The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: Africa

Humanity In An Image

You can see why I was so affected immediately upon focusing your eyes on the picture. It’s from south Sudan in 1993. The little girl, along with hundreds of others just like her, was crawling her way along in an attempt to get to a feeding centre. Collapsing in exhaustion on the ground, a vulture that had been swooping overhead landed nearby in a gruesome vigil. No one knows what ever happened to the little girl.

I had just purchased a computer and this was perhaps one of the first images I ever saw on the Internet. It rocked me back on my heels. I had to sit down on a chair as I put my head in my hands, trying to shake the image from my mind. There was no point – it has become a permanent part of my mental landscape.

It would be another five years before Jane and I journeyed to south Sudan, but it was partly motivated by this picture of the child and the vulture. It propelled me to a kind of lifelong commitment to alleviate such suffering. This image of the child wasn’t just worth a thousand words; it was worth changing the course of my life – something for which I will be forever grateful.

This is what our humanity does to us. Sure, we refine it, educate it, expand it where we can, and protect it when we are vulnerable. We actually get so proficient at this in the West that we can often submerge it. People who die here fade away in hospitals. We don’t see vultures propped on electrical wires. Starvation? Well we have food banks for that, right? We journey to vacation spots in the sun, remaining cloistered away from the harder realities of what the indigenous populations face. Often we become a people successful at dressing up our humanity by attending posh fundraisers and networking around charity.

And then something like this image pops up on our screen and all that refinement just can’t hold our emotion. This is the kind of life over two billion people live – destitute poverty. Thanks to modern technology, it occasionally confronts us and we are left to figure out a proper response. It is our deeper, primal humanity reminding us that civilizing influences can never take away our ability to care at some submerged level.

Sometimes when I’m in Sudan, I wonder if I ever passed that child along the way. Was she one of the children we freed from slavery, helped in a refugee camp, or built a school for? Perhaps she knew one of our kids. Maybe she perished moments after the photo was taken.

This much we do know: the photographer himself died only a few months after taking the picture that was to win him the Pulitzer Prize. His name was Kevin Carter, a young South African, and according to a friend, for days after he took the photo, he “sat under a tree and cried and chain-smoked and couldn’t distance himself from the horror of what he saw.” There it is again – humanity – reaching in, pulling at the deepest parts of us, prompting insecurity and remarkable compassion at the same time.

A few months later Carter committed suicide – a young man in his awarded prime whose humanity had been tested to the limit. Controversy still swirls around his photograph. Apparently he waved the vulture away after the photo was taken, but didn’t tarry to see if the child lived. He was there on assignment and lots of kids were dying around him, attempting to reach the centre.

Following the publication of this photo in the New York Times, the paper was flooded with calls – thousands of them – asking if the child lived or not. People wanted to help – where could they send money to assist that young life?

This is what we do so well – give. But why does it ultimately take such graphic tragedy to get us involved? We have become so used to hearing of Africa’s struggles, and our personal lives are so hectic, and we are busy helping domestic charities close by, and surely we can’t help everybody, and … well, you understand. Children like this one die in similar circumstances every day, and we won’t change that by just responding to one life. It will take commitment and understanding – an ability to really get outside of our own circumstances and see the world as it really is and not just the way we created it in our own image. If people like me had acted a lot sooner, perhaps the Sudanese mother of our children wouldn’t have had to bolt for freedom from slavery with her children, only to be killed in a raid with them watching. The real solutions to such stories don’t come with adopting kids from Sudan, but from dedicated efforts to ensure that slavery doesn’t happen and that the mother has a fighting chance to bring up her own children in her own world.

It is time we stretched ourselves. My posts on humanitarianism don’t get nearly the readership as those discussing politics or community in Canada. Sometimes our confining world views limit our potential. It is time we permitted our deeper humanity to embrace the broader realities and make our world, and not just where we live, a better and more human place.

Overcome By History

I was unprepared for the emotion of it.

In 2005 I wrote a book titled A Path Between Two Mothers – the story of our daughter Abuk and how she survived slavery, civil war, and the death of her mother during some terrible years in Sudan. It was just meant for her personal memories and I never intended it to go any farther.

