What happens when you piss in the pool….

Of course, you know – it spreads around. It is why there is chlorine in pools. Because they are shared spaces, in which we all swim. That is why there are toilets in swimming pool areas, and why parents make sure their children go to the toilet before they enter the pool.
In a lot of ways, our political system is much like the pool. It’s a shared space, shared by all of us – not just by the people we elect to govern us.
I have been reflecting on this, during the election campaign and more recently, as I have been collecting stories about how we are welcoming Syrian refugees. I found lots of wonderful stories of welcome, as Canadians engage enthusiastically in what has been termed a great Canadian project.

But I also found something that disturbed me. I found that a number of Members of Parliament had written letters to the Prime Minister, saying that many of their constituents had been contacting them to express concerns about safety issues related to the arrival of 25,000 refugees.
Some of the MPs posted the letter online or on their website; others posted messages on their Facebook page. Most of them seemed to have gotten a fair amount of local coverage for their messages.
The first one I found, I thought – well, yes, that is the role of the Opposition – to ask questions and raise concerns.
But as I found more, I began to wonder about what seemed to be a similarity in tone and message. I found only one that seemed different, reflecting what seemed to be the strongly held views of that particular MP.

Then I visited the Conservative Party website, and discovered that it had a message with the headline “Tell Justin Trudeau – put safety first”.
The message under the headline read:
“Safety First
Canada has a proud history as an inclusive country. Canada’s Conservative (sic) strengthened that reputation, welcoming record numbers of immigrants over our nine years in government.
The safety of Canadians must be the top priority of any government when dealing with immigration.
But Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have admitted they have no process for a security review of the 25,000 refugees they are bringing to Canada. They’re more focused on meeting arbitrary deadlines than on ensuring the safety of Canadians.
When it comes to our national security, tell Justin Trudeau to put safety first.”
People were then invited to add their name and email address and postal code, and click.
Many of the MPs letters that I saw contained a similar message. For example: “Many constituents are contacting me to insist that Canada ensure thorough vetting of potential Syrian refugees to Canada. We want Canadians to be confident that each and every one of them is identified and pose neither a security nor health risk. ”
The words on the Conservative Party website, about security screening, didn’t seem to reflect what I was seeing in the media. They didn’t seem accurate. And I reflected on Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s comment that of every 10 citizens he spoke with, eight were completely supportive, two had concerns about security, and about .02% were choosing to be uncivil or abusive (often anonymously). So if that was an accurate reflection of the rest of the country, it seemed comparatively few of us were worried about security.

I also noted the use of terminology on the Conservative Party website, and I didn’t like it. Even when I did not agree with Stephen Harper, I did call him Prime Minister Harper. I don’t like the way the media and the Conservatives talk about the “Trudeau” government or the “Liberal” government. Our government is the Canadian government (Mr. Harper’s attempts to have government departments refer to the “Harper government” notwithstanding). It is not the preserve of any one political party. Our Prime Minister is the Prime Minister of Canada. We need to take care with our language and our terminology – and you need look no further south than the US to understand why this matters.

And so that is why I started this post with that question about peeing in the swimming pool.

Our governance “pool” is a shared space. We all need to take care in how we swim in it. And one thing I have come to realize is that, if someone is pissing in the pool, we need to call them on it. The horrific results of what happens when people are allowed to spew hatred and thus give others permission to do so, which we see in the US, embolden me to speak out for civility and honesty in political discourse in Canada.

I listened to the Opposition critic on immigration on CBC tonight. My impression was that she was not so comfortable in talking about her party’s approach on this issue, and it seemed that there was more keenness to find fault than to offer the constructive and collaborative approach that her interim leader talked of shortly after she was chosen to fill that position.
I have found the collaborative working style modelled by our Prime Minister to be a refreshing breath of fresh air, and an example for the rest of the world. It is a respectful way to approach our shared political space, in my view. The language and strategies that he and his Cabinet are using echo much of what I consider to be good facilitative practice. And my sense is that most Canadians are delighted to have the opportunity to engage in a grand way in doing our small part to address the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

And, while I apologize for using a term that may be offensive to some, I wanted to offer one more piece of advice to the Opposition on this theme.
The late US President Lyndon Johnson, who could be rather earthy in his language, offered this advice about dealing with opponents. It is better, he said, to have them inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.

Something else we could try….

Facilitators have a saying  that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And so you hammer the nail. In so many ways, that sums up the military response to the ‘war on terror’ that followed 9/11. Bombs, drones, ‘boots on the ground’.
I read a moving post on Facebook the other day, in response to the attacks in Paris. In essence, the post said that we must stop what we are doing because it hasn’t worked. The author didn’t know what we should do – just that doing what we were doing was not working.
And I just read an Al Jazeera story that quoted a blogger in Syria as saying that bombs were falling on abandoned buildings, not armed combatants, and a report from Physicians for Social Responsibility that tries to tally up the numbers of civilians – ordinary people, trying to live their lives, work their land, raise their kids, share with their friends – killed in the ‘war on terror’.

