The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Half the Sky? Think Higher

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WHEN MAO ZEDONG (CHINA’S CHAIRMAN MAO) noted that women hold up “half the sky,” he might have greatly underestimated that figure. Best selling author, and New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristoff wrote a book, co-authored with Sheryl WuDunn, and filmed a documentary that used “Half the Sky” as the title for both. He made his intentions clear at the very outset of both projects:

“So let us be clear about this up front: We hope to recruit you to join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts. That is the process under way – not a drama of victimization but of empowerment, the kind that transforms bubbly teenage girls from brothel slaves into successful businesswomen.  This is a story of transformation. It is change that is already taking place, and change that can accelerate if you’ll just open your heart and join in.”

Hundreds of researchers and writers besides just Kristoff have repeatedly noted that economies simply can’t flourish unless women are permitted and encouraged to apply their entrepreneurial skills to their local environments. Nowhere is this more true now than in farming and agricultural businesses.

Recently, the United Nations spoke of how former rural dwellers are now migrating to cities by the millions, but a deeper look reveals that the majority of that great migration are men either searching for new lives, or seeking employment to send money back to their families in rural regions. Whatever the reason, the result is that women are having to pick up the agricultural slack left as a result. This represents, for women in developing countries worldwide and their communities, the opportunity they have been waiting for.

But as we might suspect, there are problems – lots of them, as farming increasingly transitions from men to women.

To begin with, women farmers are frequently deprived of land ownership. Laws haven’t kept up with the changes and an entirely new field of lawyers and researchers are rising up to correct such historical oversights in an attempt to assist women to gain a fighting chance. Today, half of all farmers are women and half of the food grown has come from their hard work. But it could be better. According the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), if women could just enjoy the same land rights as their male counterparts, their combined efforts could lift some 100 – 150 million people out of hunger. But that’s not happening because women can’t own the land they till.

But it’s not just about land; it’s also about animals. Women are greatly limited in the animals they can own, and they don’t even get all the revenue raised from the animals they do possess. We see this in South Sudan whenever we visit and it takes dedicated effort to change the culture over many years.

All this is important because it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Women most often have less educational opportunities than men and experience far more difficulty gaining access to seeds, technical information, fertilizers, pest control measures, and tools. That’s a lot to overcome, but they also carry advantages that men don’t. Their understanding of local market operations is vastly superior to that of their male counterparts, and the networks they establish in tireless efforts to feed their families would dwarf what others possess. Combine that seasoned expertise with the tools mentioned above and the developing world would go through transformational change.

We don’t have to venture overseas to witness the distinct disadvantage women face when gaining ownership of their lives is such an uphill climb. Just consider the matrimonial property rights dilemma that confounds our First Nations communities and how aboriginal women can lose a sense of ownership virtually overnight. This isn’t just a developing world phenomenon, nor merely a Canadian aboriginal problem – it is a global travesty of injustice, a lack of political will, and a refusal of many to build legal ownership into communities and countries as they modernize.

Given that women are quickly increasing their oversight over agricultural operations as the men depart to municipalities, it likely is true that the idea women hold up “half the sky” isn’t even close to reality. The task of beating world hunger is now squarely within their opportunity to rectify, but only if the global community fights to win them the rights, opportunities, and the tools to get the job done.

Millennials Put the Positive Back Into Politics

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My article in today’s London Free Press, for April 25, 2015.  You can link to the original article HERE.

“I’M NOT A PARTISAN LIKE MY FOLKS WERE,” she said in reflection. “I just want politics to work and I don’t see why it can’t. Most of us want the same basic things, right?” Interestingly, the older generation isn’t all that partisan either, and, as we saw in the last column, they are checking out of the “gotcha” form of politics as fast as anyone else.

Yet the emphasis on making things “work” is perhaps the key desire of my 41-year old friend’s generation in their view of politics. Part of a cohort called the “MIllennials” and born in the span between the early-1980s to the early-2000s, they are increasingly making their talents, frustrations, resources, and energies felt on everything from consumerism to community values.

