The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: Personal

Summer’s Hidden Messages

As we move into the dog days of August we are mindful that summer is moving towards the exit and we long for it to tarry just a while longer. It’s like an old acquaintance we haven’t seen for a year but with whom we can pick things up naturally where we left off.

It’s a season for the young, with its tans, endless round of activities, the food, drink, and the partying. But it is perhaps the most poignant time of year for those who reflect and “feel” the intimacies of life – like author Tony Morrison when she noted, “I have only to break into the tightness of a strawberry, and I see summer.” Something about that kind of intuitiveness is best felt in the long days of the season.

I have encountered many this summer who seem different than they were only a few short months ago. One woman who lost her husband to cancer and was battling on the front lines of grief told me that she has felt a sense of release in the warmth of the sun’s rays, the gentle rains, her abundant garden, and the quiet evenings when memories return of walking the neighbourhood hand in hand with the love of her life. “Grief hasn’t left,” she told me over coffee, “but what we had together becomes more meaningful as the sun brings a kind of healing.” As beautiful as that reflection is, it is being felt repeatedly by thousands in our city. It’s not so much a promise of new life but the deeper meaning of the old one that makes summer so restorative.

For many, of course, it is precisely the promise of newness that summer brings that makes this time of year a favourite. Along with the season comes that long-held belief that life can begin again, that something new can happen, and that our path may take a new direction. Why? Because summer brings with it, for many, a new sense of adventure in the midst of busy lives, or as Aimee Friedman once put it: “When people went on vacation, they shed their home skins, thought they could be a new person.”

For those of us who have lived some time on this earth there is a clear sense that life is moving increasingly into the fast lane. The sense of change is everywhere, but isn’t necessarily accompanied with an abiding sense of security. Time seems to pass like a movie seen in fast speed. Stress and an unknown future take their toll on everyone, regardless of their financial, social, emotional or physical state.

And then comes summer and the longer sun-kissed days fill us with equal measure of relaxation and resurgence of energies. The days settle lazily into to one another like there’s no big rush and we hearken back to those school days when summer never seemed to end and all we did was just live and explore.

As we grow older, the warmer seasons permit us the luxury of not having to meet the demands of everyone, of not always having to live up to the expectations of others. This is our limited time, our escape, away from all those responsibilities where we get the chance to watch flowers bloom, to read a book just for ourselves, to quietly retreat into that part of ourselves that we must preserve and deepen if we are to embrace the modern world once more with a sense of purpose and hope.

Something about the summer season makes us want to believe again – in romance, in the vital memory of those we have lost, in the renewing sense that the better angels of our nature have yet a role to play in our community and in our troubled world. Somehow, after the jumble of the past year, or years, summer give it all back to us with a semblance of order and purpose. To everything there is a season and right now it’s summer’s turn to shine. Our task is to let it do its healing and energizing work. The troubles and rigors of the world are still ahead of us but can only be overcome by a people who have permitted summer to provide its magical healing touch. And we must be at our most inspired, for great challenges lay ahead of us.

Read this post in its original London Free Press format here.

Hunger vs Famine: The Vital Distinction

It’s one of the great ironies of our age – learning that millions are being lifted out of desperate poverty at the same time as millions more are falling into famine. Thanks to system change many of what are termed the “bottom billion” are finding their lives slightly improved. Yet it is also because of the lack of human intervention – the worst possible kind – that hunger has huge populations on the brink of starvation. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are offering some hope through a vast collaborative global effort. At the same time, regional conflict, corruption, mismanagement and apathy are thrusting millions in the vortex of extinction.

When the United Nations recently announced that some 20 million people in four countries face famine it supported that reality with a staggering claim: this summer is witnessing “the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of World War Two.” China lost 30 million people to starvation following that great conflict, while much of Europe faced its own struggles with famine. How can it be that just four famine stricken nations – South Sudan, Nigeria, Yemen and Somalia – can face even worse disaster than a half-century ago?

According to the study, Tufts Famine Trends, modern famine emerges because those amenities that have reduced hunger in recent decades – improvements in farming, transportation and communications infrastructure – are severely missing in the four nations mentioned above.

This is the great tragedy in what these millions now face: it isn’t because of a lack of food only, but because human design has determined that it will leave hunger untreated until it reaches epidemic proportions, better known as famine. Who are we talking about here? Undoubtedly the governments of those regions haven’t been able to get their acts together, sometimes through corruption, tribalism or willful neglect. But another key component is us – prosperous and developed nations. When resources have been lacking to build the roads, buy the seeds, transport the yields and get them to markets, the UN has put out special appeals over the past few years, warning that if donor countries failed to respond that the inevitable results would be famine in these regions. The response has been so dismal by governments and their citizens that the food crisis prophesied has now come to pass.