It has brought back for me memories of Bosnia, Serbia, Libya, Sudan, Congo – especially of Bosnia in 1996. For me, that was the first time I had ever seen face-to-face what war does to a society, to communities, to people, to the land. It haunted me then, and it haunts me now – as I think it does so many other outsiders who were in Bosnia after the terrible war of the early 1990s.
I saw land burned black by retreating forces…roads, bridges, land mined, often by the kind of mines that jump up and hit a person in the stomach….abandoned houses and villages….cemeteries full of new graves…houses with black splotches above the window, caused by the explosion when an ordinary household gas cylinder is left open with a burning candle nearby….refugees who could not go home….destroyed bridges, forcing new roads to be cut into the hillside.
I remember talking to a young Serb woman in Foca, whose family had left Srebrenica, helped by Bosniak neighbours. She knew that it would be decades – if ever – before her family could return home. Even though there wasn’t a wall between the two entities that made up post-war Bosnia, there might as well have been.
People in Northern Ireland know about those kind of walls, and how hard it is to bridge the differences they reinforce. They create safety, indeed, but they also reinforce difference and separation. The work to remove those walls is long, hard, difficult – it is a one-by-one, community-by-community effort that can only begin after the formal end of active conflict. It is often one step forward, two steps backward, because – when people have experienced conflict – personal safety is a paramount concern.

One of the effects of conflict is to separate neighbours and communities, destroying the kind of inter-village connection and commerce that once existed. When people are afraid, they no longer cultivate their land, they no longer forage for food in nature, they no longer have anything to trade at local markets – and food insecurity is a result. The social rituals that once linked communities disappear; neighbour-to-neighbour support disintegrates and disappears. We become afraid of one another, ready to strike first before the other can strike us.
When outside forces bomb countries in conflict, they devastate the local infrastructure. In fact, it is a military strategy – to effectively destroy the ‘nerves’, the ‘neural network’ of a society – its physical infrastructure, its communications, its factories, its roads and bridges. Terror is only a side-effect. ‘Collateral damage’ – that terrible phrase that denotes civilian casualties – is a side-effect – unless you are underneath those bombs.

Increasingly, we are recognizing that ‘collateral damage’ is not just about the ‘other’ – the person and people we never see, except possibly on television news reports. We know that many of the young men we send to fight come back damaged in soul and spirit, even if not always in body.  We expect them to carry the emotional burden of the results of what we have asked them to do for us, of being an armed stranger in a land that is not theirs, of trying to carry out by war what many of them know would best be done by peace.
And we also know that ‘us’ – the people who live in our societies in North America, the UK, and Europe – are increasingly experiencing what it feels like to be ‘collateral damage’ in someone else’s conflict, someone else’s war.

Truly, it is time we tried something different – something more akin to the strategy that the ‘military-industrial complex’ has used to entrench itself deep into US society, by splitting up contracts for defence procurement into such tiny pieces that every congressional district has a stake.
BRAC, the world’s largest NGO, chose a different way to proceed after civil conflict in Bangladesh, by rebuilding in a people-centred, community-centred way. It has worked, it has created work for many people, it has built peace where there was conflict, and it has happened in a way that builds community cohesion – and necessary services and infrastructure – from the ground up. It is participatory, people-centred, and self-financed. It works.
This kind of practical participatory approach also has worked on both the large scale, and the small, in other parts of the world. Hundreds of people, in small villages, have created peace with their neighbours. What they needed next was a small amount of support to begin recreating the social and economic infrastructure that had once existed – and from that, they could begin building participatory and responsible governance (as people have done in Somaliland). But rarely, if ever, did they get that support.

If instead of putting so much money into financing war, we had put that money into the peaceful reconstruction of communities, led by local people themselves, we would likely now be talking about how we could invest that ‘post-Cold War peace dividend’ into our own neighbour-to-neighbour, locally led development, at home.
I do not believe we will defeat evil like suicide bombings, murders, ‘terror’ attacks, and genocide, by replicating those same tactics. I do not believe we do it by repelling those people who are willing to risk their lives to escape the kind of conflict that is caused by those tactics. I do not believe we do it by demonizing the ‘other’. I do not believe we can achieve peace by bombing, no matter how surgical or clinical bombing might be.
We do it by neighbour-to-neighbour development, sharing our problems and our solutions together. We do it by reaching out hands, not dropping bombs. We do it by taking care of each other. We do it by helping people re-establish law and order in its truest sense (as the Australians did in Baidoa in the early 1990s), bringing criminals to justice, and only then starting on reconciliation.  We do it by helping them learn and then use the tools that they can use to make governance participatory, not autocratic. 
It is indeed a big task. But I believe it offers us a different future than the one we are heading to if we continue on the track we are on.

