What is a small player to do?

The House of Commons is back in session this week after a long Christmas recess, and one of the lead issues in Question Period has been the situation in Mali.

The recent escalation of armed conflict in Mali prompted the French government to launch a military intervention to repel extremist rebels who had gained control of most of the country. Canada has provided some logistical support for this intervention, although the Prime Minister has also insisted that Canadian Forces will not be getting involved in a combat role.

On January 29, Minister of International Cooperation Julian Fantino announced that Canada will provide $13 million in humanitarian assistance to people affected by the crisis. Interestingly, he made this announcement at a conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that was seeking funding to send African troops to Mali in order to help stabilize the country.

While $13 million is a relatively modest contribution in comparison to what was pledged by other G8 nations, I think this announcement is good news. Indeed, thus far the Canadian government response is consistent with recommendations made by Project Ploughshares, one of MCC’s coalition partners.

I also think this may be unsatisfying to some—perhaps even to our Prime Minister, given his conviction that “Islamicism” or Islamic terrorism represents the major threat faced by the world today.

People are dying. Communities are being displaced. Violence has already spilled over into one surrounding country, and others are threatened. Can’t we do more?

The same question has been asked repeatedly in recent months about the conflict in Syria. Can’t we do more to prevent the ongoing loss of life? Can’t we do more to slow the growth in the number of refugees? Can’t we do more to ensure that violence doesn’t engulf the region?

Distributing school kits near Sidon, LebanonEarlier this month I was part of an advocacy delegation that met with MCC partners in Lebanon and Jordan who are trying to make a difference by meeting the needs of Syrian refugees, and by pursuing peacebuilding initiatives in their own, increasingly fragile, contexts.

We also met with Syrian refugees and heard some of their harrowing stories. Many experienced tragedy. Many continue to experience great hardship. Almost all long to return to Syria. Unfortunately, all of the partners we met with didn’t think that would happen any time soon.

I came away from this trip with an overwhelming sense of the complexity of the situation in Syria, as well as Lebanon and Jordan. There is so much about the history, politics, and religious traditions in the region that needs to be considered. I also came away from this trip with numerous reminders that my own country does not play much of a role in the Middle East.

Of course, neither point came as a surprise. Media accounts inevitably oversimplify the situation in conflict zones. And most people have no need to give any thought to Canada, given that it is a far cry from being a global superpower.

Canada does not figure in the dynamics of geopolitics. Thus we inevitably find ourselves reacting to rather than instigating events.

Kind of like the church.

Kind of like MCC.

One response to this reality might be to bemoan our lack of influence, and wring our hands at the fact that we can’t do more. Another response might be to pretend that we have more power or knowledge than we really do, and to weigh in on big-picture debates whenever the opportunity presents itself.

A third response might be to look for opportunities at a smaller scale. It might lead us to carefully discern where our niche lies. This could hold true for both Canada and MCC.

Clearly we can provide humanitarian assistance that can make a difference in lives of refugees, as well as the lives of vulnerable groups in host communities that have been impacted by the dramatic rise in demand for food, housing, and jobs.

63Beyond the provision of essential services, clearly we can support efforts to address underlying tensions in neighbouring countries in order to make them less vulnerable to the kind of violence we are seeing in both Syria and Mali.

Beyond implementing peacebuilding initiatives, however, shouldn’t we also be pushing for modest efforts to change the larger systems and structures that govern our existence? For example, how can we make it harder for weapons to end up in the hands of groups that see violence as the only way to advance their cause? My trip reminded me again of why advocacy for a strong Arms Trade Treaty matters.

Perhaps there are other responses that go beyond working at the edges of big problems. Perhaps the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development will make more ambitious recommendations when they meet to discuss Mali later today. But it seems to me that there is no shortage of important work to be done around the edges.

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director

Preparing for a crisis: A look at food security and disaster response

By Jared Klassen, MCC Ottawa Office Advocacy Research Intern

A few years ago I was driving home after a great July long-weekend with friends. Coming from the west coast we were all enjoying a relaxing drive through the mountains, windows rolled down, and some of our favorite tunes playing on the stereo.