Chris Hillbruner of the Famine Early Warning Systems Networks recently said plainly, “When the political will is there, everyone suddenly has access.” We know this to be true – it always has been – but the opposite has direct consequences: low political initiative leads to disaster. As UTNE Reader put it: “The Rich Get Richer; the Poor Go Hungry.”

The distinction between hunger and famine is vital for us to consider and understand. Almost one billion people in this world live in chronic hunger yet have enough to survive. They will experience poor health, disease, and high child mortality, but they can likely endure. Famine is different. People in such a condition don’t have enough food to survive and will soon enough perish, starting with the most vulnerable. Hunger is about surviving; famine is about death. That’s the distinction. The key is to keep people migrating from the former to the latter.

The cause of famine carries with it much more human design than we might care to admit. Yes, there are the civil wars, corruption and other domestic failures that keep people from getting the nourishment they require to live. But then there are those individuals, groups and nations that refuse to provide the required resources to keep families falling from hunger into famine. These two dimensions, regional and global, when combined, lead to the crisis that the UN is now alerting us to.

One of the great tragedies of famine, as Oxfam continues to remind us, is that if we wait until famine is declared to respond, it is too late. That’s the reason the UN provides advance warnings. But what happens if the response isn’t sufficient? We are now about to find out.

Our family has worked in South Sudan for 18 years and at no time has it been easy. Yet our women’s initiatives and education programs have progressed even during times of great civil war. But this past January, with no fighting occurring in the Aweil East region where we work, the threat of famine entered the area and everyone knew what it meant. What war, tribal divisions, hunger, lack of medical services, the recruiting of child soldiers (including girls), too many deaths in childbirth, and lack of rain couldn’t accomplish, famine can now succeed through the perishing of these remarkable survivors themselves. It is enough to induce heartbreak, as it has done many times.

This is what constitutes the ultimate tragedy wrought by famine – it destroys hope by obliterating the people themselves. Eventually deaths of such magnitude will dislocate much of world unless the nations and peoples of the world respond. This isn’t a question of merit but of life and death. The call for assistance went out two years ago. We can now only pray for two things: enough time to respond and enough of the world to intervene and keep not just hope alive, but the very people themselves.

Read this post in its original National Newswatch format here.

Good Politics

This post can be found in its original on National Newswatch here.

John Buchan was a Scottish novelist, historian and politician who embarked on these three careers at roughly the same time. His novel The Thirty-Nine Steps remains a classic. He also just happened to be Canada’s 15th Governor-General (1935-1940). A key to his long and diverse career is found in his autobiography:

“Public life is regarded as the crown of a career, and to young men it is the worthiest of ambition. Politics is still the greatest and most honourable adventure.”

I quoted this passage during a speech recently, only to be met with a baffled response. It wasn’t hard to see why: few look at politics in such lofty terms. In reality, much of populism’s response in recent times can be attributed to the resentments voters and citizens feel towards politics and those who dabble in it. Polls document it. Elections reveal it. And coffee shop banter is enlivened with it.

And yet much of this assessment is hardly fair or even warranted. True, many who run for elected office are more interested in power than public service. Yet there are many good politicians out there whose goal is to better their community, their country, their world, and their efforts should be honoured. The problem, really, is one of results. Dedicated people can do little when the political climate is one of battling, animosity, undermining, and the refusal to cooperate to achieve the public good. Because of the prevalence of these darker political practices, our deepest challenges frequently remain unaddressed, despite the party professions otherwise.

And since politics is a two-way street between citizens and their elected representatives, voters must be willing to accept some of the blame for the current state of political decline in our world. Some of our voting choices haven’t reflected well on us. We can blame politicians all we want, but many of those voted into office were just as scurrilous prior to their election as they were following. It was the voter that put them there, however, and if democracy is to be refined and enhanced it will require better choices from average people just as much as from our elected representatives.

From humanity’s very beginning, politics has been essential to our welfare, security and progress. Our modern problem is really about what kind of politics we are talking about. Julian Barnes was correct when he wrote in his Flaubert’s Parrot: “The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonourably, foolishly, viciously.” The problem is not only that we elect individuals who behave this way but that we tolerate it year after year, even in ourselves as voters. Politicians and citizens will never achieve the outcomes they are looking for as long as the democratic state grows increasingly dysfunctional.

