The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: international development

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.

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.

Now We Know Kony – Or Do We?

Here’s a link to my feature article on Kony2012 – http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/glen-pearson/kony-2012_b_1337839.html – and the video phenomenon that has swept the world, only to bring on more scrutiny. International development is more essential today than ever, but will only prove successful if we enlighten as opposed to sensationalizing.

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