Then some gifted musicians got together and decided to turn it into a musical. I was surprised and delighted. Last night was the first of three performances of Abuk: The Musical and I found myself overcome. Abuk (11 years old) had done a couple of media interviews in advance, but even she was fully captured by the story.

I remember when she first encountered her identical twin sister on a dirt airstrip in south Sudan. They had been separated at four months of age when their mother was shot and each believed the other was dead. Seeing one another for the first time, they both burst into tears – not because they recognized one another but because what are the chances that you would fly half a world away and find someone identical to yourself?

And now here she was watching a moving production of her life. No wonder she felt somewhat overwhelmed, so enraptured and hesitant at the same time. Her life in Sudan had been brutal. In Canada it has been wonderful. In between stands a gamut of emotions that no young girl should ever have to face … and endure. But this is Abuk – wonderful, radiant, strong, shy, and above all, a remarkable overcomer who in her very survival placed life in perspective for all of us.

But she is not alone in her conflicted emotions. Her mother and I felt all of the hardship of that year trying to find her in the civil war come flooding back to us. It was an exhausting journey that eventually saw us involved in our own child’s survival on the very threshold of impossibility. Thanks to Jane’s determination we all prevailed, Abuk above all. These are the journeys of the human heart, often at the extreme. I stood spent at the very spectacle of it last night – a player in a drama more moving and hopeful than any fictional movie. This is my life. It’s my daughter. It’s my dauntless wife. I am enriched as a man surrounded by intrepid women. How did I ever get to be so fortunate? I thank God for this gift every day of my life. It’s true.

Lost

Not every all-candidates debate is the same, but last night’s was somewhat typical in that a good representation of keen observers gathered to press all of the aspiring MPs on policy issues. Held in a local library and hosted by the group Our Votes Count, the questions were indeed varied – everything from the environment to how to bring about a more creative Canada.

Yet everyone there appeared a little nonplussed, like something wasn’t right. The look on their faces told me they were troubled by the direction in which the country was headed and so I changed my two-minute opening in an attempt to capture that mood. I spoke of what we no longer possessed that we did a mere five years ago.

  • we lost the Conservative candidate. Again, she didn’t appear, in what has become a growing pattern for many government candidates across the country. Those present took offence at the absence. Something has clearly been lost in our democracy when the party that runs the government prompts its candidates to refuse to face the public.
  • we lost our influence in the world. Everyone in the room sensed this, likely highlighted by our loss of the Security Council seat at the United Nations. We are no longer the honest broker. In our attempt to join the “big boys” like Britain and the U.S. as a military player, we somehow misplaced our moral compass. We now pick sides, leaving many of the developing nations of the globe wondering whatever became of the country that had captured the essence of international peace and governance. We wondered about that last night too.
  • we lost our will to tackle poverty. While six provinces and two territories have moved ahead with their own poverty reduction strategies, the feds looked on in benign distraction as the gap between the rich and poor widened over the course of the last half-decade and child and aboriginal poverty picked up momentum once again.
  • we lost Africa. How do you do that? How do you lose a continent from your moral map? But we have. Once a focus of some of our best humanitarian and peaceful instincts, we shifted away from that great land in pursuit of more wealth-making opportunities. We cut a number of African nations from our long-term development list and moved our self-interested efforts to market potential in the Americas. The world has never viewed us quite the same since and neither did the audience last night.
  • we lost Kyoto, and with it the will to finally get our environmental footprint down to a sustainable level. This development has given Canada perhaps its greatest international black eye. We’ve lost the language of Kyoto and the will to seriously tackle climate change.
  • we lost upwards of 500 aboriginal women who just went missing and are presumed murdered or dead. This has been repeatedly brought up in the House, with opposition parties and citizen action groups calling for a commission to study the phenomenon – all to no avail. For the government, these women are not only lost but forgotten; but not in the minds of the people present last evening.
  • we lost our fiscal health. Five years ago there was a $12 billion dollar surplus and a low debt load. Now it’s a $50-billion dollar deficit and $200 billion more added to the debt. Add to that the roughly $50 billion to be added by fighter jets and super-prisons and you get the sense there’s a hole in our national wallet.
  • we lost the equality of women. We’re heading in the wrong direction on this, beginning when the Conservative government took out the word “equality” from the Charter of the Status of Women.
  • we lost the green technology jobs of tomorrow. Five years ago we were all crowing that this was the key part of the new production economy of the future. We have now lost that opportunity, as other developed nations take the lead.
  • and in the end we lost Parliament. No longer the people’s House, it has fallen into disrepair and is no longer functional because it is led by a government that won’t respect proper institutional input  or parliamentary order and accountability. And so it dissolved. Previously it lay empty because the PM prorogued it in the midst of a recession. Now its stands empty again because the government chosen to lead it actually disdains and has contempt for it.
So, yes, the people present last night all appeared a little lost, as were the candidates from the various parties. In a world changing more rapidly than at any other time in human history, the loss of a national compass not only puts us in the international backwater but also at risk.