Suddenly the music was accompanied by a new and unwelcomed rhythm – the “whomp-whomp-whomp” of a flat tire.

In that moment our itinerary expanded to include the unanticipated stop on the shoulder of the road. While it was an unfortunate event, we were prepared. After a brief rearrangement of our luggage I pulled out the spare tire, changed out the flat, and before you knew it we were back on course toward home. What could have been a small crisis was merely an inconvenience.

But what if that spare tire wasn’t there? Who (and what) would be involved in making sure we made it home safely and that my car would eventually be road-worthy once again?

Conversations in Ottawa

Earlier this month I had the privilege of being a part of a conference looking at the issue of food security in chronically food insecure contexts around the world. The conference, hosted by the Food Security Policy Group (FSPG) and the Humanitarian Coalition, brought together humanitarian (the “first-responders”) and development (focused on long-term solutions) practitioners to discuss some emerging trends and responses to issues of global food security.

The core theme, which may not come as a surprise, was the issue of connecting short-term and long-term goals and methodologies for a sole purpose of helping communities prepare for and respond to a food crisis.

The round-table sessions and use of case studies allowed us to ask some key questions: How can a community improve its resilience to potential crises? What does it mean to implement a Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) plan?

The Problem

Believe it or not, there often stands a considerable gap between humanitarian and development programming. Sometimes this is an organizational issue, where humanitarian and development planning may exist in two different (and occasionally isolated) departments, or perhaps a particular organization may focus specifically on one aspect of the aid/development spectrum. Often this divide is exacerbated by funding systems that categorically differentiate between aid/relief and long-term development, making long-term planning difficult.

The consequences can be disheartening, even devastating. Humanitarian efforts may be limited to an immediate response that fails to consider a community’s long-term objectives for restoration. Development planning, particularly in crisis-prone areas, may miss key opportunities that would help a community prepare for unexpected circumstances.

A Solution – what improves resilience?

So what should be done? How can we learn from these findings? Throughout the conference several themes emerged as practical ways to improve resilience.

Disaster Risk Reduction benefits from a multi-faceted approach: Trying to address some of the underlying factors that contribute to a crisis can be a challenging task. Issues of peace/conflict, gender, environment, local governance, access to water, health, and education can all contribute to a community’s disaster preparedness and resilience.

There is also a need for greater collaboration between humanitarian and development programming. In other words, we need to link short-term actions with long-term plans, share “lessons learned” along the way. This can happen within organizations, or in conversations between organizations involved in similar work.

One cannot underestimate the value of committing to a community for a longer period of time (see “In it for the long haul” from the previous blog post). This approach allows for meaningful relationships to be built and fosters a depth of understanding that can help a community identify and address some of the root causes of a potential crisis. These relationships can also help inform humanitarian efforts in designing a response that is appropriate for that particular community.

Be prepared

Let’s go back to the earlier story of my flat tire woes. While it pales in comparison to the severity of a food crisis, it’s a (overly) simple analogy that demonstrates value in planning ahead and preparing for the unexpected. Even though I couldn’t have predicted getting a flat tire on that trip, I had the foresight to know that having a spare tire is a good idea if you own a car (thanks Dad!). Had I not been prepared, our trip would have likely included a visit from a tow truck and an extra stop at a garage or even a hotel, not to mention some unhappy passengers and a hefty bill.

In the world of aid/development, estimates suggest that the ratio of the costs of replacing or rebuilding an asset vs. protecting it are between 5:1 and 10:1, let alone the more significant costs of broken livelihoods and even the loss of life. So why not be prepared?

What is MCC doing?

It’s not my intent to oversimplify this issue, but there are some strategies that help. I am also encouraged to see how MCC’s approach to relief and development models many of the “key findings” from this conference. Let me close by giving you a few examples:

The 2011 Food Crisis in the Sahel

ImageIn 2011 a widespread drought impacted over 18 million lives of people living in the Sahel, a region from the southern edge of the Sahara to the Red Sea. MCC responded to the food crisis not only with emergency food assistance, but also with some long-term responses. Based on local knowledge and community organizations, MCC supported the development of two grain banks. These grain banks will “give farmers a local market for their products and help provide stable food prices for the community.”

