Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of us, are feeling the tug to just give up. We shun giving in because we instinctively understand that the direction much of the world is travelling is inequitable and unsustainable. Yet a kind of resignation is confronting so many of us as we sense that little we do seems to change anything. For all the mention of the importance of the individual in democracy the reality is we feel alienated by the sweeping power of globalization, the impending timetable of climate change, and the sense that democracy is in trouble around the world.
And then those moments of personal meaning occur when we come to understand that our lives can alter the destiny for others, instilling within them, and us, a sense of hope.
A team of eleven Canadians for Canadian Aid for South Sudan (CASS) have just returned from the region where the chances of making a difference would normally seem remote. Civil war, famine, dire poverty, a health crisis, the reality of the nation becoming a failed state – all these would seem to indicate that the individual would have less chance of changing the environment than almost anywhere else. It’s a natural assumption – as natural as it is wrong.
I watched as thousands of southern Sudanese, fretting that they had been forgotten by the world and their own government, engaged their Canadian visitors to show they were still working to change the fate of their communities. Far from acknowledging what the rest of the world might be thinking of their nation (the world’s newest), they revealed that citizens themselves were determined to fight for democracy, women’s rights, and a more prosperous future.
And the sight of Canadians visiting in the mud huts of families struggling in destitution and then distributing goats and grain as they left was powerful and those families sensed they had been noticed, heard and resourced. When a number of very intelligent girls learned that they had received full secondary school scholarships from CASS, in large part due to a generous donation from the Sisters of St. Joseph, they at last faced an open door, held ajar by individual Canadians willing to invest in their future. To be received at a vitally alive women’s centre that we have supported for years and which, despite famine and malaria, thrives with farming microenterprises and presses for political recognition, is something that instills hope in anyone present.
This seems counter-intuitive – looking for individual influence in the middle of a collective mess – but it is precisely where the power of the individual can have its greatest effect. In South Sudan, of all places, democracy is alive and, in some spots, thriving. Where people once talked of the need for primary schools they now consistently refer to high schools and universities. Women who once sought a sliver of independence only a decade ago now speak of running for high political office or managing their own businesses. And average citizens, once cowed by their political and military leaders, now express their distrust openly and call for a better life and a more representative democracy. In a word: revolutionary.
We must get our heads around the reality that, in a world of collective dysfunction, individual influence is more possible, and crucial, than ever, despite what we are told.
It’s time to stop thinking that nothing we do really matters. Today, individuals are 30 times richer than our ancestors two centuries ago. That wealth, when made available for great social causes, can redirect humanity’s path. In America, 72% of charitable giving comes from individuals, with 15% from foundations, and 5% from corporations. In Canada, individual giving is up to almost $13 billion per year, with 82% of Canadian citizens donating to important causes.
We forever hear, see and read of prominent figures starting companies, owning sports teams, and making their billions. But it is average citizens, through giving and volunteering, that keep the wheels of human compassion and justice churning. The power to revolutionize the world is ours to retain and use, not just through voting but through giving and acting.
In South Sudan today, at this very moment, are some remarkable women and men who have discovered new reason to hope because a group of 10 women and one man paid their own way and distributed the generous givings of average Canadians for people who are already showing the intelligence, adaptability, and courage to change their communities. Individual Canadians made this possible and it is average Southern Sudanese who enact it.
Forget the doom. Cast off the sense of impotence. If individual sacrifice can work in a warring country, it can function in a modern complex democracy. But we must believe that is so. And we must prove once again to a troubled world that individuals not only matter, but, in fact, form the vanguard for the hopes of a better democracy.