The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: foreign aid

Humanity – “Is George Clooney There?”

“Is George Clooney right there, with you? Can you see if we can get an interview with him?”

This wasn’t the request I had been hoping for. Yes, George Clooney was in south Sudan, as was former president Jimmy Carter, but the real reason we were all there as international observers was to oversee the southern Sudanese referendum in an effort to attest to its credibility. It was big international news and had profound implications for all of Africa.

So I was a little taken aback when a Canadian national network reached me near the border of Darfur, virtually ignoring the significance of events swirling all around us and wanting to talk to the famed Hollywood actor. In truth, Clooney was confined to his room suffering from malaria, and Carter was everywhere – a respected international figure of peace and democracy who knew Sudan and its struggles well.

The reality that a people struggling for peace following decades of civil war was being eclipsed by a noted actor in their country was more than a little troubling. If any actor deserves some recognition for his part in drawing international attention to south Sudan and the destitute people of Darfur it is surely Clooney. He has done some credible work that would only be possible due to his notoriety.  Yet he continuously struggles with the penchant for individuals, governments and media to focus more on his fame than his passion for the Sudanese.

This is the age of humanitarian celebrities – all attempting to focus our attention on pivotal issues for the survival of all of us.  Some take their field work seriously; others appear in little more than photo ops.  But the attention on celebrities in such arenas points to two changing realities in our modern world. The first concerns affluent governments and their increasing retreat from aid and development commitments that had been promised only a decade ago. The vacuum left from the loss of serious attention to detail has opened the door even further for international celebrities to try to fill the void. It isn’t working to the degree necessary to curtail the growth of destitute poverty in our world – the numbers continue to escalate.

The second reality concerns our perspective as citizens and our loss of world interest in the plight of others.  That isn’t fully true in the area of disaster relief, however. Canadian generosity to places like the Asian tsunami or following Haiti’s devastating earthquake was indeed remarkable and uplifting. Yet in the long-term issues of climate change devastation, generational starvation, growing world hunger, chronic lack of health services, or physical insecurity, we seem to lose interest quickly, as does the media, whose lead we often follow.

As sovereign nations continue to pull into themselves due to the challenge of economic instability, it is only inevitable that we will begin to lose the solid advances we had made in such fields only a few years ago. The implications of this neglect are now ominous and no celebrity culture can save it.

On the other hand, the woman you see at the top of this post is a true hero and celebrity to many of us who have journeyed to Sudan. She poured out of Darfur with thousands of others a few years ago – in most cases without even the clothing on their backs. She was hiding in swamps with the others in order to avoid detection. She had come from much farther in western Darfur. Each time she attempted to settle with her family, militia, trained and supported by Libya’s army of Omar Khadaffi moved her on, but not before killing some of her relatives. When the West determined that Sudanese president Omar Bashir was a war criminal sought by the Criminal Court, the government often took its anger out on people like her.

She began traveling with 12 of her family, but only 4 survived. She lost her husband, sons, daughters-in-law, and her livelihood. But worst of all, by the time Jane and I interviewed her after she had journeyed hundreds of miles to where we were, she had lost her dignity – everything that had once made her who she was. She was a mess and her hair had begun falling out. In a word, she was “empty.” She had given everything to the survival of the children. Only 40 years of age, she looked 70.

There is no need to go into the lengthy list of tragedies she faced on that hectic journey. Our interview with her left us drained, as we realized neither one of us could come close to accomplishing what she had. Looking at her picture now, I see that she was more dynamic that any action figure, had more love for her lost husband than any romantic lead, and possessed a narrative as great as anything Hollywood could put together.

But she lives out of sight of all of us, and for that reason she doesn’t really matter. Her humanity, great as it is, has little effect on our own because we haven’t been paying attention to millions just like her. It’s the George Clooneys that really interest us. Good man that he is, he keeps telling us to focus on the need, not him.  But when a national network seeks to track him down in the wastelands of Darfur instead of telling the remarkable story of what was transpiring all around him, it is clear that our present humanity can only journey so far. We have miles to go yet before we sleep, and we have a world of hurt and suffering to consider as walk.

Fox In The Henhouse

My Huffington Post piece on Julian Fantino’s appointment as the new minister for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) created something of a stir, mostly for a couple of reasons.

Usually I don’t write such strongly worded blog posts as I did on this occasion. While I was an MP, I had the official role in the shadow cabinet of Critic for International Cooperation for the official opposition. That basically meant that I was to help oversee and respond to developments that resulted from the government’s actions on CIDA. It was an important file at the time because Canada was to host the G8 summit in Toronto and Muskoka and the Harper government wanted to make CIDA’s efforts regarding child and maternal health for women a key plank of its efforts.

