The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: international development

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

Kathleen Wynne’s Victory – Look Deeper

Two faces of womanOntario has a new premier and her ascension is nothing if not groundbreaking – the first female and openly gay premier-designate. She ran a disciplined and largely respectful campaign and that last characteristic might have been a key reason for her ultimate victory. Repeatedly through the contest she said things like, “The rancour and the viciousness of the legislature can’t continue.” Many seasoned observers have noted that Queen’s Park has increasingly taken on the hyper-partisan characteristics of the House of Commons in Ottawa. So her emphasis on decorum and respect is a welcome signal.

It was also Tweeted consistently that over 90% of Canadians are led by female provincial leaders – another positive signal. But will it last? And more importantly, can the effects of a better gender balance in our parliaments lead us to a more productive future of cooperation and compromise so seemingly out of reach in the formerly male-dominated world of politics as a blood sport? Women political leaders will hardly prove successful in such an undertaking if we as citizens don’t support such efforts.

But before we get too carried away with this transformation that has been years in the making, two sober realities remain that must be understood and counteracted.

The first is the troubling tendency for women to refuse voting for other female aspirants to leadership. According to Peggy Drexler, research psychologist and gender scholar, too many studies reveal this tendency to make it a mere anomaly. Although women are more likely than men to focus in on gender issues, they still remain hesitant to transform that interest into voting for other women. Ironically, while women are more likely to vote for someone because she is female, they are just as likely to dismiss her for the same reason. In noting that women tend to be harder on female candidates, Drexler concludes:

Women still judge other women – simply put, they continue to be judged against the standards initiated and maintained by men.  And because many women therefore know quite well what it’s like to feel judged, they then turn that judgement back on one another.

This is disturbing, but my own experience in politics has taught me that it is indeed a reality. So, in order to matter, to count, to lead, SOME women become more harsh, more partisan, more mean-spirited than their male counterparts simply because they feel they have to be to get noticed or to move ahead, and are often coached by their male advisors to adopt such a posture.  Kathleen Wynne explicitly demonstrated that you can win and lead by being inclusive. Powerful women leaders like Deb Matthews recognized that and gave her their support.

Now for a second sobering reality. The international development community learned years ago that for true development to be effective, the role of women must be enhanced worldwide, not merely in the West. How’s that going so far? Consider this from Amnesty International:

  • Women perform 66% of the world’s work, receive only 11% of the world’s income, and own only 1% of the land.
  • Women make up 66% of the world’s illiterate adults.
  • Women head 83% of single-parent families. The number of families nurtured by women alone doubled from 1970 to 1995.
  • Despite women totalling 55% of all college students, it does not translate into economic opportunities or political power nearly to the same degree as men.
  • Two-thirds of the world’s children who receive less than four years of education are girls, and girls represent 60% of the children not in school.
  • Three out of every four fatalities of various wars are women and children.
  • About 75% of the refugees and internally displaced in the world are women who have lost their families and their homes.

There remains the tragic disconnect in Canada between the fate of women domestically and internationally. To promote the rights and potential of women effectively means to defend it everywhere, not merely where it is close to us. Nevertheless, support for Western governments that cut back international aid continues to curtail the opportunities for women worldwide and yet we permit such a decline to prevail.

One week ago my wife and I returned from south Sudan after leading a large team to assist with development projects we have run there for years. With their own eyes these Canadians saw how for the lack of $300 per annum a girl can’t get a high school education. They learned that for want of $120 a mother can’t provide sustainable food for her family.  They were saddened to discover that women who fled slavery in order to give their children a chance for health and education are considering returning to captivity since precious few resources exist for them in the south.  Ms. Wynne’s victory is important, but compared to such realities it surely must lose some of its lustre. Victory for women in Canada should mean the same for women worldwide; we’re not there yet – not even close. Or as Benjamin Franklin put it: “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”

I am tired of a kind of politics that doesn’t have enough female representation, but I am equally saddened to live in a Western world that places such emphasis on women’s representation at the same time as it ignores it worldwide. All too many struggle to see women finally have power equal to their male counterparts, but the power they reach for and deserve must be mirrored by their thoughts and actions for their sisters  in the rest of the world. Reach for that and we will truly have reform.

And Now For Some Good News

Everything seems to be about domestic issues at present, and it’s clear that there are plenty of them to occupy our attention. But things are happening elsewhere, and many of them are positive and uplifting.

Most of you likely know that my wife Jane and I run a non-governmental organization that takes on relief and development projects in the Republic of South Sudan. Each year we travel to a region there that is situated near the border between north and south Sudan, as well as being located at the border with Darfur. It’s not easy work. Building schools, assisting a medical clinic, running music and art camps, funding women’s programs, providing goats to returning families, and working on a project that provides clean water takes a lot of effort and organization.

We’ve now been at it for a lot of years but the progress made in that time continues to inspire us. Each January we takes teams of average Canadians, who help us oversee the projects. Some of them come back year after year and take on the leadership of some of these efforts. It’s remarkable to watch Canadians make such a concrete difference in one of the world’s most troubled regions and also to witness how the southern Sudanese respond to these efforts. This year we’ll be taking a team of 20 with us in January.

Each year, on the first Sunday in November, we host a music concert that is energized by a number of school choirs and music groups that infuse energy whenever they perform. We have had the likes of Ken Dryden, Romeo Dallaire, and Justin Trudeau speak at the event for us.

This year’s concert is this coming Sunday night. Denise Pelley, a remarkable singer and performer, will be the chief music act once again. I’ll be privileged enough to sing a duet with her, accompanied by the youth choirs. There is no cost for the concert, although an offering is taken part way through, with 100% of the funds going directly to programs in south Sudan. If any of you are in the area, please come out and support these initiatives that for 15 years have been helping the people of the south reconstruct their lives and their villages. We all need a bit of good news and the remarkable journey of Canadians working with the southern Sudanese gives people hope for the future. You can learn more at www.casscanada.net

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.

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