CIVICUS Day 2: an update. Among other things, on human rights defenders: "They’re being arrested, so we know they’re doing their job."

The second day of the CIVICUS World Assembly is over. Well for me it’s over, and I’m at the train station waiting to go home after a long but enjoyable day. The challenge with writing about a day so full of things to write about is that I find it hard to address everything. So I won’t, and I’ll place an emphasis only on the things that struck me.

Before doing this, a quick jump back to the previous day, when a speaker mentioned something that bugged me. Perhaps bug is not the right verb, but at the very least some of the things she said, or at least the way she said them, were unproductive as a means of moving forward with a constructive dialogue. She peppered her discussion with statistics about the state of the world. Things like: in the past minute, about 20 children have died around the world, or about 25000 children around the world died today. You know the kind: the ones which are mind-numbing to the point where you react upon hearing them in a number of ways: you’re horrified, you’re ashamed to be a human being who hasn’t done enough, you feel uncomfortable because you know the stats and you’re doing what you can, but you still squirm in your chair. I think I fall in the latter category. I guess it’s OK to feel uncomfortable once in a while about these things – after all, it’s the poverty and injustice of the livelihoods we see around us that motivates many of us to fight for human rights. But if it’s meant to shock us into action, then it’s a formula that doesn’t work with me. I don’t think the numbers themselves bother me so much – they are essential to getting our point across –  I think it’s more the way some statistics are presented: someone telling me that a few thousand children have died since I’ve sat down to listen to them doesn’t motivate me through anger or shame, it just depresses the hell out of me.

Onto today’s activities, the first of which was a plenary session on economic justice that was ably facilitated by Nuala McGovern of the BBC’s World Have Your Say. The panel had a range of speakers, from the World Bank, FrontLine, Global Call to Action against Poverty, the UN Representative for International Trade Union Confederation (the ITUC is here:, and iScale. They were asked to share their thoughts on what they believed were the top economic challenges. Regrettably, the focus of the discussion swayed at times too frequently towards the World Bank and other big institutions that implement sweeping policies and practices that don’t take into consideration the voices of the most vulnerable. This was at least the opinion of a number of participants who spoke up and also caused a lively debate between two speakers, one of whom (the World Bank representative) was reluctantly the target of people’s (gentle) ire. It didn’t help that the two speakers exchanging viewpoints at this time were sitting next to each other on a “blue cube,” while the other speakers were left out on their yellow and green cubes (the inspiration of the stage layout is meant to represent CIVICUS’s design for the World Assembly, but it comes off as somewhat impractical).

The moderator regained a balance between exchanges from the floor and the speakers. With so much having been said, there were a few choice nuggets of wisdom from the speakers worth noting:
  • First words from one of the speakers: “Talk to women, talk to women, talk to women, TALK TO WOMEN.” Concise and to the point.
  • Mary Lawlor from FrontLine: over 2000 human rights defenders around the world are at risk in over 100 countries. While many of them are in danger for speaking out on civil and political rights, there are an increasing number of them at risk for denouncing violations of economic, social, and cultural human rights. As she wryly pointed out, if they’re being threatened and tortured and imprisoned, it’s because they’re doing their job.
  • We need to have a global social media platform, a space in which people from around the world talk about the impact of the economic crisis on their livelihoods.
  • A revolution is already happening among youth, they are mobilizing people from around the world in different ways.
  • Have governments look at education and health not as current expenditures, but as investments for the future.
  • We (as in civil society) missed the boat with the global financial crisis. (It certainly did sail away without us. Meanwhile American car companies get bailed out by their government to the tune of billions of dollars? Having owned a number of American cars, I can honestly say that was a BAD MOVE.)
  • We are groomed to be competitive. The problems facing us at any level, including economic justice, demand cooperation instead. (At this point, people who’ve been in development a long time have a tendency to say “What’s required is a paradigm shift,” a phrasing I try to avoid. It’s just another way of saying, This isn’t working, time for Plan B.)