Younger generations of Canadians are, at once, clearly more passionately individualistic and yet fervently communitarian than any group we have seen in decades. Research has revealed them to be more socially tolerant, more comfortable with racial and ethnic diversity, and most welcoming to new immigrants than generations that preceded them. These values undergird their attitude to towards community, public life – and politics.

The Millennials have watched as fundamental Canadian values have suffered decline in recent years, regardless of which government was in place at all levels. As a result, they want to take risk, to do good, and to invest in their communities, families, and countries in ways that will last. Social media has permitted them opportunity to vent their frustrations and their aspirations, often in negative ways, but also in a fashion that is constructive, collaborative, with innovation as one of the key drivers to future efforts.

Robert Kennedy would have felt at home with this restless generation because he once tried to elevate younger Americans past historic prejudices and limitations through his own presidential aspirations. “Few will have greatness to bend history itself,” he reasoned, “but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of those acts will be written the history of this generation.” That’s exactly what the Millennials are committed to and they’re determined to blow past historic limitations that have refused to yield control to a more equitable world. They harbour few illusions, but they are driven by hope.

Will they collectively apply themselves to remaking the present form of politics that has grown hyper-partisan and angry? Research reveals they are, but we have to look no farther than our own city of London to spot the evidence. The youth of our present city council is now familiar, yet in numerous nomination battles waged over the last number of weeks an entirely new generation of candidates has stepped forward, saying they are ready to press for change and are confident enough to believe they can deliver it.

In an era where an increasing number of Canadians has given up looking for politics and cookie cutter politicians to solve our greatest challenges, the Millennials are acknowledging that we can’t adequately handle those tasks without a politics that matters. Yes, they are skeptical of the standard politics that puts party above principle and confrontation over collaboration, but instead of checking out they are checking in, and in that reversal might come the reformation of Canada’s political structure before it is too late.

Our nation’s history has witnessed reformed minded generations before, and Canada moved progressively ahead as a result. Those generations melded their aspirations to public service and better communities with the possibilities of politics. They would have agreed with Michael Sandel’s observation that, “when politics goes well, we can know a good in common that we cannot know alone.”

In troubling fashion, large portions of Canadians no longer hold to that bond between values and a beneficial politics that could deliver on them. But many of our younger citizens, tired of waiting for political change, have opted to change things themselves by challenging the very culture of modern politics. The fate of the next great political consensus is now in their hands and they simply won’t accept the tribal mentalities that so characterize the present political class. Just as their great example of business ingenuity is Apple as opposed to General Motors, their politics will become about their communities as opposed to political camps. They are fighting to bring together active government with innovative public policy and community service.

It is yet to be seen if the old and partisan political order can fend off the Millennials in its desperation to retain power, but should the new generation find ways of bringing Canadians back to a more relevant politics, then they will have already triumphed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Libraries, It’s Their Time

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Ferguson Library During the Crisis

 

LOOKING BACK ON A LIFE THAT HAD FAR more twists and turns than most of us could endure, Lemony Snicket considered one aspect of his journey that provided him solace: “A good library will never be too neat, or too dusty, because somebody will always be in it, taking books off the shelves and staying up reading them.” To that list could be added the extra dimensions of viewing, listening, dialogue, and social media.

It’s likely we know this already, yet in some of the most significant happenings of modern life – many of them tragic in nature – libraries having taken on the roles of consolers, citizen guardians, event educators, and, in some senses, emergency agencies. Some examples.