I was obviously selected for that role because of my international experience. I underwent some criticism for placing the health of CIDA itself above the normal partisan practice of critics just lambasting the government for anything it did. However, CIDA and its personnel meant a lot to me and I knew the organization was going through a disillusioning time. I wrote a book on CIDA, its future, and its importance to Canada’s international influence that you can see here. So, when I read of Fantino’s selection as the Agency’s new minister, I understood well enough that the morale in the organization would sink to new levels. One person wrote me on Twitter yesterday, disappointed that I would judge Fantino’s performance before he even had started the job. But in Parliament people quickly establish track records, histories of performance good or bad. Fantino had been our police chief here in my home town of London years ago and then went on to become Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner – a time in which he clearly established himself as a hard-nosed leader. As soon as he entered Parliament following his by-election win a couple of years ago, he continued in the same pattern. This is his trademark and he occasionally boasts of it. There is no reason to assume he’ll be any different at CIDA. In fact, it’s that reputation that has caused numerous writers and journalists to question the Prime Minister’s motives for the appointment.

The second reason some of the blog readers grew upset was the title of the piece – Julian Fantino – An Ego Too Big For The Job. It was a valid criticism, with many feeling that such a tone didn’t really reflect my normal tone as a writer. I agreed, but reminded them that I don’t select the titles for my submissions. I immediately wrote the Huffington Post and expressed my concern, informing them that although I have appreciated the opportunity they afforded for me to write for them, I felt the tone of my pieces was just as vital to me as the content and that I wouldn’t continue unless we could work out some kind of arrangement.

I was impressed when they got back to me immediately, explaining their reasons for the title selection, but saying they understood and that they would change it upon my request. I send in a new title I thought more appropriate and a short while later it was changed. I want to thank the Huffington Post for showing that kind of flexibility.

Whoever oversees the leadership of CIDA has to have a deep understanding of the intricacies of foreign aid in some of the most troubling and destitute areas of the world. Over the last couple of decades, CIDA has had some good leaders and some inept ones, but never has it been led by someone with Fantino’s modus operandi. I spoke with some CIDA folks a couple of days ago who feel this might be the beginning of the end for the Agency. Regardless of whether that is true, Fantino’s appointment has nothing to do with experience and everything to do with politics, and to be so blatantly political over a file that is to see to the spirit and bodies of millions of destitute people around the world is only to damage our international reputation even further. It was a poor selection. For the moment at least, CIDA requires female leadership, preferably someone with international development experience. The Prime Minister instead opted for the Alpha male profile. It put the fox in the henhouse and perhaps the death knell in the Agency, whose personnel are some of the best in the world. CIDA required a champion not a chief and now must live with a selection bound to take it through more difficult days ahead.

Troubles Ahead For CIDA

The following is my Huffington Post piece for today on the appointment of a new minister for the Canadian International Development Agency. It’s the wrong choice at the precisely the wrong time and spell difficulties ahead for all the dedicated folks at CIDA.

Note: My apologies for the title on the Huffington Post piece. It was no my choice.

Official international development assistance for the world’s poorest countries has become a precarious business in recent years. If the first five years of the last decade were seen as a time of foreign aid and development renaissance – debt relief, Millennial Development Goals, movement towards more aid accountability – the last five years became the decline of most of these important activities. Then with the arrival of the world economic turndown, advanced governments began the inevitable process of concentrating on the home front at the expense of the world’s most vulnerable and all those promised commitments.

Yet within the international development arm of most of these governments were keen and dedicated professionals who understood the complexities of foreign aid and sustainable development. Certainly they had to learn to do more with less, but in most cases they remained committed to a better and more fair world in a time of deep dislocation. Such individuals hold certain qualities that best reflect the more humanitarian nature of each of their respective countries.

  • A natural compassion
  • A willingness to cooperate with others in the field
  • A deep understanding of the link between development and the environment
  • A refusal to adopt ideological and simplistic arguments or points of view
  • A growing comprehension of the primary importance of the role of women as the key change agents in their respect communities in the developing world.

There are many more, naturally, but these are key traits, building blocks upon which to create and support integrated programs.

Sadly, Canada has just sent a signal to the international aid community that decades of lessons learned now mean little in terms of government policy. The announcement this week that former police chief and Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Julian Fantino will assume ministerial responsibilities for the Canadian International Development Agency hasn’t so much sent a shiver through the entire CIDA network as a deep and abiding freeze.