Following the plenary, participants divided themselves into workshops based on their interests. For me, I found myself attending a workshop on “Making the Case for Dialogue and Deliberation: Tapping into Uncommon Wisdom for Participatory and Inclusive Governance.” From the presentations I took away a renewed sense of importance of evaluating our work – in human rights, that’s a particularly fuzzy thing to do, particularly when you try to attribute long-term social changes to human rights education activities. The examples from the four Canadian presenters were brief and to the point: dialogue between citizens and other stakeholders like government officials works. They pointed out a number of useful websites, one of which is the Canadian Community for Dialogue and Deliberation. And as luck would have it, I sat next to a young woman working on children’s rights in New Brunswick, so I took a moment to tell her of my organization’s work on promoting children’s rights through play with a toolkit called Play It Fair! 

Meeting new people – kindred spirits in many senses – is a valuable experience and one of this assembly’s many strengths. Sharing of experiences and, just as importantly, ideas, was the focus of the afternoon session I attended. It was an “open space” activity with the overarching question: What can civil society and its organizations do to contribute to reaching the Millennium Development Goals? Passing the microphone around the group, you got a sense that we were at once both demoralized at the MDGs unfulfilled promises and hopeful that we can still do our part to make a difference. As one small group of participants highlighted, it’s not the time to complain or whine about the MDGs lacklustre results so far (a report is here). The upcoming UN meeting on the MDGs will be an opportunity for us – civil society – to input on what we should be doing to move forward, and it looks like we’re going to come up with some great ideas.

That’s all for now, more tomorrow.  

On the G20, the government and why it’s not so good to be a Canadian at the moment

It’s getting harder to be a Canadian these days. Or let me put it another way: it’s easier to be ashamed of being Canadian. There were 10 000 protesters who lined up against police in riot gear today to protest the G20 summit. This guy here is angry enough to smash a bank window (not my own bank, but still, someone’s going to have to pay to get it fixed) while other protesters lighting a police car on fire is an equally dumb act, against the law, and clearly more violent. I’m sure the majority of the protesters are Canadians, and while I share their anger at the way some world leaders are handling key human rights issues (such as the Canadian government with reproductive rights), there’s no way to justify such violence. Besides, I wonder how much the protesters actually know about the issues the world leaders are debating, and how many others are just plain angry with nothing better to do than to foment further anger.

I don’t advocate violence, I never will, and I find it shameful that a small group of protesters out of the thousands of peaceful ones present turn today’s events more into news about violence rather than news that could potentially offer hope to millions of people around the world living in decrepit conditions. But even then, Canada’s commitment during the conference to pledge 1.1 billion dollars to maternal and child health must be recognized, but greeted with scepticism. The amount is spread over five years, is still less than the total cost of security during the G8/G20 summits (that price tag is 1.2 billion dollars), and the government is unwilling to see that money go to support abortion or abortion services. In other words, we could have done a lot better. Particularly when you consider that over half a million women worldwide die of maternal mortality shortly before, during, or after birth, and we are nowhere near achieving our Millennium Development Goal to reduce the number by three-quarters from 1990 until 2015.

Canada is typically seen as a world leader in promoting and respecting human rights, both at home (OK, a few exceptions, such as the abuses against First Nations peoples past and present) and overseas. But that is changing. With the Canadian government axing funds to a number of human rights and development organizations, in particular women’s rights organizations, other folks from around the world are looking at us and asking us, What’s going on? And it’s not simply a cut in funding to organizations working in Canada, but Canadian organizations working overseas. Back in March, a good friend of mine from Palestine looked at me and said: “What’s happening? Why are you doing this to us? We used to look to Canada for assistance, and now our funding is being cut, and there is no explanation. We always used to count on you, there were always Canadians who would come and help us when every other country let us down. We do not understand.”

Talk about making me feel this small. When I first began working and living overseas and introduced myself as a Canadian, I either got a warm handshake or a big hug, and always a genuine smile. If someone asked first, Are you American? I would tell them my nationality and they would apologize profusely for labelling me in such a manner. It was good to be Canadian, I felt proud to be a Canadian in that typical I’m-modest-about-it-because-I’m-Canadian-and-that’s-how-we-are way.