Why Canadians matter to the world

As I have watched the new Canadian Cabinet, and Prime Minister, being sworn in and gotten to know more about them, I have felt immense pride in these appointments – and what they say to the world about Canada. Today, I wanted to explain why that is.

Over the past two decades, I have been honoured to serve as an international election observer for Canada in elections held in many post-conflict countries – Bosnia, South Africa, Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia, Sudan, and Libya. I was one of two Canadians who took part in the 1996 international observation of the first post-war Bosnian election; one of three Canadians who took part in the Carter Center’s observation of the first post-Gaddafi Libyan elections; one of a few Canadians who observed voter registration for the referendum on whether South Sudan would become a separate country; a member of Canada’s large delegation to observe the first multi-racial South African election; and one of many Canadians who have participated in OSCE observation of elections in Georgia, Serbia, and Ukraine.

Two particular stories sprang to mind as I was thinking about writing this post, and I wanted to share them, because to me they represent clearly why Canada matters to the world.

The first story is from my time in Bosnia in 1996. I spent two months, alone in the field (now observers have partners, but we didn’t then). I was posted in Trebinje, in southern Bosnia. For two months, I wore a money belt around my waist; it contained the equivalent of $10,000 Canadian in Deutschemarks, which I used to pay for all of my expenses – accommodation, food, and staff. My task was to observe the election preparation process, and the election itself, and to do that, I travelled around the region with my interpreter and driver, watching rallies, talking to parties and communities and the local people who were running the elections. As it got closer to election day, I was responsible for about 20 short-term observers who came from a range of countries, including Canada.

It was a challenging assignment. The area had been extensively mined during the conflict, and visiting the places where voting would be held involved travelling many remote roads that hadn’t yet been inspected for mines. Community infrastructure had been extensively damaged by the conflict, and many bridges had been destroyed;. Peoples’ lives had been extensively disrupted by the years of conflict; and resources in the community were scarce, and stretched thin. Ethnic conflict had forced many people to flee their communities, and while they were able to vote elsewhere, many wanted to return home to vote, despite threats of violence against them. Poverty was rampant, although a few people had become rich as a result of the conflict.

The area for which I was responsible involved travel through Srebrenica and Gorazde, where there had been terrible ‘ethnic cleansing”, as it was called. The conflict and division that had caused the war remained alive in people’s’ minds, even if the actual fighting had ceased after the Dayton Accord was signed. Trebinje was now in the Republika Srpska, the largely Serb populated entity that, with the largely Bosniak populated Federation, made up the post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Many Serb officials, aware that the world knew about atrocities perpetuated by some Serbs, were defensive and aggrieved. They felt the world did not understand that they had felt threatened and needed to defend themselves. I remember two in particular that I met one day as we were travelling around the region. When I explained my role as an observer, they were belligerent.

I should understand why the conflict had happened, they said, because I was from Canada, and in Canada, there was deep division between English and French Canadians. (This was a time when Quebeckers were considering whether their province should separate from Canada). The barely-disguised implication was that as an English-speaking Canadian faced with the threat that Quebec might separate, I should understand why Serbs and Bosniaks could not live together.

I thought for a moment. Then I replied that yes, in Canada, there were different understandings of what our country was and what it meant. Language and culture did create differences between English and French Canadians. But in Canada, despite our differences, we expressed and resolved them peacefully, without war.

(Some years later, while working in Serbia for an American-funded community development project, I faced a similar sort of question about the NATO bombing of Serbia. Travelling around Western Serbia, I heard stories from those who had been bombed, and I saw the damage done to roads and buildings and heard the remembered fear of those who had to seek shelter. Taking a deep breath first, I replied that the world had felt helpless in the face of Milosevic’s actions in Kosovo. The fear that he would order ethnic cleansing, and the inability to get him to stop using any diplomatic means, left the world with no choice but to take strong action, despite (a phrase my Serbian friends hated with a passion) any ‘collateral damage’.)

The second story is from Ukraine, in 2012. My partner Oleg and I had spent two months observing the election in Crimea as part of a bilateral Canadian observation mission known as Mission Canada. This was part of the massive contribution Canada has made in observing elections in Ukraine since independence in 1991, both in sending observers to multilateral OSCE ODIHR missions through Canadem, and sending bilateral missions which included large contingents of Ukrainian-speaking Canadians. (It is, by the way, a record of which Canadians should be very proud.)

Just before we were scheduled to head home, Oleg and I were asked if we would stay on as a kind of ‘flying team’ to follow events in the counting process, which was proving to be problematic in some areas. Oleg and I then spent several weeks observing events at a number of District Election Commissions (18 people who carry out the same sort of work as our Returning Officers and Assistant Returning Officers) where the processing of the PEC protocols that showed the result of voting by precinct was going very slowly.