Fantino earned his reputation as a hard-nose – a take-no-prisoners hardliner who frequently preferred the stick to the carrot. It would be like putting Donald Trump in charge of a micro-enterprise initiative among the poor of Haiti – the consequences will be devastating because the need to be in charge will surely eclipse the need to be smart.

For CIDA, the move will likely be the final straw for a group of dedicated professionals who hung in there with the organization because of their ultimate commitment to the world’s destitute – a number now growing exponentially each year. Say what you want about former CIDA minister Bev Oda, she made sincere attempts to connect with those she met on many of her on-site visits.

In so many ways this is the key failure regarding Stephen Harper’s appointment of Fantino. The Harper government made great fanfare of their commitment to the world’s poorest women and girls. Putting an aggressive former cop over that noble pursuit will now set Canada’s reputation as a compassionate nation back even further.

Difficult days lie ahead for CIDA. It is about to be hollowed out from the inside – not just by executive blindness, but by the loss of the very people who understand about development in the first place. They will now begin making their way to other organizations, realizing that you can’t oversee an accountable and compassionate government agency when a Prime Minister selects someone more interested in domestic partisanship than international cooperation.

CIDA had already opted to freeze its assistance rates for five years before making even more cutbacks. A Harper government that should be credited for raising assistance rates in its first few years, has now cut it all away – including the persevering commitment of CIDA staff. It’s hard to imagine a move that could have sent so many negative effects as Fantino’s appointment. It won’t be too much of a stretch to change the organization’s name to the Canadian International Detective Agency. Our official compassionate days are now clearly in our past.

The Long Road Home

Of all our numerous undertakings, our work in Sudan over the last 15 years has stretched us the most. Something about attempting to function in what was then Africa’s largest country and in the continent’s longest running civil war helps you mature pretty quickly.

When we first journeyed to the region in order to fight slavery we were totally in over our heads – and we knew it. Moreover, we had CBC television and the London Free Press along with us for the duration and feeling a sense of responsibility for their protection when you’re trying to learn the situation yourself was a sobering exercise.

And yet it was life-altering. We had walked into history and we sensed it every minute. It had taken a long time for the world to wake up to the reality that was slavery in Sudan, but once it was “out there” Canadians reacted with alacrity and a far-ranging sense of compassion. Canadians are born for this kind of thing – not just because of our own history as the destination point for the Underground Railroad, but because Canada could boast of a long history in Africa and wonderful heritage of siding with the oppressed over lengthy periods of time.

That first journey was indeed remarkable – as were the umpteen follow-up trips to the region. We were cooperating not just with the southern Sudanese, but with the UN and other countries who were attempting to acquire data and fact-based evidence that slavery was not only a reality, but was in actuality a tool of war. Thanks to the London Police Department, who supplied us with fingerprint training and the tools to go along with it, we were able to provide that evidence in a way that proved conclusive. Moreover, Macleans magazine came with us twice, as did the London Free Press.

These were remarkable days that not only saw us enmeshed in the deep pains of human mortality but also the danger to our own safety. Yet despite all the worry of family and fellow citizens, their backing of our efforts was vibrant and consistent. This is the kind of community we live in and we were but extensions of their compassion and commitment to human justice.

We were there for the end of the war, the deconstruction of slavery, and the eventual peace that was to see south Sudan become the newest nation in the world just last year. Along the way we were able to free over 10,000 slaves, none of which were recaptured. We made thousands of friends, endured many failures, and ultimately shared in the Sudanese success. And, yes, first one, then three children ended up coming to Canada to live with us once their mother was shot attempting to escape slavery with her children in tow.

So many people ask us about those early years and it just seemed that the time was right to chronicle our efforts during a difficult time. And so we agreed that I would write a book if Jane would do the illustrations. What you’ll see in the video below is the final product. The book is available at here, but you can also get a copy from Jane and me if you’re in the London area.

The events recounted in the book are those of two average Canadians caught in exceptional circumstances. More important, we were backed by a community and a media that wanted the story told. In that telling, the world grew aware of a massive atrocity and their response brought the worst part of slavery to an end.

