Hoping for a ‘neighbour-to-neighbour’ international development policy for Canada

Today I have been reflecting on the power of hope, of kindness, and of community in the world.  I believe it is something that Canadians bring to the world, and that it is something we are quietly proud of.

Yesterday in Canada, we saw the power of that vision and those words. I hope we will see this vision reflected in our foreign policy and our international development activities – not just because we believe in it, but because it also makes sense in development terms.

I have been immensely privileged to have worked as a Canadian in parts of the world that have seen conflict and division and fear – places where governments or those in power have adopted these as governing strategies. And in every one of those places, I have seen local people who have acted on a belief in hope, community and kindness, and thus are creating change from the local level upwards.

We don’t often hear about their activities, precisely because they are so locally driven. But they offer hope for new approaches to international development for Canada if we adopt a neighbuor to neighbour philosophy in our foreign aid and development strategies.

And I hope that the new Canadian government will draw on the vast experience of the many, many Canadians who have lived and worked in other countries, bringing both hope and practical experience as they accompany people on their new paths.

I am thinking of friends in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who saw hope and not despair when people were driven out of Bunia by inter-tribal conflict. They saw that when so many people from different communities and tribes were together in one place, there was a chance to build something different – to create peaceful collaboration together.

This built on one man’s hope that the relationships between tribes in his region could be different. He spent months and years, travelling from community to community, using his own money, to talk to community leaders – to share his vision of hope. And the organization that grew out of his work has built a collaborative, flat structure that uses respected elders in the community – even if they don’t hold a political or elected office – to solve community problems in a peaceful way.

A similar strategy in South Africa – based on the community capacity to use its own expertise and knowledge, its own wise people – brought both peace and development to a township that after apartheid, had no policing. The community created a system where those who agreed to follow a particular code would offer themselves to residents as problem solvers  and as that model gained traction, generated information that allowed the community to address bigger issues than disagreements between neighbours.

In Sudan’s South Kordofan, one very wise man decided himself to begin building peace among his family, friends and neighbours. It was time-consuming, patient work, drawing on his contacts and the trust he had built as an agricultural development worker. That work created a community where people were no longer afraid to plant crops, and as a consequence, the price of two staple foods – sorghum and millet – dropped dramatically, making it easier for families to feed themselves. When I spoke with him, he was hoping that someone would provide some funding to support the development of a community market, which would bring people from other areas to trade and to purchase food – restoring the community’s economic life.

In Sri Lanka, I saw a couple who recognized the importance of working with Buddhist priests, to help them become aware of the importance of working with all communities to create peaceful communities. And that work in turn led to many communities where reconciliation between groups began to happen – most especially where there had been a natural disaster that made it easier for people to reach out to each other to help rebuild.

In Serbia, friends who work as facilitators have been sharing the strategies of collaboration, or shared planning, of shared story-telling, within communities for more than a decade. Now Serbian facilitators are mentoring each other, as well as facilitators in neighbouring Bosnia, and working together with facilitators in Croatia and Slovenia. And the change they are creating is immensely exciting, and hopeful.

These people and groups offer opportunities for us as a country to pursue a neighbour-to-neighbour approach in our international development work. Of course they could use money to support their work – as all of us can – but that money does not necessarily have to come from government.

I would love to see an international development policy that identified these many points of light in the world, that shared these stories with Canadians, and that offered a way for Canadians to help them. I would love to see an international development policy that focused on sharing – skills, knowledge, stories and money – and that emphasized mentoring over top down expertise.

I have met so many Canadians, during election observation and other international work, who have spent a lot of time in conflicted parts of the world, who have brought that spirit of hope and community to those places, and who have much to share. While our government has experienced a generational change that I think is great, I would love to see our international development approaches reach out to older Canadians to serve as mentors, advisors, elders.

We know, from First Nations communities in Canada, of the powerful role elders can play – as advisors who share knowledge through stories, who have time to listen, who serve as a bank or reservoir of community knowledge.

Last night I was remembering Jack Layton’s final words, and I think they form a great basis for a new Canadian approach to ‘neighbour-to-neighbour’ international development:

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”