One of those places was Kaniv, several hours’ drive from Kyiv, the capital. Counting had entirely stopped some days after the election, when more than half of the PEC results had been processed, as many DEC members absented themselves. A group of rather thuggish looking people who seemed to know one another well had replaced those who were absent. One candidate had clearly won the election; his observers had copies of the officially-stamped protocols from all of the Precinct Election Commissions, showing the voting results. But – equally clearly – another candidate, a wealthy businessman, had not given up. Some citizens we spoke with told us it was widely believed he had ‘bought’ most members of the DEC.

Outside the bus terminal, where the DEC premises were located, crowds of people stood in the parking lot. We spoke with some of them during the ensuing days and nights. They said they were ordinary people who worked during the day but stood there at night to protect their votes. Humbly, they said that the educated people – doctors, teachers and lawyers – were not there because they feared for their jobs if they took part. They were pleased that local observers and we, as international observers, were watching the counting closely, as they themselves could not be present inside the DEC.

Oleg and I spent days there, often 21 hours a day. (Increasingly, so did elected MPs from the opposition party concerned.) It took us a while to sort out why the counting was going so slowly. We watched, and occasionally we asked questions. We learned, finally, that the DEC had had the second copies of all the PEC protocols all along – but somehow, the first copies of protocols from precincts where the opposition candidate had won had either not been entered into the database (the computer room being the one place observers were not permitted to enter) or had not been received. Finally, one night about 2 a.m., one PEC representative appeared with a protocol giving the party result in her area (Ukrainians vote both for parties and for individual candidates). When the DEC chair asked for the protocol giving the candidates’ results, she replied that the DEC had already received it and sent it to the computer room for data entry.

After sending the second copy of that PEC protocol upstairs for data entry, the DEC chair packed in the proceedings for the night – without sending up the second copies of the other PEC results that had not yet been data-entered and sent to the Central Election Commission. At 3 in the morning, Oleg and I headed to our local hotel for much-needed sleep before the DEC proceedings were scheduled to resume again at 8 am. But when that time rolled around, the DEC was empty and unguarded (except by one policeman) and the computer room was empty. The results on the CEC computer, we were told, showed that the wealthy businessman had defeated the opposition candidate – even though we knew that the DEC had not yet processed all the PEC returns.

Oleg and I spent much of the day at the DEC. We looked at, and photographed, every piece of paper left behind, and left it all in a tidy pile on the DEC table. We observed television crews arriving as the news spread of the vote ‘result’. As we had dinner in a local restaurant, we heard news reports that the CEC had decided that it was impossible to determine the election results in Kaniv. Although the ballots had been stored in the DEC since they were brought there by the PECs (and watched over for more than a week by a religious icon someone had placed in front of the door),  the CEC apparently would not have them recounted to determine the result. (Subsequently, a by-election was held, one of five such by-elections held about a year later.)

Oleg and I decided to go back to Kyiv, but we didn’t feel we could leave without saying goodbye to the local observers who, like us, had been watching the proceedings for extremely long days. So we drove back to the bus station, and said goodbye to them. As we emerged, members of the crowd which still stood in front of the bus station came over and asked us: “Would this happen in Canada?”

This was a tough question to answer with respect and honesty. Long term observers are careful about what we say, because the only comment about elections that counts is the overall mission report and the Head of Mission is the only official spokesperson for the mission. (LTOs observe a particular area, and we see only a small part of what happens in the whole country during an election.) After having seen these people, many of them elderly, stand outside the bus station night and day for more than a week, we felt a need to respond as honestly as we could; we did not want to sound patronizing or glib in our reply.

I took a deep breath and said that Canada was firmly committed to the belief that Ukrainians were entitled to elect their leaders freely and fairly, and that was why our country had funded the observation mission which had made it possible for Oleg and I to be there to watch the process for the past five days. We shook hands, and then we got in the car. Oleg said he was pleased I had been able to reply to the question – he was too choked up to speak.

This is only a small part of a much larger story, of course. I have tried to sketch the context in which that question was asked, in order to show something important about how the world sees Canada, and about the importance of our participation in world affairs as citizens of the world. As in Bosnia in 1996, I saw clearly that people – even in post-conflict situations – knew a lot about Canada, and that what we did and said mattered.

Canadians have participated in international election observation missions for more than two decades because we believe in the fundamental importance of people being able to freely choose their leaders in fair electoral processes. Canada funds our participation in such missions for the same reason. It is hard work, and Canada should be immensely proud of the thousands of Canadians who have observed elections around the world on a short or long-term basis over the years, for a range of agencies. (We are not ‘election tourists’, as I was once called in Bosnia in 1996).

