The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Promise Fulfilled

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THE WORK OF FOUR REMARKABLE Canadian women in South Sudan has been so inspiring that I am including my new London Free Press article here on their efforts.  Just link to http://www.lfpress.com/2015/02/26/pearson-a-london-groups-promise-14-years-ago-to-build-a-high-school-in-the-south-sudan-region-of-aweil-was-fulfilled-this-year-the-school-will-open-in-apriland see some great pictures, along with a description of their efforts.  This is inspiring stuff in a new nation struggling to find its feet.  Proud to know these four great champions.

Food: A World of Contradiction

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FOOD IS EVERYWHERE THESE DAYS, and not just physically. Talk of it runs the gamut from food trucks to food banks, the price of food to the massive amounts of it thrown into landfills. When James Beard noted years ago that, “food is our common ground, a universal experience,” I wonder if he knew just how true that would become, given all the issues around food these days, from its abundance to its scarcity, its price to its source.

In reality, food is an entire world, a universe even. A vast as the human experience, it also reveals the strengths and weaknesses of our values. We see it of such importance that we enforce access to it at the same time as we permit others to face starvation for lack of it. Even the United Nations Charter of Human Rights mentions food, while the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization was its very first department.

And like much else in the world, the subject of food is broken into silos that often exist separately and frequently contradict one another. There are organizations that monitor the quality of food who are nevertheless behind the times in labeling what is truly nutritious or harmful. Food banks that were to be temporary responses to times of recession became institutional even in the good economic times. Cities surrounded by quality foodstuffs, like London, Ontario, which suffers from a lack of locally grown products in the city, watch in frustration as most of the food grown in the area heads out on trucks to other parts of the province, nation, or even the world. Countries in which food production is a major advantage nevertheless watch as the price of products continues to escalate in alarming measures.

As long as its condition remains in such a state, the universe of food will remain as divided as the physical world itself. As each sector of food production, research, legislation, manufacturing, selling, consumption, and waste follow their own course, the domain of food, so essential to a better world, will remain divisive.

Yet, in recent years, we are hearing more about organizations and entire communities reaching out past such a divided model and seeking to link aspects of food life to real-life human conditions. Fair Trade products seek to unite quality items with those growing the ingredients. There are local food markets seeking to link their efforts with effective wages for those growing the products. Citizen movements are pressing governments to undertake comprehensive efforts to properly label and source products that end up in the food system. Activists seek to utilize available urban lands, including rooftops, to expand the local food system in ways that make availability more healthy and charitable. Some consumers groups seek to reward farmers for environmental services and not just food products themselves.

Yet in the midst of all this global movement for reform, two billion people reside on the edge of starvation, obesity is escalating a serious health risk, and chemicals in food supplies continue to be inserted despite concern over long-term health implications. Governments at all levels have chosen to largely avoid responsibility by leaving food issues to the challenging work of charities and non-profit institutions. We have a long way to go,

Citizens have spent the last few decades checking out of politics because of its lack of responsiveness to their values and challenges. But in the area of food, individuals, groups, and even some companies are seeing some concrete results in improving the food environment. Why? Because we all require food to live. We know it, and we increasingly, for the sake of our children and our own health, apply our energies and dollars to making the entire food cycle more efficient, more readily available, and more sensitive to the buying capacities of shoppers.

To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is a responsibility, not just for ourselves but for a fairer world. As author Katie McGarry put it: “Food shouldn’t be half-bad. It should be all good.” Good for everybody, including the planet.

Democratic Recession

 

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WHEN THOMAS FRIEDMAN OF THE NEW YORK TIMES recently drew attention to the 2006-2014 Freedom House finding that democracy is declining worldwide, it likely not to many were surprised. Places like Turkey, Russia, along with various countries in Africa and Asia, appear to have lost the handle on democratic progress that they possessed a mere decade ago.

But when the report circled back on the affluent West, it didn’t mince its words:

“Perhaps the most worrisome dimension of the democratic failure has been the decline of democratic efficiency, energy and self-confidence in the West at large. After years of hyperpolarization, deadlock, and corruption through campaign financing … things have become increasingly dysfunctional.”

No surprise here either. An economic recession is often described as a significant decline in economic activity that lasts more than few months, effecting everything from GDP and real income to employment and production. What’s currently taking place in our politics has been going on for years and shows little sign of improvement. We’ve readily noted how partisanship on both sides of the 49th parallel has disillusioned citizens in general, but the effects of such dysfunction are now obvious.