Furthermore, “Working with trusted partners on the ground enables us to get this food aid to people who need it most in the most timely fashion,” said Phil Schafran, Director of Donor Relations and Communications for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) BC. “It also helps us in our long term planning, as these are the folks who know the situation and the area well.” Learn more

Drought Resilience in Mozambique

ImageIn Mozambique, MCC is working with local partners in drought-prone areas to develop sand dams, a system that helps conserve water, even in the hot dry season. This water can be used for drinking, irrigating crops, and feeding livestock.

This approach is often used in conjunction with Conservation Agriculture. This is a simple technology that encourages farmers use resources that are naturally available (such as grass cuttings, leaves, and animal manure) to help improve their crop yields. The approach also helps the soil to retain moisture, producing a more drought-resistant crop. Learn more about sand dams and conservation agriculture

Response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake

ImageMCC’s response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake began by addressing immediate needs of effected Haitians, but continues with a long term vision. Initial responses of food and emergency housing have transitioned to “livelihood” training programs in farming, masonry, plumbing, and electrical skills.

MCC’s involvement in Haiti is a longstanding commitment. In the town of Desarmes, MCC’s reforestation program has operated for 28 years. Earthquake funds have been used in this area to establish clean drinking water, build better irrigation and road systems and offer training in human rights.

MCC also supports local organizations that put pressure on the government to develop permanent housing solutions. The intent is that improved government systems will help address housing issues now and improve the country’s resilience to a future crisis. Learn more

Faith on the Hill: A former MCC Ottawa Office intern reflects on God and government

Previously published in Mennonite Brethren Herald (January 2013)

If you were to turn on the television today and catch a clip on Canadian political debate, you would likely see a disheartening display of partisanship, negativity, and false speech. It might come as no surprise, then, that almost 40 percent of Canadians decided not to vote in our last federal election. Why bother? In the same vein, as Christians, we may wonder, “Is this really a government that’s been ‘established by God’?” (Romans 13:1).veiwpoints-author

This fall, I spent four months working in Ottawa as MCC’s advocacy research intern. Despite being what I would call a politically engaged person (I did my undergrad in political science), I often found myself asking these same questions.

Government footage on television and in the news usually comes from a session called Question Period, held once a day when the House of Commons is sitting. Picture this: about 300 adults shouting at each other, calling each other names, and pounding their fists on tables. Or, as some call it: “political debate.” It’s meant to give opposition parties a chance to hold the government accountable; whether this is actually accomplished is up for debate. In a recent study published by Samara Canada, one MP was quoted as saying that Question Period is “the greatest embarrassment, and one of the reasons politicians are frowned upon.” Another described it as “kids in a sandbox.”

As the MCC Ottawa Office intern, I had several opportunities to observe this political “sandbox” live from the House of Commons’ public gallery. After attending these sessions, I was often left feeling total despair about the place of God in our political system.

Unexpectedly, however, God transformed these moments of despair. On one occasion, exiting the gallery into one of the House’s many long, stone-walled hallways, I was met with a flood of tinted light – a sunset streaming through the stained glass windows at the end of the hall. In that moment, God was telling me once again: “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6).

Viewpoint-imageThis moment is what veteran Christian newspaper reporter Lloyd Mackey might call “finding God in an unexpected place.” Now semi-retired, Mackey has had an extensive writing career, much of which has been focused on the intersections between politics and Christian faith. As we sat down together for coffee one morning, he told me that his life in Ottawa has been about not merely reporting the news, but looking for God in places where we might not expect to
find him.

During my internship with MCC, I have seen partisan politics override thoughtful decision making; important issues ignored by the majority of politicians; and political culture thirsting for scandals, corruption, and the next big gaffe.

But just like beams of light streaming through stained glass windows, there have also been rays of hope: MPs from all parties joining together, determined to find solutions to poverty; a senator sharing his Christian faith in front of hundreds of citizens; an MCC worker testifying before a Senate committee about the true nature of loving one’s neighbour. Through these moments, I have come to know God better, and learned to see him even in the most unexpected places.

By Casey van Wensem, former Advocacy Research Intern, MCC Ottawa Office