‘Danthe’s Inferno’: an incredible 37 years with the World YMCA

Some YMCA long-timers have attended more than one World Council, and worked with two or even three Secretaries-General. Swiss/Italian national Claude Alain Danthe has attended five World Councils, dating back to 1998, and worked with no less than seven  SGs.

“Claude-Alain Danthe is an institution!” says current World YMCA Secretary General Carlos Sanvee. “He’s rooted in our shared past and knows it in incredible detail, and he’s passionately committed to our shared future, and especially the role that technology can play. We salute him as he heads for his sixth World Council in Aarhus in July 2022. Bravissimo, Claude-Alain!”

We asked Claude Alain to look back over those 37 years…

What has changed in the world since 1984, especially regarding young people?

So, I will say that there are three components.

First, technology. The development and popularization of the Internet since the middle of the 1990s has dramatically changed the way we work, we socialize, we think, we act and interact.

Second, the popularization of the smartphone since 2007. Everybody from 7 to 90 has at their fingertips an encyclopedia of knowledge and culture: a pocket multimedia library.

Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft have brought about more change in the daily life of human beings than all the UN Resolutions since 1947.

And third – following on from the first two – young people now have many more ways to be heard, to express themselves, to campaign and to promote, especially since 2005 and the appearance of social media.

Sometimes I say – as a form of provocative joke – that before we had a lot of things to say but we weren’t able to publish them … and now we have nothing to say but we can publish whatever we want, in an instant.

And what has changed in the global YMCA Movement?

In terms of governance, there has not been drastic change: we’re still a confederation of National YMCA Movements; we still have Area Alliances; we still have the Executive Committee. So there is some kind of permanence of the structure of the global YMCA. But what has changed a lot is the way we can interact … the way we can speak to each other … and for sure the way we can meet.

What has changed in the World YMCA itself?

I started in 1984, and we were still using typewriters, telex, physical correspondence. Really, it was a “Jurassic Park” way of working. And when I started, we had a staff of 30 people …. now we are 12!

Claude-Alain plays saxophone at the World YMCA Christmas party, 1985

 

For me, it’s impressive to see the sheer amount of work delivered by the World YMCA. Give me the name of one other global organization with 120 national movements around the world and more than ten thousand local branches, with a world headquarters run by a staff of only twelve people ….

During these Covid times, there has been an even greater acceleration of the digital presence of the World YMCA over the world and of the YMCA in general. That’s a positive change. No return back will be possible: we will have to move forward and to play the role of catalyst.

What has changed in your role?

I was hired in 1984 to reorganize the archive of World YMCA, and I did that for more than 12 years. Then in 1997, on my own initiative, I took a two-year course in information management, at the University of Geneva. The Internet was booming at that time, and it really helped me to understand where we were, and where we could go.

And that meant that I was able to anticipate some of the changes. We had an Internet connection in 1995, which was quite early in comparison to many other organizations. We had an email system from 1995, and our first Internet site in 1997. Then we were on Twitter as early as 2007, and Facebook in 2009.

The World YMCA website … way back in 2002

What were ‘the best of times’?

For me, the best time was clearly when the Internet started. This was really The Revolution Number One, and I was totally in phase with what was happening. I pushed so hard for us to have our first website: it took nearly 2 years to overcome World YMCA’s fear of suddenly being open to the world, while some viewed the internet as a tool only affordable to rich countries. But we made it.

In 2002 I was at the World Summit of the Information Society (a United Nations event) in Tunis: this was one of the most exciting events I ever attended. Read my blogpost about it.

One of my biggest achievements and most exciting experiences was in 2009, when I managed to convince our Secretary General (Dr. Bart Shaha) to commission the leading global market research company Nielsen to review our World YMCA website. They produced a report of 60 pages, and I am sure I have read the report more than 60 times…. It cost us USD 12,000 – so every time I read it I was thinking ‘this cost us USD 500 per page!’

… and ‘the worst of times’?

I don’t like to talk of the worst times, because people are not here to defend themselves.

I will not say ‘the worst of times’, but I think the worst decision ever taken at the World YMCA in all this time was when we sold our old headquarters at 37 Quai Wilson in 1995. It had a wonderful view overlooking the lake, and was a fantastic place. (It has now become a 6-star hotel in the heart of Geneva.) It’s like having a headquarters near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and selling it with the argument that the real estate market value will go down….

The World YMCA headquarters on Quai Wilson, Geneva, from 1947 to 1995

 

What was the funniest thing that happened?

The funniest thing that happened in my life … well, it’s not really something funny, but it was more something symbolic. On the day the World YMCA inaugurated its website – 1st May 1997 – the only people in the office were me and the graphic designer. We were so excited, but I’m not sure that anybody else at the staff level realized exactly what was happening, and how important it would become in the future. This shows how important it is to have leaders with vision and anticipation.

Tell us about some of the influential YMCA figures for you over these years

I’m a little bit like Fidel Castro, who survived seven American presidents. I survived all the Secretary Generals of the World YMCA, and always had the chance to stay on board!

Claude-Alain has served seven World YMCA Secretaries-General:

I don’t like to make a hit parade of people’s personalities, but I will say there are six people who were important in my career.