The entire thing was a human drama from beginning to end – just as the book recounts. Yet when we go back to Sudan every January we see these former slaves, now attending school, operating a micro-enterprise, enjoying the grandchildren, and yet still suffering deprivation. A few yet wear Canadian pins in their ears and the Canada flag flies proudly over the schools that have been constructed by the good people of Canada. Our biggest development challenge now is raising funds to build a secondary school for Darfur refugees. To see more of what we’re doing, check out

The Long Road Home is a tale well worth the telling; perhaps you’ll find it worth reading. The cost of the book is next to nothing, but the blood lost in the telling and the many friends we lost along that journey make it priceless to us. This is just the kind of stuff Canada does, and a new nation has resulted that owes a tad of its new birth to the generosity of Canadians. We walked that path together and, indeed, it was a long road home.

A Growing Crisis

Sometime this week we will supposedly reach an unprecedented milestone. According to the United Nations, the world’s population is about to reach seven billion people. We’ll never know for certain because it’s hardly an exact science, but it’s been clear for the last few years that the seven billion mark was imminent. And because we’ve been inching toward it for some time, many will ignore its larger implications.

Since the beginning, approximately 100 billion people have lived and died on this planet. From that earliest moment until 1800 only one billion had accumulated. By 1920 the two billion mark had been reached. Things were changing fast. Scientific advances, better diet, and a lower rate of child mortality were having their effect. The UN reports that the human race reached three billion by 1959, four billion by 1974, five billion by 1987 and then quickly got to six billion in 1998. That means we have added another one billion in just a little over a decade. Our world is transforming.

How will we handle all this extra demand for resources? Three billion more people will be added by the end of this century, many of them in countries that face crushing poverty. That reality presents governments, NGOs and international organizations like the UN and the World Bank with a diabolical dilemma. In a time of diminishing returns, governments and funding institutions continue to cut back on their contributions to foreign aid and international development at the very time that a global crisis of poverty is staring us in the face. It is proving to be a direct challenge, not only to global prosperity, but to the survival of the human race.

As globalization and an overpowering capitalism continue to pursue profit over quality of life, the ability to address the growing population crisis continues to go unaddressed by the very forces that could bring about concrete solutions. Decades of research have revealed that the more prosperous a nation becomes, the lower the birthrate. The opposite also happens – more poverty, more children. By selecting zones of enterprise in which to seek their wealth, corporations are unknowingly creating a scenario where burgeoning poverty will cripple future growth. Governments are doing the same thing, as they continue to cut back in an era of deficits and financial crises.

On the positive side, more and more families in the developing world are using family planning methods which ultimately reduces the heavy climb of population growth in many countries. But such developments remain linked to growing family income and access to medical and educational services. As you’d expect, there is a severely limiting negative side. Almost one-half of the world lives on less than $2 a day. Food insecurity is now growing at an alarming pace, with almost one billion people suffering from such a challenge every day. Clearly, as long as poverty remains at such levels, or even grows, our ability to limit the explosion of population becomes more limited year by year.

Then there is the formidable environmental challenge, across a vast array of fronts, that confronts the globe at almost every turn. Presently, one billion people live without adequate or clean water. Most of the water is used for agriculture. Something similar is happening with grain crops, where only 46 per cent of grain crops go into human mouths – the rest goes to animals. As deserts grow at the same time as flooding continues to submerge even main city streets, the declining ability of the planet to absorb the pollution created by human activity is becoming more pronounced. At a time when humans need to live more sustainably, the huge increase in population sizes is curtailing our ability to react.

The United Nations Population Division expects 8 billion people by 2025, 9 billion by 2043, and, finally, 10 billion by 2083. India will have more people than China sometime around 2020.

And what to do about sub-Saharan Africa? Covering 20% of the world’s land surface, by 2040 it is expected to have more people than India, a great many of the Africans living in abject poverty. The world community is quickly becoming aware of the heavy challenge this will provide to all of us. Why then are we cutting back on international development? Why the reticence to assist the 48 sub-Saharan nations to expand their educational, health, productivity and economic potential to stave of the crisis? Countries like Canada have either frozen or reduced their development dollars in an effort to cut deficits, but this is merely a short-sighted response. Unless a more robust global effort is amassed to the assist the sub-Saharan region, our own fragile economic recovery and hoped-for future prosperity will eventually be swallowed up by that one global force we refused to competently address – abject poverty.

There is enough food to feed this planet and there can be a necessary amount of water for all should we start living more responsibly. But by cutting aid and development we have failed to marshal the world’s political, environmental, humanitarian and economic forces in a manner that can responsibly guarantee necessary results. By ignoring Africa we are denying ourselves a more prosperous future. The two are linked and the growing crisis requires visionary and intelligent leadership rather than the mind-numbing self-preservation ideologies running through the western world at present.

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