We require a better a way of governing ourselves because politics is the only constituted way in which we can forge our disagreements into enough of a consensus to move us forward into our many challenges. For all the recent debate about designing better political systems, the greatest step we could take towards the renewal of democracy is that of reforming ourselves. “We assume we are better people than we seem to be,” says University of Oklahoma historian Wilfred McClay. The presumption affects our politics, he continues. “We assume that our politics should therefore be an endlessly uplifting pursuit full of joy and inspiration rather than endless wrangling, head-butting, and petty self-interest.

The problem, of course, is that there are many politicians and citizens who love this stuff – the blood letting, the sabre rattling, and the love and pursuit of power over others. Yet this isn’t where the average British, French, American, Chinese, Russian, or Canadian citizen lives. They merely seek a better and more secure world for themselves and their families. Politics to them should facilitate such noble and practical outcomes; when it doesn’t, anger and constant turnover results. For political viability to return, it must re-engage with the ambitious agenda of bettering the average citizen, including the marginalized, and honouring the politician who pursues that goal above all else.

Our politics is distracted because we, as a people, are distracted. We should be getting on with the business of enhancing productivity, ending poverty, achieving true gender equality, aligning ourselves with the sustainability of the planet, building meaningful communities, and creating a patriotic fervor that is as true in fact as it is in hopes. “The point of modernity is to live a life without illusions while not becoming disillusioned,” wrote Antonio Gramsci. We have become too accomplished at both and only a rebirth of a meaningful politics can begin to rebuild the “honourable adventure” that John Buchan believed was possible and is now proving essential.

The Sacrificial Bond

An old sage once observed that, “the greatest sacrifice is when you sacrifice your own happiness for the sake of someone else.” The modern age isn’t so sure of that principle anymore. The term “sacrifice” summons up thoughts of loss, pain, foregoing of resources, even life itself. Our daily lives cater more to the concept of self-improvement and our economic choices frequently reflect that reality. We aim too low.

It remains one of the great ironies of modern life that our heroes are frequently those whose lives barely resemble ours. When Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai visited Ottawa this past week, it was something like a spiritual event. We understood what she had given up in order to raise her voice for the cause of others. Shot in the head for taking a stand, she somehow survived and the power of her sacrificial life humbled young and old, politician and citizen alike.

I recently asked some of my friends who their heroes were. They came from various age groups but their responses were revealing, and strikingly similar: Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Romeo Dallaire, Malala, and pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi. There was little mention of leaders like Steve Jobs or Bill and Melinda Gates, though there remains much appreciation for their efforts. Something about the remarkable price paid by people like Mandela, or even Jesus Christ, provides a higher, more refined, definition of sacrifice.

There are various types of sacrifice, of course, ranging from the giving of gifts to a mother’s remarkable devotion, and these things matter to a great enough degree that they benefit society even when largely unacknowledged. But there is a special place we reserve for those who risked it all for the betterment of humanity. Even most of those – soldiers dying in war, for example – remain anonymous. Yet every year we acknowledge what it all means and that we somehow benefitted for the path of devotion that they walked.

The underlying principle of great sacrifice is that the persons paying the cost place greater value on the recipient than themselves. We acknowledge that. But there is more. Somehow that height of a person’s sacrifice creates an intimate bond between giver and receiver. It spans the centuries and doesn’t even require acquaintance with the person. We see it every Remembrance Day, when an entire nation bows its collective head in profound acknowledgement of the men and women who gave their lives so that our lives stood a chance to continue. In effect, it is a bond, a promise if you will, that we will continue to acknowledge what has been done and what we owe.

The greatest effect of this bond is that it protects the relationship and keeps the act of sacrifice sacred over time. Intriguingly, the relationship becomes reciprocal – we honour one another, not out of duty, but from honest devotion. It can last a lifetime, or lifetimes, as the legacy endures.

These words a being written on Easter Sunday morning – an enduring annual celebration on how death ultimately provides life. Billions over the millennia have acknowledged the ultimate sacrifice without ever having known Jesus Christ. It remains an act of ultimate humanity that people can love and appreciate someone they have never known.

The only real hope for our age is that we get beyond ourselves and our immediate needs, to reach for greater things, the bigger life, the enlarged spirit, so that humanity itself can survive. For this we require examples, living and dead, of those who transcended daily concerns in order to give our humanity a fighting chance to prevail. It is the quality of their lives, their essence of doing ultimate good, that reminds us that there is always more that can be done, more people that can be helped, more hope for the world. It is as Martin Luther King Jr. observed and lived:

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle, the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

Thank God such people still strive in our world. Would to God that there were more of them.