Only the official reports of election observation missions are definitive. And so I have rarely written about my experiences as an observer, as I know that what I have observed is only a small part of a much bigger picture and represents my perception of events, often mediated by translation from another language. The official conclusions about the two elections I mentioned can be found in those official reports.

I told these two stories because I wanted to explain why it matters to me that, as a Canadian citizen, I can feel proud of my government, and feel that my government represents me. It matters to me that, even when we have deep divisions or disagreements about policy or actions, we resolve them by dialogue and honest discussion that engages as deeply with differences as with commonalities, and arrives at a solution all of us can live with. It matters that we do our best to include all voices in the governance conversation. It matters to me that money or influence does not limit who takes part in that conversation.

It matters to me that my government is inclusive, engaging as many people as possible in the process of governing. It matters to me that my government looks like my country. It matters to me that all voices count in our democracy. It matters to me that we engage honestly and collaboratively in our own governance challenges, whatever they may be, and that we model for the world a way of honouring our individual selves while coming together to govern the country in a way that honours all of us. It matters to me – and to people in the countries where we observe elections – that we “walk our talk”.

I came to international election observation from a decade of experience in running elections in one of Canada’s largest and most remote electoral districts. Over the years, hundreds of people (many of them women) worked locally in running those elections; I was proud to see them grow in capacity and knowledge. Many went on to become great resources to their communities, running local and band elections.

I would love to see this local Canadian capacity-building experience replicated as part of our international election observation participation. As so many people have said over the years, election day is only a part of the democratic process. Reforming the governance of countries is a long-term endeavour; helping to build the local capacity to govern, beyond observing the elections themselves, is a valuable contribution we could – as part of the international community – make in so many parts of the world.

PS. A final comment. The stories I have told in this post are only a very small part of the elections they concern; they represent what I saw, and what I thought it meant, at a particular time and place. Official reports of the international or bilateral observation of these elections are the authoritative statements on the elections. What I saw may not reflect what happened anywhere else in the country. But it was necessary to tell a small part of their stories to make the point that I wanted to make in this post.

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.”

When I wore a hijab….

This morning, I am listening to a debate on CBC Radio about the proposed Charter of Quebec Values – specifically about not allowing public employees to wear Sikh, Jewish or Muslim headwear or visible crucifixes in the workplace. While this proposed charter is not yet public (this information was leaked), the debate on the radio appears to be mostly about whether women should be allowed to wear the hijab while they are working as public employees.

It reminded me of my experiences wearing a hijab and burqua. When I did research in Somaliland in 2009, I was interviewing many older people, and so I felt it was appropriate for me to cover my head as a sign of respect for the culture in which I was temporarily living. But as I had not grown up with covering my hair, I needed help to do it properly.

The young women who worked at Edna’s hospital, where I was staying while in Hargeisa, helped me wind the cloth around my head and pin it in place so no hair was visible. Often it didn’t stay in place and I seemed to be always readjusting it.

Then I met a young American woman who was in Hargeisa to learn Somali. She spent time at the research centre where I was working during the day, and was living with a Somali family while in Hargeisa. When she was leaving, she gave me the one piece hijab she had been wearing. It was brilliant – I pulled it over my head and it covered my hair and I didn’t have to keep readjusting it.

After six weeks of wearing the hijab and a long coat over a long skirt, I had gotten used to it. And when I stopped wearing it once I was in Addis Ababa, I felt exposed – more visible.

A year or so later, while doing research in Khartoum which involved local people from South Kordofan communities, I was wearing the same outfit – the long black coat, decorated with gold-coloured embroidery on the front, the long skirt (bought in a market in Sarajevo), and the one piece hijab.

I was walking from my hotel, down the street towards the office where I was working. A man began following me, speaking in Arabic. I didn’t understand him as I didn’t speak Arabic. He followed me into the office, where my friend listened to him and then told me what he was saying.

Apparently,  he thought – from my clothing – that I was a Muslim woman, and given the obligation of charity enjoined on all Muslims, he had been begging my help to buy medicine for his son.

This incident gave me pause. I thought I had been expressing respect for a culture by wearing the clothing – but I was also evidently portraying myself as something I was not.

On the other hand, I also remember a wonderful conversation with a tea lady whose stand was just across the street from the office. As I drank spiced tea, we discussed the merits of one piece hijabs vs the ones you had to wind around your hair and pin in place. She thought the one piece hijab was brilliant, and wished she was able to find one in Khartoum. 

Several years ago, in Libya, while observing the election, I met many women who wore head coverings and burquas. I wasn’t covering my head, and I wore the normal western clothing I wear at home. A number of conversations helped me understand more of the complexities of the culture, and specifically what is acceptable for women in terms of their relationship with men.

