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What Parliamentarians should know about Canada’s contribution

By Asia Clarke      

It is an election year, right? We should at least be talking about these issues. With International Development Week over, let’s keep the conversation going.

International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, pictured in this file photograph at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa. Asia Clarke says one of the best-kept secrets of Canada’s development strategy is the role of ordinary Canadians. In many developing countries around the world, volunteers are the face of Canada, from young black women artists and entrepreneurs like me, to professionals, retirees, and people from every background and corner of this country. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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It was International Development Week earlier this month, and one likely heard good news about Canada’s role in the world in Parliament, from podiums and in pages such as these. It is something we should be talking about year-round. As a two-time international volunteer, I know first-hand where, how, and why Canadians make a difference. I also know that we—including our government—can do more.

One of the best-kept secrets of Canada’s development strategy is the role of ordinary Canadians. In many developing countries around the world, volunteers are the face of Canada, from young black women artists and entrepreneurs like me, to professionals, retirees, and people from every background and corner of this country.

In 2018, Crossroads offered me the opportunity to support women’s entrepreneurship in Africa. I served two volunteer mandates, in Ghana, and eSwatini (Swaziland), respectively, working with local organizations supporting women escaping sex work and abuse or as the head of families seeking to emerge from poverty. I shared my experience and ideas as a product designer.

Women’s economic empowerment is a key strategy in efforts to lift communities out of poverty, protect women from violence, and strengthen their rights. Consider, in eSwatini, 63 per cent of the population live below the country’s poverty line; 31 per cent of women are living with HIV. In Ghana, a country that has legal protections for women, one-third of women experience physical violence. The child marriage rate is 29 per cent.

Thanks to my volunteer experience, I am now studying the sustainability of women’s economic empowerment programs as part of international aid policy. In fact, I will be returning to Ghana this summer on another volunteer assignment while supporting my thesis research.

My experiences have taught me some universal truths—women seek dignity, they demand equality, and they strive for a better life for their children.

These same experiences have also taught me some inconvenient truths, namely the complexity of challenges faced by women in the Global South, and that when change does happen, it must be sustainable.

In 2017, Canada boldly placed women’s equality at the centre of its international aid policy. The decision received near universal praise. Less praiseworthy is the country’s record on Overseas Development Assistance. We currently contribute 0.26 per cent of our Gross National Income to international aid, far short of our (and the UN’s) goal of 0.7 per cent. We are global citizens who give 26 cents out of every $100 to our neighbours.

In a rising international tide of nationalism and populism, “foreign aid” has become more controversial. Yet Canada musts demonstrate the foresight and moral strength to invest in development projects to help the most vulnerable people of the world, because their challenges and prosperity are inextricably linked to ours. For example, key recommendations for combatting climate change from organizations such as United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and Project Drawdown include education of women and girls and family planning in developing countries. Canada’s Feminist International Aid policy is well poised to address this because it codifies an understanding that our collective future global political, environmental, social and economic stability relies on a more equal and just world for all.

It is not just about money, however. It is about cooperation with local partners on the ground who know their communities and the contexts—legal, economic, cultural, political—in which they live. We must be responsive, flexible, attentive, and innovative in listening to these voices if we are going to truly help. A one size fits all solution is not appropriate.

Finally, Canada has to lead by example in how we present to the world on the issues we advocate for: gender equality, poverty alleviation, violence prevention, action on climate change.

Politicians of all stripes like to speak about Canada’s role in the world, about global citizenship, but we need to dig deeper to better understand and respond to the issues that challenge all people of this earth, some of us more acutely than others.

We need to back up our vision of ourselves as global citizens and international leaders with increased funding, coordinated implementation, and demonstrative leadership.

It is an election year, right? We should at least be talking about these issues. With International Development Week over, let’s keep the conversation going.

Asia Clarke is an artist and entrepreneur from Scarborough, Ont., working to support women’s economic empowerment projects in Africa. She is also a graduate student at OCAD University’s Strategic Foresight and Innovation program.

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