Enduring in Epic Times

It was the first bold political development of the new millennium, full of cautious hope and promise, and it’s now flirting with disaster.

We were in South Sudan as international observers in 2011, as people voted by a huge margin for the right to establish their own independent state. Subsequently, the Republic of South Sudan became the world’s newest nation. The mood within the country was euphoric, but the caution felt by the international community was well placed. It was one thing to form a united southern front against the northern government of Sudan in the decades-long great war, but would the southern tribes, many historically at odds with one another, be able to hold it together to enable the successful birth of the new nation?

We now know that the answer to that question is no – at least for now. Soon after independence, the two main tribes fell out with one another and a new southern civil war has ravaged the country for almost three years. Attempts at peace have failed and the cost to the average people of the south now borders on the epic.

The numbers are staggering. Nearly 7.5 million people are now living in desperation. According to the United Nations, some three million have fled their homes due to conflict and starvation and are now living in other parts of the country. Slightly more than 4,000 have been forced to leave for neighbouring countries every day. And 6 out of 10 South Sudanese refugees are children. Recently we learned from the UN that half of the entire population will face extreme hunger by this coming July.

These are the events we hear of everyday through news reports. Yet we rarely come across the remarkable stories of endurance, dedication, and even survival that occur on an ongoing basis in South Sudan. They are worth remembering.

Canadian Aid for Southern Sudan (CASS), for which I’m volunteer executive director, has been in the Aweil region of South Sudan for the past 18 years. It has never been easy, but amply uplifting to the human spirit. In all that time, Londoners have been in the area helping to rehabilitate former slaves, building public schools, developing women’s programs, clean water initiatives, supplying medicines to rural clinics, and training women leaders.

The organization has been there in times of war and peace, but nothing quite prepared CASS representatives Carol Campbell and Denise Pelley for what they encountered two months ago. Veterans of numerous support trips to the region, they reported back that, despite accounts of bloody conflict in other parts of the country, the Aweil region has remained peaceful, permitting the organization’s programs to remain active and effective.

Such encouraging news was accompanied by some troubling realities, however. The very Southern Sudanese champions of these CASS initiatives were on the cusp of starvation – both for themselves and their families.

“This journey was more difficult than my first visit during the war with the north,” Carol Campbell observed with emotion. “Those were terrible times, but what made this visit so difficult was to see how the lack of food and medical care has devastated the women leaders we have known from the beginning. It was heartbreaking.” Denise Pelley concurred.

During that first trip to South Sudan that Campbell was referring to during the war (1999), rebel commander Salva Kiir was assigned to protect us, his image captured fittingly by London Free Press photographer Derek Ruttan, who accompanied us. Now he is the President of the country and his failure to protect his eleven million people from the ravages of war has led to a troubled age.

Yet his intransigence doesn’t typify the actions of the average Southern Sudanese, who simply want to get on with building new lives and opportunities. The chief pursuit for men and women, boys and girls, is education, and even during these troubling days the desire for knowledge hasn’t abated. The high school completed by CASS last year is now full of curious boys and girls despite the chaos in the rest of the country.

With 800% inflation in the area, many can’t afford the price of food.  Mary Adeng Akot, walked with her grandson Garang, for two days to ask CASS for help.  “I am old.  I have nothing.  I ask for my family.  During the earlier war we ate leaves to live.  Now we are eating them again.”

How can all these remarkable programs go on in the midst of terrible, seemingly senseless conflict? The answer is that the Southern Sudanese accomplished all those things for half-a-century previously during the broader conflict with the north. They not only survived but prevailed. And they can again.

But can success be achieved when you and your family are on the doorstep of starvation? Recently my wife Jane Roy and I were asked to present to the Human Rights Committee in Parliament regarding the stakes in South Sudan. We reminded them that Canadians have been there for years and that millions of dollars of investment from this country have empowered the people of the south, women especially. Should we stop now, all that investment will be lost.

Admittedly these are difficult times for donors, too, including Western governments. And when all the news is negative and overlooks the Mary Akots, it remains an easy thing to lose hope. But faith in the people of South Sudan, struggling against the failure of their own political leaders, is now more important than ever. We must champion the champions, invest in their survival, and equip them to lead the women’s development programs.

“You must continue to come to us,” said Deng Deng Akuei, the governor of the region who had been schooled in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with a certain urgency. “Your presence reminds us that the world still cares for us. We still have high hopes that our country will succeed. Your being with us helps us endure.” And so the call to “be there” continues.

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