What trade can’t do

As this woman experienced at a rights-based development workshop in Tema, Ghana, development work can be tiring and frustrating. But that's not the whole picture.
As this woman experienced at a rights-based development workshop in Tema, Ghana, development work can be tiring and frustrating. But that’s not the whole picture.

Since it’s my job these days to defend the interests of organizations that do development work, I’ve tended to silo off that part of my brain from the part of me that gets irate at home and writes about things. But this Globe and Mail editorial is so brashly ignorant that it demands a reply. It attempts to defend the merger of CIDA and Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade by arguing that development projects have never done anything that trade couldn’t do:

Impressive strides in poverty reduction have been made in the past 15 years in countries such as Brazil, South Africa, China, Mexico, Nigeria and others in the developing world. There are 800 million fewer people living in poverty today than there were in 1990. Some of the emerging economies are growing at a faster rate than Canada’s. The proportion of people who lack dependable access to good sources of drinking water has been halved – two years ahead of the time frame set out in the Millennium Development Goals.

There is no evidence, however, that this dramatic improvement in living standards is the result of international development assistance. Instead, these changes can be attributed mainly to trade liberalization, gains in productivity, technology and national income redistribution programs – and even to remittances from immigrants in the developed economies.

Now, it’s true that civil society organizations that wade into development work often focus on small projects and shy away from entering political debates, where uncomfortable conversations about immigration, labour laws, and land redistribution would have bigger impacts on people’s lives. CIDA has certainly been guilty of putting on these blinders. But it’s simply ignorant to argue that everything development work does could be done better by cracking countries open to global markets.

Trade liberalization doesn’t organize people to claim and manage their constitutional rights to water, land, clean air, or a place to live. Mining conglomerates, as a rule, don’t push for (and try to improve) school feeding programs that purchase food locally to support the small-scale farmers sending their kids to those schools instead of industrial corn growers in Iowa. Hedge funds buying up land to make a quick buck don’t stick around in a community after the water has gone and the work has dried up to see that climate change is destroying a community’s livelihood, then get out on the streets demanding climate justice.

NGOs, church groups, advocacy groups, and even the terribly frightening academics who study development occupy a niche that Barrick Gold, Ministers of International Trade, and venture capitalists wouldn’t want to enter even if they had the credibility to do so.

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To the end, my dear

Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee stands in front of a white board with her hands raised like she's trying to push the crowd into action.
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee confided that Archbishop Desmond Tutu warned her to watch her words carefully after winning, since they’d instantly be published on the internet (Photo by Alissa Everett)

Last night, my friend Evan and I had the pleasure of seeing Nobel Peace Prize winners Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman speak at the University of Alberta’s Festival of Ideas. Gbowee is famous for her work leading a women’s movement that helped end the civil war in Liberia, but she’s based in Ghana these days. The first thing she said on stage was that she was thankful to the organizers for coordinating a trip that was as long and complicated “as going to space.”

Karman is renowned now for her work rallying Yemenis out on the streets to fight for their right to free expression, free speech, and to eventually to end the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. As a journalist, activist, and mother of three she’s taken extraordinary risks to fight for civil rights in Yemen. She said even after the lives of her children were threatened, she took courage knowing that millions more youths would take to the streets if they were harmed. Incredible change is possible, she said, if you are willing to take on a cause and pursue it to the very end. Have a goal in mind, and make a path towards it.

Moreover, she said women need to take on the responsibility for finding a just place for themselves in Yemeni society.

“Women must be the leaders, not ask for leadership from anyone,” she said. “We don’t want gifts from anyone. We want what we deserve.”

Similarly, Gbowee’s life seems to be a story of recognizing a responsibility to step up to the plate when no one else can. After 2000, ten years after the Liberian civil war began, a movement of Christian and Muslim women was building around the country to call for peace. She had convinced many of them that this was their fight, and they wanted her to lead them. Gbowee said she must have quit fifty times, and each time she’d find 200 hundred women waiting outside her house, telling her it was time to go back to work.

It makes me wonder — how seriously do most of us take the idea that we’re the ones who need to step up to the plate to solve our big crises, and we must follow our work to the very end? That, as the Hopi poem (or maybe prophecy) goes, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for”?

I have an uncomfortable sense that many of us engaged in environmental and social justice work find our milestones more in our efforts than our accomplishments.

An active emotion

Tariq Ali speaks at International Week
Tariq Ali gave the I-Week keynote address on Jan 30.

Sometimes I get so wrapped up in the incredible stuff I’m part of that I don’t even have time to talk about it. This week is the culmination of many months’ work preparing for International Week at the U of A. After all the late nights, tears, and days spent making so many phone calls my phone died mid-afternoon, it’s actually all coming together swimmingly.

It’s funny being inside an event like this. It’s so big, with dozens of workshops sprawled across the week, that it’s impossible to take it all in. So I just get to catch little glimpses of sessions every day, and then see glimmers of the conversations that start churning afterwards. It’s gratifying to see people leaning against a wall debating what good governance really means in sub-Saharan Africa.

Tariq Ali’s keynote lecture on Monday wasn’t what I expected it to be. He’s a British-Pakistani journalist, historian, and filmmaker (and novelist, interestingly). He’s pretty well-known for his sharp writing in places like the Guardian, cutting Western governments to pieces for launching imperialist adventures. But his talk was less anchored to any specific political moments than I thought it would be.

Essentially, he laid out a map of the economic, ecological and political crises we’re all fairly familiar with. An economy divorced from any sensible idea of how to use it to make ecosystems healthier, chugging away on speculation upon speculation on the “fictitious commodity” of money (a term borrowed from our social theory friend Karl Polanyi). And of course a world run not by citizens, but by corporations and governments that pay lip service to our wishes through semi-regular rituals like elections.

“Hope is a very active emotion,” he said, though. “If you hope for something, it makes you active. In the struggle between despair and hope, I have all my life been on the side of hope. And I still am.”

Ali left with some observations about the frustration that leaves our generation with, feeling like we have no real choices except to vascillate occasionally between political masters who basically agree on the fundamentals of how markets and states should work. We are desperate for someone to answer our pleas when we take to the streets, he says, but there is no one out there to save us. It’s just us.

Sankofa by ~Drawn2theMoon
Sankofa (by ~Drawn2theMoon)

It seems like a bit of a nihilistic idea, but I think it’s also an empowering one. Anishinaabe activist and author Winona LaDuke brought up some similar ideas in her talk Monday night. She talked a lot about people on her reserve combatting the big energy issues by looking small, and trying to become more self-sufficient energy-wise through building small wind and solar projects on their land. Working with what they have. She also told stories about people working to heal their histories by going back and planting the seeds their ancestors did, and reclaiming the relationships they used to have taking care of the fish in their rivers. The stories said to me, whatever you lost, go back and get it.

There’s a Ghanaian proverb/symbol that says a similar thing: sankofa. It’s an Akan symbol that means — sort of — go back and get it. Reclaim what you lost.

There’s no one who can do that except us. If you can come to the rest of I-Week, running til February 3rd, I think you might pick up some great ideas on how to start.