The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: foreign aid

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.

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.

Election 2015: What in the World?

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IT WAS SUPPOSED TO REMAIN CONFIDENTIAL, and was even marked “secret” on its cover page, but the contents were obtained by the Globe and Mail. It wasn’t pretty. Neither was it inconsequential.

In a presentation prepared by senior Foreign Affairs officials for a high level meeting two weeks ago, the analysis could be wrapped up in one sentence: “Despite Canada’s reputation as an active player on the world stage, by many measures, its relative influence has declined or is under threat.” It wasn’t a conclusion the government would have liked to hear, and so it sought to keep it quiet.

And yet we know it; Canadians have felt the slippage over recent years, but because these issues are at a global level they have felt there is little that they, as citizens, can do. And it appears they may have been right – until now, that is, when their vote could make the difference to whether Canada reclaims its traditional place in the world or continues in its decline.

It’s likely that those senior officials who have held the vital responsibility for diplomacy and international development have been the most aggrieved in recent years, as they have witnessed Canada’s influence erode and struggled to get the Harper government to fulfill and build on its responsibilities. The Globe and Mail states that Foreign Affairs officials put it all plainly:

  • There has been a “loss of our traditional place at some multilateral tables
  • Canada is not a “partner of first choice” for foreign countries
  • We have a “declining market share in emerging markets” with fast-developing nations
  • Canada’s “official development assistance is declining,” as other countries like China enhanced their interests through foreign aid

This has been an electoral campaign full of issues that are vital to the Canadian identity. And although such contests tend to repeatedly focus on domestic issues, sometimes the world breaks in through realities that can actually affect how we live here, within our own borders. In the last few weeks we have faced an ongoing refugee crisis, tremors in the world economy, a sluggish major trade deal with Europe, a minor role in military action, and the urgent reality of climate change. In all of these things it is only by partnering with other nations that we can hope to overcome such challenges. And yet we are failing on this key point, opting to chart our own course and veer away from our tradition as a solid trade/development/diplomatic partner.

Last night a debate between the party leaders focused on international affairs, but the reality is that global challenges are part and parcel of every day of this long campaign. It is impossible for domestic politics to rule supreme during an electoral contest when the world is facing challenges on so many fronts. In such a setting, a secret report from highly qualified people telling of our global failings in this crucial hour is hardly comforting.

Canada has historically been a true international country and it’s time we starting act like it. As we lose track of time and our place in history, other nations in the world are emerging.  Perhaps the upcoming election will provide the impetus for us to recapture our status and effectiveness in the global arena once more. As Albert Schweitzer put it: “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.” It’s time that we, as citizens, helped Canada get back to a place of international influence.

Kayla Mueller is Free

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Note:  The blog post is actually from my Huffington Post piece today on Kayla Mueller, the American aid worker who died recently.  Her courage and example are just so palpable that I wanted to send it out as a blog post. You can get to the post directly here.

“We cannot be sure of having something to live for unless we are willing to die for it,” said Ernesto Guevara. If indeed true, then Kayla Mueller would have spent her final hours in deep assurance and firmness of conviction.

Mueller’s death while under ISIS captivity was a situation full of irony. When ISIS officials, in a letter to her family, claimed that their daughter died from a Jordanian airstrike, the world looked on in disbelief since she had been held captive by ISIS forces since 2013. Her tragic death was due to their barbarism first and foremost, and the fact ISIS officials confirmed Mueller’s death through photos only reminds that one party alone is responsible for a senseless death and a tragedy almost too deep to bear.

The greatest irony of all is the manner in which this courageous young 26-year-old out-reasoned and out-championed her captors till the very end. For one so young, her sense of compassion, commitment, and desire for justice for all people showed a remarkable maturity. She was a brave woman come to terms with her plight and yet proclaiming the need for the freedom of all people. We know all this because we have it in her own words and insights.

“I have been shown in darkness, light, plus I have learned that, even in prison one can be free,” she wrote in her final letter. “I have a lot of fight left in me,” she continued, “and I am not breaking down. I will not give in no matter how long it takes … I know you would want me to remain strong. That is exactly what I am doing.”

These were the words uttered near the end of her life. Just as revealing were those she wrote to a friend just prior to her capture over a year ago. They represented her reason for being in Syria in the first place and stand in direct opposition to the values of her captors.

“Every human being should act. They should stop this violence. People are fleeing. We can’t bear this. It’s too much. I hope you (her friend Kathleen Day) can tell the entire world what I’ve said here and what I’ve seen.”

What her life couldn’t fulfill, her death has accomplished — we are reading her challenging insights now and her passing is gripping an entirely new generation. Responding to her friend’s words, Kathleen Day noted, “They tried to silence her. They locked her up. They kept us silent out of fear. But now she’s free.”

For those relief and development workers serving in anonymity in some of the world’s most troubled areas, Mueller’s death is a sobering reminder of their own tenuous circumstances. And yet they are there, acting out a compassion and sense of justice that most of us will never discover.

Mueller herself was no novice. More than most, she committed her life to helping others. At home in Arizona she volunteered in a women’s shelter and worked at an HIV/AIDS clinic. Then she branched out overseas, working with humanitarian groups in Palestine, Israel, and northern India. She was captured attempting to rescue troubled families in Syria.

In a phrase, Mueller knew what the consequences could be. And yet she went and she thrived in serving humanity in some of its deepest places. She “showed us that even amongst unconscionable evil, the essential decency of humanity can live on,” said President Obama upon hearing the news of her death.

This world will never get better if we merely observe. In Kayla Mueller we have discovered the very courage it will take to make this world better for our children and other people’s children. Her religious faith helped to carry her through until the end. Whatever it is that strengthens and inspires us, we must now use it to act on this remarkable woman’s words: “We can’t bear this. Every human being should act.” Those who respond to her clarion call have now been given a most marvelous example of human dignity, conviction, and compassion. God bless every memory of you, Kayla Mueller.

Reunions

1297377376575_ORIGINALHere is the link to my latest London Free Press article on our recent team trip to South Sudan – My new London Free Press piece on how a team of Canadians brought renewed hope to  remote region of South Sudan. – http://bit.ly/Zhwt7a.  It’s a key annual event for us, becoming ever more important as the world’s newest country seeks to get up off the mat after decades of civil war and enter an era of peace and prosperity. It was our largest team ever and they made key contributions.

Ultimately it’s about two reunions.  The first is the team being welcomed back into the remote region and second is about our 15-year old son Ater and his visit back to a region he left seven years ago – a situation that provided some remarkable touching moments.

It’s an example of what average Canadians can do when they set their minds to tremendous tasks.  You can help by visiting www.casscanada.net

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