So, yes, our political estate is in trouble. Or as Bloomberg News put it in a headline last month: It’s Official. Partisan Rancor Worst in Over a Century. Then there’s Canadian journalist Andrew Coyne’s headline: Antics in Question Period Illustrate the Charade Our Politics Has Become.

But democracy, and efficient politics, also requires an effective citizenry if it is to succeed. There are signs that some of the hoped-for political engagement in the process is experiencing trouble.

The only way to counteract bad politics is good citizenship; there really is no other way around it. We can see what happens when politics can’t adequately handle power, but what if citizens themselves are experiencing great difficulty in handling their tools of engagement into the political process?

Signs of these perplexing problems are becoming more apparent on social media. Could it be true that we have permitted Twitter to become “Power Without Responsibility,” as some claim, or is it possible it’s not giving us power at all? Tough questions.

I’ve increasingly run into well-meaning citizens who are taking what they term “Twitter breaks” – for a day, an evening, a week, even for holidays. When probed as to their reason, it’s always the same. It’s tough to manage a consistent presence on social media because the overly negative attacks are increasingly poisoning the waters. Some have seen their important relationships strained as a result. When author Michael Naughton noted recently that, “Social media is a shared delusion of grandeur,” he found a level of support he believed wouldn’t have been forthcoming even a year ago.

Citizens dedicated to a better kind of politics, and the public good, are confessing the fatigue of it all. Comedienne Amy Poehler, turning serious in a recent interview, affirmed,

“I want to be around people that do things. I don’t want to be around people anymore that judge or talk about mere opinions or what people do. I want to be around people that dream and support and do things.”

In our hunger for a better and more productive way of living together, perhaps Henry Buckle’s insight is carrying increasing weight with us: “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” We all know social media is merely a tool, like political power itself; how we use it is what matters.

One thing is certain – a well-meaning citizenry desiring to engage and improve the democratic estate is growing disillusioned, taking breaks, attempting to recover from personal attacks they have received or unintentionally delivered. If our politics are to improve, it won’t work to merely bemoan the divisiveness of the political class if we practice the same thing. We need to better use our tools of engagement.  If we believe we must, in fact, lead the way as citizens, then it’s time we built on the understanding that merely giving opinions isn’t the same thing as a workable collaboration.  Democracy in recession? Certainly, but that’s a coin with two sides.

Poverty’s Great Unknown (2) – Hiding in Plain Sight

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IN HER BOOK ALPHABET OF THORN, author Patricia McKillip has one of her chief characters ask another: “Do you become invisible?” In reply, the other character says, “No. I’m there, if you know how to look. I stand between the place you look at and the place you see – behind what you expect to see. If you expect to see me, you do.”

This is the way it is with modern poverty; people suffer their deprivations in private, yet they are seen everywhere in every community. They are us, but we don’t really see them. In Canada, we most often can’t be bothered to look for poverty in our midst, but if we truly wanted to, we could spot it – everywhere.

In yesterday’s post we talked about some things we might not know about poverty. Here are some more.

1) According to numerous studies housing affordability is one of the key reasons people remain mired in poverty. By the time rent or mortgage payments are made, little is left to afford anything else. For this reason, affordable housing is key to defeating poverty. Most people don’t realize that it costs more to keep someone in an emergency shelter than it does to provide them affordable housing. Cities could eliminate homelessness simply by investing more in housing.

2) With hunger growing in Canada, so is the amount of food people throw in the garbage. Food Banks Canada says that nearly 900,000 people are assisted in food banks monthly. Yet research from the Value Chain Management Centre revealed that Canadians throw out $27-billion worth each year, or roughly 40% of their food. Just over half comes from households. It forces us to ask a basic question: how can a nation find the will to defeat hunger when it considers it acceptable to throw out 40% of its edible food supplies?

3) Poverty in Canada is likely to increase, not the other way around. According to a recent IPSOS poll, 61% of working Canadians didn’t contribute at all to retirement savings in 2014. To make matters more complicated, the same poll discovered that the ability to keep a steady income is under assault and is listed as a major form of stress for 45% of Canadians. We keep treating poverty as some kind of fixed statistic when, in fact, it’s a moving target, usually drifting ever upward in numbers. In such a context, poverty is far more likely to go up instead of decline. An increasing number of Canadians actually feel they are more prone to falling into poverty’s clutches as opposed to ending it.

4) A startling number of Canadians feel that they have to make a choice between jobs or inequality. The reality is that they are both related and that one can’t be solved without the other. It will be impossible to defeat poverty in this country unless we address the growing rates of inequality. To separate the two, believing we can concentrate on jobs while we ignore the growing gap between the rich and poor is a fool’s errand and a false choice.