Jean-Francois Reymond (Switzerland) was on the executive staff from 1947 to 1984. He wasn’t the Secretary General, but he was my mentor for a year, because when I was hired at the World YMCA, the goal was to be the assistant of a historian who was writing the history of the organization. And he was now retiring after 37 years. He would come into the office two or three times a week to help me understand not just the archives, but the issues behind them.

 

Ranjan Solomon (India) was Head of Communications from 1985 to 1991, and 1995 to 2002. Ranjan was quite a provocative and stormy character, and he was really anti-Western. I liked to argue with him: we disagreed on almost everything, but in agreeing to disagree we found our common ground, and it was great. I remember I once asked him how he could be so anti-Western, and yet at the same time adopt the religion of his colonizer: he never gave me a very convincing answer….

 

John Casey (USA) was Secretary General from 1991 to 1998. It was he who gave me the opportunity to study for two years at the University of Geneva.

 

 

 

Then there was Johan Vilhelm Eltvik (Norway), the Secretary General from 2010 to 2018. What a personality; what a character. He really woke up the YMCA, and clearly focused our priorities on youth empowerment. He created one of the best teams I ever worked with, even if his team was a little too shy with him.

 

 

And now there is Carlos Sanvee (Togo), the current Secretary General from 2018. I met him for the first time in 1998, and since the beginning we had a particularly good relationship. Carlos is in perpetual innovation mode, and that’s very exciting when you are in the IT sector. He always gave me the space to try, to test, to fail, to try again.

If I thought moving from Quai Wilson was bad … then I think the way Carlos spearheaded the move to our new headquarters in Vernier will stay in the history of the World YMCA as a fantastic and visionary decision. Also, the way he led the Movement at the beginning of the current Covid crisis impressed me a lot, helping us to rebound and showing us how to innovate to survive.

I remember the first week Carlos was in Geneva in 1998 as Executive Secretary for Finance and Administration. One of our colleagues drove us in her car to the train station. Carlos invited me to go in the front seat, and I said ‘No, I’ll go on the ‘siège arrière’: you’re much taller than me, and you know I don’t like to be in the front in a car’. And Carlos said: ‘I think you do like to go in the back seat… you’re like the Minister (‘tu es comme le ministre’).

Last but not least, I had a very friendly relationship with Jacqueline Rien (France), the World YMCA accountant from 1991 until 2014. She was my ‘confidante’, and supported me a lot when I had difficult time in my private life.

I just remember one little story. When she started to work at the World YMCA, I was always very formal with people. In French there is a big difference between the ‘tu’ (you) and the ‘vous’ (you): the ‘vous’ is very formal; the ‘tu’ is more informal. So one day I started to talk with her using the ‘tu’ (less formal), and she deliberately answered me using the ‘vous’. From that day on, for the 23 years we worked together, I never called her ‘tu’ again. She told me many times that I should call her ‘tu’, but I told her it was no longer possible – I couldn’t go back.

What are your memories of World Councils?

What I like the most when at the World Council is the feeling that you are in a
truly multicultural environment. It’s something very impressive to see all these
people: more than 1000 people from all over the world.

To be honest, I have always been a bit skeptical about too many World Council
Resolutions. Do we follow up on them all? When you read Challenge 21 from 1998,
it looks like the YMCA will be solving all the problems of the world…. But what
really interests me is seeing at World Council all that we’re doing at the grassroots
level, in improving the lives of people in communities. I love that.

And finally, what are your hopes for World YMCA in 2022?

I have one big goal before my retirement, and that is to fully establish the YMCA Data Community Initiative – a platform where we not only share information, but where we can also measure our impact: how many people we reach, of what age and sex, and in what sectors. It’s critical information.

The YMCA National Movements have to understand that we are not living in isolated information islands, but that our experiences are part of our common information goods. I really hope that the World Council in 2022 will be an opportunity to show this, and to make people aware of the importance of this component.

Sharing information, sharing resources and experience is for me one of the most exciting parts of a World Council. Information is a vital resource, and it’s a ‘generous’ one too, because you can ‘give’ without ever losing.

Come on then Claude-Alain, tell us one more story!

I love our archives and I love our history, and above all the humanity of this wonderful organisation. Here’s a nice little story about the archive.

During the Second World War, the World YMCA organised an ‘In Captivity’ competition for Allied soldiers interned in 24 prisoner-of-war camps in Germany. It had to liaise with German camp commanders, and meet strict rules to do so. There were 20 competition fields covering 10 areas, and 60 awards in all.

One element of the competition was to write scores for chamber music, and we kept all those scores in our archives. One day in 1995, a researcher from the United States came to visit us in Geneva, and he photocopied them all before returning to the US. A few weeks later, I received a CD with all the YMCA chamber music played by musicians from a college in the United States (Baldwin-Wallace College, in Ohio).

It was a really nice, beautiful, archival story. Imagine those scores, written by prisoners, which ended up in boxes in the World YMCA archives – and then going back to the US where they were made into real music.

I have another – earlier – memory of that same ‘In captivity’ competition. In 1984, a former prisoner of war claimed the prize money he had won nearly 40 years earlier. The prize in 1943 would have been CHF 20  … and we calculated that – with ‘interest’ included – we owed him CHF 100.  I remember being so proud to find his exact reference, his name, and the competition he won. He was a distinguished Polish literary scholar, George Maciusko, who won a short story competition. We paid him his money, and I recall the Financial Director of the time saying he hoped that not too many other prisoners would be claiming similar amounts!