Consider how Ferguson, Missouri’s, libraries stepped into the breach of social conflict, legal confusion, and general unrest following the Grand Jury’s decision to decline to indict the police officer who shot Michael Brown a year ago. By any measurement the community was facing a defining moment. With local schools closed, along with others buildings, the city’s library system went to work in ways nothing less than transformational. They remained open and welcoming for students to be taught by working and retired teachers, in what was termed as the city’s “ad hoc school on the fly.” Reaching even further, the libraries hosted the U. S. Small Business Administration in order to provide emergency loans, and the U. S. Secretary of State Department to provide document recovery and preservation services. Extending their reach out into the community, library staff circulated “healing kits,” filled with books, stuffed animals, and activities to help Ferguson’s children cope with the tensions of what they were seeing and feeling. When the worst of it was over, citizens realized that they could never quite look at their libraries the same ever again.

Libraries in Connecticut and New Jersey welcomed residents under assault from Hurricane Sandy, and who found themselves without power, by providing spaces for emergency services. They also hosted citizen dialogue sessions that encouraging locals to “talk through” with one another their stories, frustrations, and sense of loss. Those conversations inevitably became circles of hope – something that would never have transpired unless the libraries moved beyond their traditional mandates.

Public libraries are now more popular than at any other time in their existence, which is saying something, considering that they were some of the first physical structures to appear in our communities. In a world changing every day through dramatic technological innovations, libraries have kept themselves relevant by keeping pace with such developments.

And they are discovering new ways to enhance those communities in which they function. In London, Ontario, the city’s library system has taken on the vital partnership role of helping its community to think of how the Thames River might take on a more pivotal role in the quality of life of citizens. In an effort spearheaded by the London Community Foundation, local libraries will serve as information collection and disbursement centers, as individuals, organizations, businesses, and entire neighbourhoods are consulted as to how the historic waterway system might assist us in coming to terms with our future in ways that will preserve river’s integral and sustainable relationship with a people and its land. More will be announced by the London Community Foundation as to public sessions and the library’s vital role in it all.

“Whatever the cost of our libraries,” noted Walter Cronkite, “the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.” And now we can add the observation that our libraries are now healing and transforming communities, helping them to discover a new future. Quite a bargain.

Forgetting to Remember

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IT’S BEEN A YEAR AND … NOTHING!  It was all the rage back then, nicely summed up in a hashtag – #bringbackourgirls. A year ago this week, April 14th, the sounds of gunfire near a village in northern Nigeria woke hundreds of girls at a boarding school, filling them with fear. Many were spirited away by the militant group Boko Haram. Naturally, they were terrified.

A global response quickly developed that channeled the outrage at such an occurrence. News of the girls’ fate was everywhere. The hashtag became universal. Governments promised action, including Nigeria’s, and the media were all over it. Individuals and groups around the world picked up the cause.

And then they dropped it. In a world where events are reported by the second, it was just too difficult for those interested in the fate of the schoolgirls to stay focused and they moved on to other causes – not all, but most.

So, what’s changed in a year? Almost nothing concerning their fate, but the bungles and failures in the effort to assist them have been significant. Three months after they were taken, U. S. surveillance planes spotted the girls but they couldn’t be located a short while later. The Nigerian government warned the international community that any effort to rescue the girls could risk their lives. Boko Haram released a notice that some of the girls would become wives to their fighters.

Incredibly, the Nigerian government paid a Washington public relations firm $1.2 million to help them “change the channel” regarding the fate of the abducted girls and the firm took them up on it. Weeks after their abduction, the United States, Canada, France, the UK, and Israel sent in special forces but the girls couldn’t be found. And then, only last month, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to ISIS, spreading even more alarm about the girls’ safety.

All of this in just one year – all to no avail. But one, or rather, 58 stories of hope emerged from all the failure and tragedy. Shortly after being taken a year ago, 21 of the young women escaped and were granted scholarships to the American University of Nigeria. The university offered the opportunity and others around the world donated to the cause. One of the escapees, Sarah, told her story but then turned it into a larger narrative:

“We have not been broken by the attack. We see ourselves as the people who have been chosen to make positive future changes not just in our village Chibok, but in our country and the world.”