Now that the organization I work for ended its three-week annual human rights training program a few minutes’ drive from my house, I’m thankful that the 120 or so participants from about 60 countries had a wonderful time. Some participants are amazed at our country’s beauty, the peace we enjoy, our multicultural environment here in Montreal, our respect for gender equality, and some of our more progressive laws. But having the G20 violence rage in the background, angry at a government making questionable decisions about human rights when in fact it should be a leader among nations, makes me squirm. (You can take action in many ways, one of which is to read and sign a declaration asking for increased accountability and transparency by the government.) I want to be proud of saying I’m Canadian when someone from another country asks me where I’m from. I’m getting tired of being told, “What’s wrong with you? You used to be so nice.”

A day listening to Mr. Gore and others who want to change the world: report from the Montreal Millennium Summit

I attended the Montreal Millennium Summit today, the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. I admit that I walked in to the conference wanting to find fault with it. Last year, after the 2009 edition of the conference (which I did not attend), I’d spoken to a few friends who’d attended part of it and they were unanimous in praising the quality of the speakers but left wondering what difference the glitzy event would result in.

I was pleasantly surprised (but I will have a criticism, so be patient). Today’s event was open to the public, a non-stop barrage of renowned speakers with intermissions from some notable singers, including Quebec’s own Ginnette Reno. The first speaker was the Duchess of York, who kept her words to a minimum but nonetheless impressed upon the audience a key message which other speakers would repeat throughout the day: our moral obligation to caring for others and our fragile Earth. Her closing words, “I want to have the discipline of gratitude to give back to the world that has given me my life.”

Salil Shetty, a tireless promoter of the Millennium Development Goals (he’s the Director of the Millennium Campaign, was next to speak. Infusing numbing and discouraging statistics on poverty with a testimonial of a woman’s plight to survive in Africa (among many other such testimonials), he went on to claim that the world has made “spectacular progress” in achieving the goals. (An aside on the MDGs: they are a series of 8 interlinked goals with associated indicators of progress that almost 190 States agreed to in 2000. The deadline for achieving these goals is a mere 5 years from now in 2015.)

It was at this point that I thought, Aha! Gotcha. He says the world has made spectacular progress towards the achievement of these goals, when in fact the MDG report issued last July by the UN says no such thing. Progress has been made, it acknowledges, but many goals will not be achieved at the current rate of progress. In particular, the goal on reducing maternal mortality by half is disappointingly pathetic. Globally, over half a million women and girls die just before, during, and right after giving birth. We’ve only begun to reduce that number – barely. (And the current Canadian government is not helping matters, although it could be a force of positive change.)

Turns out that even though Mr. Shetty called the progress “spectacular,” he was also candid about the MDGs’ shortcomings. He did however say that the goals are achievable. He pointed out that in the past 49 years of development assistance, richer nations have offered 2 trillion dollars (US) to poorer countries. Not bad, eh? Hold on, says he. In the past 18 months, governments have doled out 18 trillion dollars to banks and other financial institutions in order to bail them out of the economic slump. No matter which way you look at it, the word “fair” just doesn’t seem to apply here. He (and other speakers after) said that we have the resources (human and financial), we have concerned citizens around the world willing to help, we have the technology, and the know-how on effectively lifting the 1.4 billion people of our planet who live in extreme poverty (as defined as living under less than $1,25 US a day) out of their plight. The one thing he mentioned we don’t have enough of is political will: “political will is in short supply.”

Coca-Cola make an unlikely appearance by presenting its Odwalla drink. The drink is a quickly-generated venture Coke made with the Interamerican Development Bank whereby 100% of the profits go towards assisting Haitian farmers. Their idea seemed to be a sound one: by consulting with local farmers in Haiti after the earthquake, Coca-Cola, apparently Haiti’s largest private business employer, directed its attention towards rebuilding the agriculture sectors by empowering farmers to get their crops going again. A fine idea, ensuring job promotion and secure income for farmers and their families, but I still have a hard time liking Coca-Cola after they started bottling tap water and selling it to people dumb enough to buy it (I won’t even start with the environmental impact those bottles have, nor will I venture to address the communities who have been adversely affected by Coca-Cola’s regrettable practice of taking municipal water sources away from community members).