Once I complimented a young woman on the colour of her hijab and how it matched her eyeshadow. She looked down and didn’t acknowledge what I had said. I was, in fact, embarrassed when I realized that I had met her previously and had not remembered, and should have just said so, rather than trying to pay a compliment – but it proved to be a valuable learning experience for me. Our interpreter explained that what I had said would have been perfectly acceptable if we were only a group of women, but in this case, there were men present and so what I had said was not appropriate. 

Another of our interpreters, with whom I spent a long night observing the counting, shared a picture of her fiancee with me and talked about him. I discovered, in talking about this to our interpreter the next day, that she could share that picture with me but not with our interpreter, even though they were good friends, because he was not a male relative.

So when I hear such debates as the one on the radio, I remember all these complex feelings and learnings – the feeling of being protected from male scrutiny while wearing the hijab and the burqua; the way in which people I was speaking with in Somaliland seemed to appreciate my desire to respect their culture; the feeling of being almost naked when I stopped wearing it; the confusion and embarrassment when someone else interpreted my clothing as meaning I was Muslim and thus held specific beliefs and obligations; and the.discoveries about how the clothing reflects a whole way of looking at the world, and associated behaviours that are acceptable and unacceptable, that is different from my own.

These are not simple debates. They offer us the chance to talk about our different ways of looking at the world, and at what happens when those ways seem to collide, especially as our world becomes ever more interconnected every day. They offer us an opportunity for learning and for dialogue, not diatribe. I wish we would take it.

Evaluation – the art of working with the ‘seen’ and the ‘unseen’

One of the challenges of ‘evaluation’ is that it requires judgment of someone else’s work. Especially if the evaluation takes place at the end of a project, the evaluator must assess work done by others over a long period of time. As someone whose work has been evaluated, as well as someone who evaluates others’ work, I find this need to make a ‘judgment’ one of the most challenging aspects of my work.

I am always aware that no matter how many questions I ask and how many reports I read, I will never understand all that has been accomplished in the same way as those who have worked on a project day in and day out for one or two years. I remember what it felt like to have two years of intensive work ‘evaluated’ by two people who came with extensive CVs, assumptions picked up in head office, and a distinct reluctance to work as hard as we did. Instead of giving us a helpful and longer-term perspective on our work, they cut down the terms of reference in the field, asked few questions and made few notes, and produced a report that worsened the existing politics within the project.

So I read as much as I can. I ask questions – many questions – of everyone I meet. I do my best to test my conclusions while in the field, to see if I have understood well or not. I work as hard as I can, for as many hours a day as I can, while in the field. I do my best to let people know that I am there to tap into their expertise and knowledge.

A learner with power

I know that a few weeks in the field allows one to see only a small part of an NGO’s work. I know that an NGO may not know how to package and present their work to an evaluator. Even if they do, it is entirely likely that both NGO and evaluator may have made assumptions about the other that are never surfaced – and thus never confirmed or dismissed. In short, I know that I am in essence evaluating the map rather than the territory.

Yet while I try to be as much as possible a learner, I also know that I am a learner with power. I am acutely aware that in many ways, my evaluation will affect their activities, their view of their achievements, and possibly even the future of their organization. I also know that I have a responsibility to the donor, to produce a report that is as clear and coherent as possible and that gives the donor a good idea of how their money has been spent. Did the funding have the results they expected? Was the funding effective? Were the project goals achieved? If not, why not?

This is where the judgment comes in. And in some projects, like a project to test whether a medicine is effective against a particular disease or not, it is relatively easy. One can see from the numbers whether the medicine is effective or not, although the data may not necessarily show you the behavior changes that may have contributed to those results.

But when the results are focused on peacebuilding or community development, in a situation where there has been conflict or civil war, finding numbers becomes considerably more problematic. The challenge, for the evaluator, is much more akin to how Meas Nee describes the process of recovering from conflict in Cambodia. The village, he says, is like a basket that has been torn apart.  The people in the village still remember what the basket looked like, but they are living in its shreds, physically and metaphorically. So what does one report – the destroyed basket, the strands that may have been rewoven, or the progress towards the rebuilding of the basket? And in doing so, whose perspective or perspectives takes precedence?

Rebuilding seems overwhelming

The idea of rebuilding after conflict is at first overwhelming.  Think about the challenge of rebuilding from devastating floods, even in a city with a modern infrastructure and services, like Calgary, Alberta. Within that infrastructure, individuals who have lost their homes and possessions may be in a state of shock, unable to figure out even where to begin. For the city, the infrastructure rebuilding needs may seem enormous. Planning can be extremely challenging, but still, there is a reasonable certainty that with time, things can be back to normal.

Then visualize a situation where a village may have been burned to the ground.  Where any infrastructure (stores, offices, government services) that existed has been destroyed. Where many people have been killed, wounded, mutilated, or raped. Where there are no lights, no one to protect you, and the possibility that militias may come at night in the dark. Where there is no form of public transportation. Where there may be no clean water anywhere, and little if any wood to light a fire to boil water. Where there is no food, because gardens have been destroyed or looted, and everyone is afraid to go into the forest to find wild foods. And where, because security is seen as precarious, there is little or no help on the ground from the outside world – or even from your own government, which is located far away.

