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.

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.

Fighting for environmental health in Durban

Desmond D'Sa, coordinator for the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance
Desmond D'Sa, coordinator for the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (Photo credit: idex.org)

It’s hard to miss the major UN climate conference going on in Durban, South Africa right now (this one’s better known as COP 17), if only for the almost-daily embarrassments from Canada’s Environment Minister Peter Kent. He’s really good at sticking to his talking points about wanting major emitters like China and India included in any binding global agreement to lower carbon emissions. He seems unwilling to admit the uncomfortable fact that in a cumulative sense Canada is also a major emitter, because we’ve run an industrialized economy on fossil fuels for well over a century.

We were throwing ideas around at Terra Informa on how to cover what’s been happening in Durban, and decided an interesting approach might be to see what kind of work environmental organizations in the city have been up to. As it turns out, this is a big story. Fellow Terra Informer Kathryn Lennon and I tracked down a man named Desmond D’Sa who’s been working for over 15 years in South Durban to protect the health of locals from pollution in the area.

Des helped start an organization called the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance when he was part of a household survey that noticed diseases like asthma and cancers were much more common in their part of the city than elsewhere. Through research and environmental monitoring, they’ve been able to connect that to the industrial sites like oil refineries and paper mills that are concentrated in the poorer neighbourhoods in the south of the city. And as you can imagine, he had a lot to say about fossil fuel industries and the UN talks.

Listen to the interview online here.

Hope and groundwork

Man weaving kente in Eastern Region, Ghana

Hi there.

You might know me personally, or have encountered some of my other writing drifting around the world, or maybe you don’t know who I am at all. I’m someone with a lot of curiosity and a lot of passion for contributing positively to my communities in the ways I can. I’m embarking on a path into journalism as one way to do that. And I’ve decided to make this blog to get across ideas that don’t really fit anywhere else, and collect some of the things I’ve worked on.

I’ve been in the social justice and journalism worlds for a little while now, and I think work in both can do a lot to rattle us loose from feeling complacent about this world. One thing that really irks me about both too, though, is that we can very easily get sucked into the undertow of waves of sarcasm, skepticism, and cynicism. It’s so easy for us to fall into that trap of always criticizing action, and never proposing a new vision. Criticism and protest can become a refuge for us when we’re eaten up by intellectual cowardice.

Often when I write, I have Ishmael author Daniel Quinn murmuring in the back of my head. In one of his books, he says that vision is like the flowing river — meaning, to me, that criticism and opposition to a mainstream vision are like putting sticks in the middle of a river to stop its flow. You might, it’s true, eventually dam up the river. A much easier way to change minds though, he says, is to offer a new path, a new channel for ideas to flow through. Once a trickle starts, more will follow, until you have a flood.

I can see many people I admire groping towards these new visions. I am humbled by the courage of the people this year who’ve been beaten back in Tahrir Square, used tent cities to challenge economic orthodoxy, and tried to make us see our place among viruses and tectonic plates. I want to make sure to tell those hopeful stories, to lay the groundwork for what comes next.

I believe we need to build a world where we see ourselves as citizens of our human and ecological communities, with the right to live on this earth and the responsibility to make them more robust, more resilient. That means not just halting the species crash, but reversing it: contributing to spaces that nurture new life, expanding them. Not just giving aid to people in poverty, but reshaping our society so all of us have the power to reach our potential. It means making our “waste” streams a useful, healthy part of our ecosystems’ survival. And building a place for ourselves again amidst long-lasting, diverse communities of organisms with room to grow.

I won’t pretend I’ve got all this figured out. My aim, though, is to use this space as much to tell those stories as to ramble on about what I think you might find important to know. Criticism is important. It exposes hypocrisy, abuses, and inaction. But I think we can do better than just that.