University Service of Canada (WUSC). Eaton’s journey from intern to executive director started before he joined the IDS Co-op program, but it was the program’s combination of experience and study that brought Eaton’s passions into focus.

Travelling to Sri Lanka in 1982 through a Canada World Youth exchange inspired Eaton to join the IDS Co-op program. “I had a passion for the issues, but I didn’t have a strong conceptual grounding. More than anything, the program instilled a bit of rigor in the kinds of issues I was interested in,” says Eaton.

The fact that IDS professors had a lot of experience was critical for Eaton. Their connection to the “real world” helped translate the theory in practice. For Eaton, many of the critical discussions about development that began at UTSC are ones that he’s continued to grapple with throughout his career.

Challenging perceptions

hen it was time for Eaton’s IDS Co-op placement, he travelled to Lesotho with WUSC – the same organization he would later head – where he worked for the country’s Chamber of Commerce. It was a good match for Eaton’s interest in small business development, and he focused on the service and support needs of the Chamber’s members.

“I think that what was really helpful is that our placements were with really strong organizations that had a lot of experience in the countries where they were based. A lot of people are going overseas now with organizations that lack connections to that country. The depth of knowledge we were able to experience was really valuable,” says Eaton.

Eaton’s placement challenged his ideas about Africa, especially when on his first day in Lesotho in July it snowed! He also remembers being very close to South Africa, where Nelson Mandela was still in jail. “You could look over the border but had great difficulty going there,” he recalls.

These initial International Development experiences showed Eaton the importance of looking closely at each issue, rather than taking things at face value, a perspective he has carried throughout his career. In his own words, the IDS Co-op program helped to “disabuse me of a lot of my certainties.”

Christ Eaton in Afghanistan

Eaton (left) in Afghanistan where he worked with the Aga Khan Foundation (2009)

Serial intern

Returning to Toronto, Eaton busied himself with “serial internships,” and a Master’s degree focused on rural development issues in Eastern Africa, while he waited for his wife – another IDS alumni – to graduate. Together, they headed to Uganda where Eaton worked with Canadian Physicians for Aid and Relief. Back in Canada after several years abroad, Eaton took a job with Aga Khan Foundation Canada and then Aga Khan Foundation Afghanistan.

Two years ago, Eaton re-joined WUSC, one of the largest overseas volunteer cooperation organizations in Canada. With so much overseas intern and staff experience, Eaton has done a lot of reflecting on the changes that have occurred in this area. “In the early 2000s, people realized that volunteering isn’t always an effective tool for development, which I think is correct. At its best, it’s about focusing…building the capacity of fewer partners in fewer countries, in order to have a clear and substantial development outcome, using professionals who happen to be volunteers.”

For Eaton, being a Canadian involved in International Development is about thinking about the systems we’re supporting, not just the “goodies” that we’re handing out. He sees this view as being part of the “the practice of critical engagement with issues and approaches” that he gained while a student at UTSC.

Profile written by Kate Jongbloed (Class of 2008)