Even when it may look to an outsider as if things are returning to ‘normal’, you can still see the terrible impacts of the conflict. You can see the young people who have been orphaned and have no one to care for them. You can see the people who have no way to feed their family because there is no work and their fields have been devastated.  You might see hundreds or thousands of people who have been displaced and have no homes to return to. You might see how relatives are becoming overburdened by the challenge of caring for those who are living with them, and how that is causing conflicts among people.

And yet, in this setting, you can still see the basket that once was, and you have a vision – to rebuild that basket. But you know you can’t do it alone. You cannot do it for people; you must do it with them. And you know that this is a long term proposition. And so you begin by finding the leaders, the people who are known in their communities as the ones who solve problems and resolve disputes – because you know that people will listen to them. You invite those people to come together and talk about what you can do together. And even as you do that, you work with people, one on one, to help them begin to recover their capacity to work together. You weep with people, and you laugh with people.  You listen to them, and you encourage them when they have ideas for taking some action for themselves. You do this even as you struggle to feed and clothe your own family.

In every situation where there has been conflict, there are some people with this vision of the village as it used to be. And as they gradually find the people who are able to work with them to rebuild the strands, and then to weave them together, the village gradually becomes to come back into itself. At first it doesn’t look much like the village that used to be, says Meas Nee, but in time, it will be once again.

The outside perspective

Often, it is at this point of recovery that outside organizations and donors arrive. And they are focused on what seems most urgent, and visible, to them – the needs. And being good hearted, they want to do their best to meet as many needs as they can. What is much harder for them to see is the capacity that lies within the village and its people. Without fully appreciating that capacity, and without intending to do so, they may well disrupt the process of rebuilding peoples’ spirits and lives that is already underway and that will lead to – over time – rebuilding the physical infrastructure.

As outsiders, they need to be wise; to sit with people, to listen to them, to let them recover their spirits and their capacity to begin working together to rebuild; to identify the support they need, and to provide that support at the time and in the way it is needed. Such patience, however, is hard to fit into a business plan or a project schedule.

For example, outsiders might see that the roads are rutted and badly damaged, and they might think that in order to best help, they should bring in a contractor to repair and pave the roads using heavy equipment.  That is very efficient, and it would result in a good road that would make it easier to repair peoples’ houses, get food to outlying areas, and get economic development underway.  They might even get some local support for this idea because, even if it is not really what is needed, people think it might bring in more resources into their community, and some might see a personal opportunity in it.

What outsiders probably wouldn’t see is that in such a case, efficiency would mean that the opportunity for many men to earn some money repairing the road with hand tools would be lost. That the opportunity for former combatants to show the villagers that they are human, by working together to repair the roads by hand, would be lost. That the message they inadvertently sent to the village was that you are not capable of rebuilding by yourself; that maybe you have gotten this far in rebuilding by yourselves, but you can’t do the rest without us.

The evaluation challenge

An evaluator, coming in from outside, might look at this situation and see a newly paved road. They might talk to the mayor, who is hoping for even more outside aid to arrive, and get a very positive response to the donor-funded initiative in hopes that it will bring even more donor aid. They might hear from some newly-arrived international aid agencies that the new road is going to make it much easier to reach the people who need food.  If they are from a country that has good roads, they are less likely to even think about the possibility that rebuilding the road by hand might have created jobs for local people, that in turn might have made it possible for them to feed their families and thus reduce the need for outside food aid.

The evaluator might have only a few days in the field to talk to people. Probably was briefed about the project, with reams of paper and nicely-organized log frames, before their arrival. Knows how much money was spent on the project. Has probably have spoken to the contractor, who may be full of the stories about how difficult it was to get the project completed, or conversely, how efficiently the work was done. Probably a few local people got jobs, and they will say positive things. The evaluator is focused on what is in front of his or her eyes – the paved road – and not what might have been, had things been done differently. And in that situation, of course, it is difficult for him or her to do otherwise.

We have no way (at least none I am aware of) to assess the lost ‘opportunity’ costs of rebuilding in a way that is more labour intensive and less equipment intensive. To assess how this intervention might have affected the progress people had been making for themselves, in rebuilding, before the outside world arrived. And most likely, no way to assess what impact the newly paved road might have on travel by combatants if the conflict resumes because the community peacebuilding process has been interrupted. We are evaluating the visible, and not the less visible.

NEXT – Evaluating the ‘invisible’ parts of the basket








Holding vigil for Madiba

Like so many others around the world, I have been holding vigil for Nelson Mandela. I may be continents away from that road outside the hospital in Pretoria but it feels, to me, as if I am there in spirit. I am grateful to those women who are singing so beautifully, and grateful for being able to share – in some small way – the love that South Africans have for Madiba.