5) Perhaps the greatest thing about poverty that we don’t know or understand is that the roots of poverty are to be found in the bankruptcy of politics. Democracy has never been so “poor,” regardless of which jurisdiction you look at.  Democracy is in recession.  Poverty of public spirit and the belief that we can manage our problems is at record lows – a reality that can’t be separated from financial poverty itself.

Those facing poverty aren’t just facing the pitfalls of isolation from a few bad decisions; they find themselves in their present predicament because of the failure of systems-wide policies that ultimately alienate a city from itself, and from those living within it. This is why the poor have become invisible, even though they live among us. But they are there if we but look for them. Once observed, we find that they look surprisingly like us. That is because they are, but it took some knowledge and focus for us to realize it. This is where the fight against poverty must begin: in our understanding that one can’t solve a problem if they refuse to see or organize to defeat it.

Poverty’s Great Unknown – Facets of Us

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IN SPEAKING FREQUENTLY EACH WEEK, it’s becoming clear that more and more groups are broaching the subject of poverty and what might be done about it. They have become aware that the London Food Bank is attempting to develop a new model in which people can be treated with greater dignity, offered more personal choice, and achieve success at avoiding the problems of “poverty stigmatism.” In an interview yesterday I was asked why the food bank doesn’t just close its doors and get on with the delivering a new way of doing things.

The answer to that question is actually fairly simple: communities are complex organisms and if any change is to prove successful, then citizens, organizations, and food bank users themselves must be brought into the development phase of a new model. Whatever answers emerge from such an exercise will carry the authority of a community sense of ownership as opposed to one group merely deciding on its own.

But there is a second problem, and it effectively impacts the above exercise in confounding and complex ways. I speak of the very stubbornness of poverty itself in this country. Part of our trouble in finding solutions concerns our collective ignorance of the poverty dilemma. Just as a taste of what we are referring to, the next two posts will consider some things most people don’t know about poverty and its presence in our communities.

1) Child poverty in Canada remains far too high, even after two decades of attempts to lower it. According to UNICEF’s recent survey, this country is below average among wealthy nations when it comes to dealing effectively with children in difficult economic situations. The survey highlighted the fact that in Canada 13.3% represents the number of those children in poverty, as opposed to 11% in 35 other advanced economies. Worse still, a full one-half of First Nations children remain mired in poverty. For any food bank this is a significant problem. Slightly under 40% of clients serviced by the London Food Bank are children 17 and under, and their needs won’t be going away until we take their plight seriously.  And that means assisting their parents.

2) The burdens of poverty are different depending on which group we are talking about. Economic stringency doesn’t hit everyone universally the same. People with disabilities face unique challenges compared to, say, someone unemployed. Single parents must take a different approach than two-parent families. Immigrants face an extensive list of challenges. Troublingly, the number of seniors with fixed pensions coming to food banks is increasing. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to poverty and no food bank can underestimate this reality.

3) It’s difficult to get a true measure of poverty, and the termination of Statistics Canada Long Form Census only makes this exploration more difficult. Recently the London Food Bank partnered with the Sisters of St. Joseph, with funding from the London Community Foundation, to inaugurate the London Poverty Research Centre for a specific reason: it remains a very difficult thing to acquire evidence-based statistics on those living in poverty. The Centre, now under the auspices of Kings University College, is seeking to develop a city-wide data base that can be used by all groups and individuals to get something of an accurate assessment on just how deep the constraints of poverty go in our community. You can’t really consider changing your model until your know what you’re up against.

4) Debt is becoming a serious problem. Statistics Canada recently reported that the average Canadian household debt-to-income ratio has climbed to a new high of 163.4%. That means that the average Canadian owes $1.63 (CDN) for every dollar they earn. That’s problematic for most of us, but what about those below the poverty line? Many worked up until just a year or two ago, but now that they are unemployed their personal debt makes getting ahead all the more difficult. And Canadians caught up in such a debt cycle are often resistant to government interventions for the poor that require tax investments.

We can segregate those trapped in poverty all we like, but at some point their numbers increase to a level where we have to acknowledge that the lack of solutions says something about us, not them.  “There is no Them.  There are only facets of Us,” says author John Green.  The fact that we permit the reality of poverty to grow in our midst is merely a sign of our lack of imagination and our desire to leave it for others to solve.  It should be clear now that nothing will transpire until those “facets of Us” that accept the status quo are no longer acceptable to us and that the better angels of our nature can never emerge if we permit the clutches of poverty to claim so many among us.

Tomorrow:Poverty’s Great Unknown (2)

 

 

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