Still Hazy After All These Years

It took until the latter half of 2010 for the weaknesses of the Conservative government’s new foreign policy to come home to roost. I was in the crowd on Canada Day in front of the Peace Tower three years ago when the Prime Minister stated that “Canada is back” on the world stage as a result of his policies. In reality, it was too early into his tenure to know if that actually held true or not.

The Conservative government desired to display a far tougher approach to world affairs than the more complex, multi-lateral internationalism former Liberal governments had pursued. For that matter, it also cut against the grain of the engaged diplomacy of the Mulroney era. Stephen Harper’s primary vehicle for that expression in his early days was the conflict in Afghanistan – a natural stage for a “tough guy” kind of international engagement.

But following almost five years in power, the muscular era, and Canadian foreign policy with it, has declined in ways our foreign partners repeatedly describe as confusing. It mainly didn’t work for George W. Bush or Tony Blair, and it appears to be failing the litmus test for credible foreign policy for Canada as well.

This past year witnessed the unravelling of the new Canada “aggressive” approach. It would be true to say that this country’s involvement in Afghanistan through NATO has buffed up our military reputation in international circles. But the conflict itself failed to provide the clear-cut victory such an approach required if it were to prevail decades into the future. Both British and American administrations learned this at their peril. Even the attempt to exit that war-torn region sees Canada spending five times more money on military activities than on either diplomacy or development. Some of us are attempting to amend that ratio in favour of more humanitarianism in our morphed presence there, but it remains a difficult climb.

Afghanistan has taught us a kind of humility that once used to characterize Canada’s presence in the world in previous times. We have learned, as Pearson and Mulroney always stated, that military might can never win the day in an increasingly complex world. The need to enter the Afghanistan arena was a necessary step in being part of a United Nations partnership, but it failed to provide the outcome hoped for. We took little imagination into the region’s diplomatic realities.

Haiti is another case in point. When the earthquake initially struck that impoverished land, Canada was all over it with military, humanitarian and diplomatic assistance. Since that time, however, the problems have become intractable, and once again flexing our military muscle in those early days benefitted us little, and the quick exit of our military peacetime resources during the next stages of building Haiti itself only added to the problem.

During the latter part of this year, the weaknesses of the Harper approach began to multiply, best seen in our loss of the Security Council seat. Years from now, our inability to use diplomatic clout to acquire that privileged seat will be viewed as one of the lowest points in Canadian international prestige. Additionally, the Harper government’s approach in the Middle East of crossing the delicate line from soft power broker to outright support for Israel has damaged our diplomatic reputation more than is realized. We once could be counted on to express our complex foreign policy in the very restraint with which we refused to consistently pick a side in perhaps the most complex part of the world – but no more.

The F-35 fighter jet problem, the travesty that is Canadian environmental policy, our abandonment of Africa, the shutting down of embassies – these developments, among numerous others, constitute the reasons why Canada lost a privileged place on the Security Council and why a number of countries are fighting the proposed European Free Trade agreement with this country.

Following five years of the aggressive approach, it is becoming clear that the Harper foreign policy has not only damaged the Canadian image but has also proved irrelevant in an increasingly complex world. As former PM Joe Clark repeatedly states, the world is getting bigger and this country will have to nuance its formerly impressive diplomatic, trade, and humanitarian skills if it is to maintain its place in world esteem. So far, as he states, we have failed.