But let me move on. Next up on the podium were Hugh Evans and Scott Moss, founders of the Global Poverty Project. They gave an inspiring hour-long presentation, thankfully keeping the personal stories succinct and to the point about the root causes affecting those living in extreme poverty (sorry, I’ve witnessed too many speakers get weepy about how we have to help the poor that I get somewhat snarky whenever I hear one speak up and tell me how their life changed upon going to a piss-poor country and living with wonderful people near garbage and open sewers and how that became a transformative experience for them). They hammered us with facts in a precisely-executed multimedia presentation they’ve undoubtedly practiced innumerable times. Although I questioned one statistic they mentioned: a recent study by The Lancet indicated that the number of maternal mortality deaths around the world has been revised from 500,000 to 343,000. It’s a difficult statistic to measure in the first place, but if the number is really down, then that is a positive sign. However the speaker attributed the decrease in the strategies implemented thanks to the MDG, and if that’s what he meant, I would question that. It’s more likely due to an improved way to measure the statistic.

I forgot one speaker, Philippe Cousteau. Well, apart from a few quotes from his grandfather, I don’t think there’s much to report back on.

After lunch, in comes Al Gore. BOOM! This guy started and there was no stopping him for an hour straight. You can’t help but sit there in awe at the man’s intelligence and versatility at weaving everything you thought you knew about the environment and poverty together in a seamless presentation that he effortlessly glides through. As was the case with Sarah Ferguson, the main message al Gore was plugging to the audience was that we as citizens of this Earth have a moral obligation to address extreme poverty and climate change. Tugging at our heartstrings towards the end, he asked us what our children will think of us years from. Will they say, What were you thinking? Didn’t you care? Or will they be in a position to recognize that despite these formidable challenges, we did something. And saying something along the lines of Mr. Shetty’s speech, Mr. Gore pointed out that we have the will, the ability, the technology, the money to make a change. He fell short of saying that politicians are not pulling their weight around (but he did say that Copenhagen was not as successful as it could have been), but he did quip, “Political will is a renewable resource.”

The mayor of Port-au-Prince took the spotlight afterwards and the energy came down a few notches (understandably). He went through a thorough list of reconstruction efforts based on national interests, development efforts for and by the Haitian people, and economic equality for all Haitians. He was praised by Montreal’s own mayor in what turned out to be an unpaused (the guy breathed through his nose as he spoke so he talked non-stop) praise of the relationship Montreal has with Port-au-Prince.

With a couple of songs throughout the day to change the pace the last speaker took to the podium, and it was Kristin Davis, Sex and the City star and OXFAM Ambassador. Her talk was scattered, her mannerisms were borderline ditzy, but she came across as the most genuine, honest person I’d heard all day. Listening to her speak for an hour about the women she has met around the world who are trying to build their lives into something meaningful gave me the clear impression that she was humbled by who she met and grateful for having known and learned from them.

In the end, it was a day which probably inspired most who attended, from the teenagers screaming with joy on my left to – um, older – people like myself who have been working in international development “before most of those kids were born.” My one gripe about the speakers, and the conference in general, is that the words “human rights” were mentioned only once (as best I can recall), and that was by Mr. Shetty. The MDGs are all about rights, but a pronounced weakness of the goals, and this is a known criticism, is that they are simply that: goals, with no explicit legal obligations on the part of States who have agreed to meet these goals. If the MDGs had been formulated in accordance with human rights norms and standards, we would be in a position to ensure that governments be accountable for meeting their MDG targets. But that is not the case, and so the attainment of MDGs remain a distant dream in many countries where the political will – which should be renewed, Mr. Gore! – is unwilling to do anything meaningful about them.

In the end, this conference has given me much food for thought, and I’m glad I went. Next stop: Indonesia, next week. Stay tuned.

For more on the conference, check out my colleague’s feed on twitter as it happened.