I once came very close to Mr. Mandela, just after he was elected President in the first multi-racial elections in 1994. I was an election observer, part of the very large contingent that Canada sent to participate in UNOMSA’s observation of this ground-breaking election. I had spent several days observing in ‘deep’ Soweto, the huge township just outside Johannesburg.

But on this day, I was standing outside the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg. A friend in Yellowknife had asked if I would bring a small gift to one of his friends who lived in South Africa. I didn’t know what she looked like (this was before Facebook and Google) and so I was wearing my elder daughter’s red sandals, which I had borrowed, to help her recognize me.

I was looking out on the street, watching for her, when I felt someone push me. I turned around, a bit angry, and then stood amazed. The man who had pushed me was one of Mr. Mandela’s security team, and Mr. Mandela had just emerged from the hotel. He was only about three feet away from me.

One of the local South African observers, with whom I had been talking earlier, went over to him, and shook his hand. I watched as these two people shared a moment of joy. I asked her afterwards if it was the first time she had shaken Mr. Mandela’s hand. “It was the first time I shook his hand as President”, she said.

I still remember that moment so vividly because Mr. Mandela emanated such a sense of peace, integrity, joy. I have heard others also struggle to describe this aura, this energy of his.

I remembered it again when I watched Invictus, in which Morgan Freeman portrayed Mr. Mandela as he used support for the rugby team, the Springboks, as a way to demonstrate to South Africans that he was the president of all the people  – as a way of overcoming long-held divisions.

And for me, among all the many tributes that will undoubtedly be paid to Mr. Mandela when he leaves us physically, it will be his wisdom in understanding systems and structures – and the importance of symbolism in changing them – that will be his most powerful legacy.

Apartheid was a system of dividing the races in South Africa. There were white areas, areas for blacks, and areas for coloureds. The country was a map of places where some people could go and others could not. And underneath those physical delineations of difference lay an entire architecture – psychological, spiritual – like an underwater continent. I remember speaking with a teacher, who was by the apartheid definition “coloured”, during the counting process. I remember him saying to me that he could speak to me, because I was a white person from another country. But when he spoke to white South Africans, he felt a revulsion of spirit.

Madiba’s genius lay in understanding that changes in governance structure, and thus in society and in its governance, had to be rooted in changing that underlying spiritual architecture. And that kind of change was not something one person could do by himself, no matter how revered – it had to be a change made by the people themselves, of their own volition.

It was, however, a change that he could inspire, both by his example and by the actions he chose to take. He had power, and he exercised it, often in ways that surprised his staff. Rather than creating a black-only government and thus merely changing the colour and ethnicity of those at the top of the system, Madiba chose to inspire a rainbow nation by how he structured his government and cabinet. He was inclusive, not exclusive, in his approach to governance.

Knowing that there was a vital need to openly deal with all that had happened in the past and to hold accountable those responsible for terrible abuses, he created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission so that people could learn what had happened to loved ones and that those who regretted their actions could confess what they had done. Those who were not prepared to confess their past actions would still be prosecuted through the legal system. Not only was this a community-oriented and open approach to dealing with the terrible pain of the past, it also was efficient in organizational terms, as anyone who has watched the specially-created tribunal dealing with the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s can recognize.

And – as is told in Invictus – he chose to work with the Springboks, who had long been a symbol of white dominance. His choice to support and help the team, and to appear in their jersey at the penultimate game, showed the power of his understanding of how to change the spiritual architecture that lay under the way society and government had operated in the past. What he was saying, symbolically, was that we are all one nation and that we can work together to change the past. It was, in essence, an invitation to the nation – and especially to white South Africans who had feared black power – to create the new South Africa he could see so clearly.

Anyone who has tried to change a corporate culture, in a company or organization or community (and most especially when that culture has been a toxic one), can appreciate the magnitude of Madiba’s achievement. Today, the debate in South Africa is not about who is in charge of government as much as it is about how well they are governing. And that is not a debate that is unique to South Africa.

Madiba will always be a towering figure in our world, no matter whether he is with us physically or not. He inspires us to a bigger picture of ourselves, our societies and our world, and he will always do so.

Thank you, Madiba, for all that you have given to us and for all that you represent. May your passing be peaceful, surrounded by loved ones near your hospital bed and surrounded in spirit by all those around the world who are grateful for your generous and peaceful spirit, your wisdom, and your understanding of how to shape the kind of world we all want to live in.

A footnote: I am indebted to Molly Melching for helping me understand the power of addressing that underlying spiritual architecture, as a way of creating societal change (and for the wise man who  helped her understand that). You can see her speak about this in a wonderful video from the 2013 Skoll World Forum.