So where to now? It is just another affirmation of the weakness of our present foreign policy that we don’t have an answer to that question. To where will we shift our troop presence? Will we develop and effective international climate change presence? Can we overcome our present limitations in our relationships with China and India? Will we continue the present policy of freezing development assistance despite the blow to our reputation that ensued? Being out of touch with in all of these areas has produced a Canada the world no longer recognizes. It is an experiment gone wrong because it took a simplistic and muscular approach into a context that was largely about complexity and nuance.

We are now no farther ahead than five years ago. Our international presence is murkier than ever. Our foreign policy has become one of befuddlement – the exact opposite of the active and defined Canada Stephen Harper boasted of.

Paradise Lost

It was just the kind of move that confirmed for many countries why they couldn’t opt for Canada to claim a seat on the United Nations Security Council. No sooner had the strategic vote been lost than the Harper government began ruminating about the prospect of closing even more embassies on the African continent. When the story first broke, I received a number of calls from African ambassadors wondering whether I had any information on whether their own country would become one of the casualties. Naturally enough, I didn’t, but the concern and sense of abandonment by this country was palpable.

The move to close institutions of Canadian diplomatic identity in Africa has increased of late, with Gabon, Guinea, Malawi, and Cape Town falling under the executioner’s axe. With only 21 embassies left in a continent that will soon house one billion people, we are destined to become a minor player where we were once viewed as a compassionate and strategic friend.

The Globe and Mail’s Geoffrey York quotes the president of the Canadian Council on Africa, Lucien Bradet, who laments: “No doubt that we are witnessing an ‘out of Africa’ strategy. We’d be cutting more and more of the bridges between Africa and ourselves.” Bradet’s group represents a broad coalition of businesses and others important players, keen to expand opportunities on the African continent. With young populations, growing infrastructure and massive natural resources, the African continent represents one of the most lucrative regions of investment that Canada could pioneer, given our lengthy history in Africa. Increasingly, investment firms are putting down stakes on the continent, recognizing that better governance, improved fiscal management, reduced levels of corruption, lowered debt loads, and human resources keen to enter the marketplace are strategic advantages. These very realities are leading to an African renaissance that will propel the continent into trading superpower status in the coming century, if the World Bank has it right.

The emerging economic giants – China, India, Brazil – recognize the potential for their own economies in Africa at the same time as Canada is shutting the door. These countries are in the process of opening up partnerships, consulates, trade centres and embassies in preparation for what surely will become staple parts of their respective economies over the next 100 years. Claiming to leave Africa for lucrative fields of economic enhancement in Latin America, the Canadians are turning their backs to a region which the World Bank and IMF conclude will be a trading giant soon enough. The United Nations has concluded that Africa is the richest continent in terms of natural resources, and yet the Canadian sails can be discerned receding over the horizon. There is no other region in the world with such a vast, open market, and yet we are holding fire sales across the continent.

For too long we have viewed Africa as a land steeped in remarkable history but oppressive poverty. But, increasingly, through initiatives like the Millennium Development Goals and financial investments, the continent is emerging from centuries of darkness to embrace societal reforms that will prepare it for imminent liberation. But it is specifically in the area of economic potential for Canada that Africa holds out its great promise. Inevitably, our economic future will depend on our ability to win contracts and expand cultures. But how can that be accomplished when we have walked away from friendships that go back to the days immediately following the Second World War?

It is our own political willingness to abandon historic commitments that put us in direct risk of losing the Security Council opportunity. The developing world, with its significant voting strength at the UN, had witnessed a compassionate Western country abandon decades of work in a troubled region just at the time when Africa was seizing its potential and it decided it had no advocate in Canada. Our influence was lost like scrap strips of film on the editing floor. The price paid to our reputation was immediate and embarrassing. The economic opportunities lost over the coming years, however, will cause Canadian companies to lobby Ottawa hard for the opening of embassies in Africa and the expansion of our diplomatic clout to enhance relationships. It will be inevitable that these recent years will be viewed as a dark period of great loss in economic opportunity. It’s one thing to lose a Security Council seat, it’s quite another to lose our future prosperity over amateur diplomacy and the lack of economic vision.

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