The world must never give up in their search for the others, and the need to help them rebuild their lives once discovered. And yet they have already been mostly forgotten. As David Campbell has written: “Discipline is the remembering of what we truly wish to see.”

We can’t let these women fade out of mind. One of the ways to accomplish that could be to help those that escaped  and are attempting to rebuild their lives by making new memories. If you want to help them, go to http://aunf.org. That small act alone could keep the plight of the others alive in our minds.

Taking Civil Society Global

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SO, THE WORLD DOESN’T SEEM TO BE DOING SO GREAT. As Henry Kissinger reminds us in his latest book, World Order, the dominant governance system developed during the Cold War is giving way to outright confusion around the globe. No one knows quite how to pick up the pieces and fashion something more equitable and prosperous.

Brazil, China, Russia, even Iran, are challenging the status quo in everything from nuclear power to climate change. The traditional players, like Canada itself, seem to be in some kind of holding pattern, preferring to hold their cards close than actually get out there and assist in developing a better global order.

The European Union has 28 members, dismal economic growth, a troubling economic decline, and a badly fraying network that at times seems doomed. There is Spain, with its 27% adult unemployment and a deeply disturbing 52% youth unemployment. No one yet knows what kind of bankrupt Greece might have on the world economy.

And that hotbed of global complexities that has been with us for decades – the Middle East – appears more unstable than ever.

The governing elites appear constantly flummoxed with a world in change, just as the markets and their investors remain jittery over what lies over the horizon for the global economy.

All this means an opportunity for civil society groups around the world to develop a different kind of architecture, where human values, mixed with economic and political reform, might shine a light on a better way forward. “Pie in the sky,” some will surely say, but they’re wrong. The United Nations has never witnessed more activities around citizens engagement and is reformatting many of its funding formulas to resource the efforts. This isn’t just about grand protests or rebellion, but about a teeming amount of examples where people are organizing to reshape policy, to recapture those places where people actually live, and to develop ideas where “wealth” isn’t merely the paradise of the few.

All this is happening when the civic space is actually in decline. One organization, CIVICUS, monitors global threats to the public space and has concluded that 193 countries are, in fact, undergoing civic decline through. This civic renewal isn’t happening as a matter of course, but as a distinct response to what millions of citizens are regarding as the threat to the way of life they want. And that danger is coming from powerful forces that can never be defeated without global cooperation among civil society groups themselves.

The shutting down of open media, the refusal to allow civic gatherings, dubious imprisonments, the pulling of charitable status of charity and non-profit organizations who speak out against what is going on in many Western nations – these and so many more injustices are now producing an opposite and, at times, and equal reaction.

These organizations aren’t stupid; neither are they naïve. Refusing to merely blame spineless governments for these lack of protections, they are also going hard at the financial sector for attempting to make billions out of all this confusion and mess.

All this isn’t about just specific issues like climate change, poverty, conflict, war, and unemployment. Ultimately it’s about whether civil society groups can join hands around the globe and count on one another to guard each other’s backs and to work together at serious ideas of reform. Europe is far ahead in such matter, with Americans now increasingly showing signs of stirring.

Which leaves us with Canada. All these things bring angst to us as well, but Canadians remain docile in the face of media monopoly, government obtuseness, environmental decline, and a new poverty class that threatens to undermine much of what is prosperous unless we take the problem seriously. Canadians are not an apathetic people, but they are distracted and increasingly check out of those things that might bring about the needed reforms.

The technological tools are our disposal would instigate the envy of every generation that preceded us, and yet we can’t seem to marshall them to capture the public space back and guarantee individual liberties in the process. Yet all the technology means little if there is no political will, and right now Canadians are less inclined to engage in official political exercise than they have been since Confederation. They are engaged, but just not in those areas what change must happen the most – the hubs of power.

“Security is not a license for people in authority to hide tactics they would never openly admit using,” says John Hemry, and yet we are seeing everywhere and globally. One lantern won’t shed enough light, but millions just might.

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