Substance vs. style in politics

A few weeks ago I attended a “Big Thinking” lecture over breakfast in the Parliamentary Restaurant, which is located directly above the House of Commons chamber in Centre Block. An interesting location, given that many Canadians suspect there is a paucity of thinking—either big or small—in the vicinity of that space!

Part of a lecture series organized by the Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences, this particular talk was co-sponsored by the Trudeau Foundation, and was given by Joseph Heath.

Heath, Enlightenment 2.0Heath is the Director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Ethics, and a Professor in the School of Public Policy and Governance and the Department of Philosophy. His topic was both timely and fitting for the setting: “Reason versus Passion in Politics.”

Heath argued that contemporary politics has inverted the personal slogan of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau: “reason over passion.” In other words, politics is no longer about what you say, but about how you make people feel. In a “post-truth” era, the conventional wisdom is now “heads you lose, hearts you win.”

An ironic case in point: media analysis of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s ongoing lead in public opinion polls, despite appearing to be more about style than substance. Following last weekend’s biennial convention in Montreal, which saw Liberal party members adopt 32 out of the more than 160 policy resolutions they debated, most of the buzz among pundits was about Trudeau’s two speeches, and his capacity to craft an attractive image while remaining vague on ideas.

Another ironic case in point: later in the same day of Heath’s talk, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty delivered his budget to the House of Commons, just below the floor that Heath had been standing on. Branded “Canada’s Economic Action Plan” since 2009, it seems clear that this annual statement has become more of a marketing tool than an accounting document. It is full of lists of accomplishments and declarations; it is bereft of anything resembling a list of annual income and expenditure items.

Heath acknowledges that there is some truth to the “truthiness” of our age. Indeed, the insights of cognitive psychology tell us that we are hard wired to make decisions, including moral judgments and ballot box choices, by relying on our intuition rather than rational arguments. Thus politicians have simply come to understand, and become more sophisticated in manipulating, the underlying role that our feelings and emotions play.

In the words Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, politicians have discovered that they need “to talk to the elephant first.” They need to speak in ways that resonate with the automatic or inaccessible mental processes that tend to dominate our thinking.

Heath’s concern is that our intuition is “full of bugs,” including biases that can only be overcome through reason and social institutions. And so, in his view, the bias against reasoned debate in contemporary politics is an inherently destabilizing force in society.

As someone tasked with tracking and intervening in political debates, I share this concern.

The Ottawa Office works really hard to craft letters and statements on behalf of MCC that are carefully reasoned and considerate, and scrupulously nonpartisan. To be sure, we also strive to communicate the experiences of our partners in evocative ways. But the overall tone—even when we are addressing someone we have strong disagreements with—is respectful, and hopefully even gracious.

SignatureAs I listened to Joseph Heath, however, I found myself wondering whether we are as persuasive as we think we are. Experiences quickly came to mind when MCC’s efforts to rise above the level of visceral appeals or simplistic triggers seemed to be lost on our audiences.

Rather than a conversation, at times our letters or statements have prompted questions like “Are you for us or against us?” or “Why aren’t you willing to be more prophetic?”

Perhaps we need to get with the times. Perhaps we need to worry less about developing nuanced positions or pursuing progress through compromise.

Or perhaps, like Heath, we need to worry more about the state of political discourse in Canada.

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director

Reading scripture with new eyes and ears

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for the Ottawa Office. The following was part of a meditation shared at the recent Ottawa Office Student Seminar on “‘Inconvenient’ relationships? Indigenous rights, reconciliation and advocacy.”

South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu is reported to have said, “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us close our eyes and pray.’ When we opened them, we had the Bible, and they had the land.”

As a Christian I value scripture. As a Christian organization, Mennonite Central Committee takes direction from scripture. We seek guidance from scripture – and especially the story of Jesus contained in it – for our work and ministry.

reading the bibleBut when it comes to issues relating to land and to the people of the land, the Bible gives us some disturbing messages. Among them are those biblical texts where God commands his people to dispossess others – the Indigenous people – of their land. Read the book of Deuteronomy and you find God repeating the words, “When you enter the land which I have given you and you dispossess the people of their land….”

Most scandalous of all are those texts where God instructs the chosen people to commit genocide. In Deuteronomy 7:1-2, for example, we read:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you – the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you – and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.

Biblical passages such as these have been used over the centuries to legitimize Christendom’s actions toward Indigenous people – actions of dispossession, colonization, and even genocide. They have provided a biblical foundation for the Doctrine of Discovery, the legal and moral framework with which European kings and religious leaders justified the conquest of Indigenous peoples around the world over centuries.

~9547199Of course, the Bible also includes wonderful passages that paint a very different picture of the land and the people living on the land. Land is a gift from God and ultimately belongs to God, not people. Land provides life for humans, plants and animals. The land is alive – it sings, dances, and praises God; it also bleeds and mourns when people disobey God’s way.  Additionally, God calls people to give rest to the land and periodically to return it to its original owners, where it has been lost through debt.

Scripture also includes the story of Abraham’s negotiations with the Indigenous Hittite owners of the land where he wishes to bury his deceased wife Sarah (Genesis 23).  Although God has promised him a vast expanse of land, including the territory of the Hittites, Abraham does not simply seize the property he needs for Sarah’s burial ground.  He insists on paying Ephron, the Hittite owner, for the land.  He deals respectively with the Hittite people and their land.

Clearly, when we turn to the Bible for guidance in relating to the land and its people, we find both good news and bad, texts that point to liberation and to oppression. What do we make of the difficult passages – especially those of us who claim to be Christian and who, as settlers, have benefited enormously from the dispossession of the Indigenous people?

I believe that we are called to read the Bible carefully and critically – and even to resist certain texts. We must learn to be attentive to the ways that scripture can serve to support the theft of land and its resources and the dispossession of its peoples.

Listening to the stories and wisdom of Indigenous peoples helps us to read scripture critically. Indigenous peoples can help those us who are non-Indigenous to understand the ways that our society, our government and even our churches continue to participate in relationships of dispossession and colonialism. They can help us read scripture with new eyes and ears.

Listen, for example, to the voice of Mohawk theologian and writer Anita Keith[i]

My scars are yours . . . do you not see?
It was my land first, the place I ran free
It was once my garden of Eden
Mother Earth’s bosom gushing forth life
The loss of my land cuts my heart like a knife.

There are no markers or monuments now to honour our dead
There are no Indian mothers to lament the men their lives they shed
My peaceable and happy home is now forever gone
It is terribly disturbing to me that he preached Christ crucified
As he took away my life, my dream, my place, my hom.

Yes, all lands are sacred and even more holy
When we who inhabit it come to know its stories
You and I, Indian and settler alike, share the scars;
The struggles of each bear witness to the others victories and glories
But the transformation we each will undergo
Will depend on the mercy of Christ, and if we can agree to be friend and no longer foe.

May our listening and our reading of scripture lead us in true paths of justice, healing and reconciliation.


[i] Anita Keith’s poem “My Scars are Yours,” is published in Steve Heinrichs, editor, Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry: Conversations on Creation, Land justice, and Life Together (Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 2013), pp. 291-92.

The peace and development connection

This week’s guest blog is written by Julia Tallmeister, advocacy research intern in the Ottawa Office. Originally from Markham, Ontario, she recently completed a MSc in International Relations from the University of Edinburgh.

Back in September of 2000, world leaders gathered at the United Nations headquarters to commit their countries to respond to the key challenges facing the world. This led to the creation of eight objectives, known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), to be reached by 2015. Accompanied with specific targets, indicators, and time-frames, these goals aim to: eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and empower women; reduce child mortality rates; improve maternal health; combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and develop a global partnership for development.

Mozambique women

Young women grind millet in Tchinda, Mozambique, a village that built a sand dam with help from MCC and the Christian Council of Mozambique.

At this point, many MDG targets have been met, or are likely to be met by 2015. To mention a few: the number of people living in conditions of extreme poverty throughout the world has been halved, over 2 billion people gained access to improved sources of drinking water, and global mortality rates from malaria decreased by over 25 per cent. More generally, there is no doubt that the MDGs succeeded in raising the international profile of development issues.

On a less positive note, only 20 fragile or conflict-affected countries have met one or more MDG goal, and only 20 per cent of fragile or conflict-affected countries were meeting the poverty target in mid-2013. The majority of fragile states have not, and will not, meet the MDG goals by 2015. On the flip side, countries that have reduced their levels of violence have been some of the quickest to produce development gains. There is an obvious gap in MDG performance between conflict-ridden states and other developing countries. This points to the fact that violence, conflict, and state fragility are huge impediments to development – and that peace is a necessary precondition to sustainable development.

This comes as no surprise. Conflict-affected states experience higher poverty and infant mortality rates, a greater amount of undernourished people, and higher numbers of children out of school than countries without violence. Sustained conflicts have detrimental economic and ecological impacts, and, as we have seen in conflict-ridden countries such as Syria, produce large numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons.

At the same time, drivers of conflict are closely linked to development issues. Socio-economic inequalities, lack of access to social services, absence of employment opportunities, and harmful social and gender norms are not only possible outcomes of underdevelopment, but also drivers of conflict.

Rwanda Peace & Dev

Rwandese women produce handicrafts together as a step toward building trust while also generating income for their families and communities. Peace and Durable Development (PDD) supported the organization of this group. (MCC Photo/Paul Mosley)

You can’t have peace without development, and you can’t have development without peace – they are intimately connected. Peace, security, and development aren’t totally separate realms, but interlinked and mutually reinforcing. What is needed, then, is a more integrated and holistic approach to the post-MDG agenda.

These sentiments were shared recently by many Member States at the 8th session of the Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As the MDG deadline quickly approaches, the OWG is working to establish a new set of goals for the post-2015 development agenda. Earlier this month, the OWG engaged in discussions on the role of conflict prevention, post-conflict peacebuilding, and the promotion of durable peace.

One thing that particularly stood out from these talks is the unanimous agreement that development cannot be achieved in the absence of peace. As put by the representative of the Great Lakes region, the MDG framework exposed weaknesses in its “failure to account for peace and security, including freedom from fear of violence, oppression, and injustice and the urgency for disaster risk reduction, to protect past and facilitate future development gains.”

There was, however, some discrepancy over whether or not durable peace should be a standalone goal, integrated throughout all the SDGs, or both.

Given the intimate connection between peace and development, it is crucial that the right to peace is integrated throughout all of the SDGs. Peace is both an enabler and an outcome of development, intricately connected to all its other aspects. For instance, the promotion of social equity, gender equality, women’s empowerment, and the rule of law – all topics of discussion at the OWG session – help to create and sustain peaceful and stable societies and eliminate the drivers of violence.

But is “peace” itself too complex and too multidimensional to single out as a distinct goal?

Whether or not it is decided that conflict prevention, the promotion of durable peace, and/or post-conflict peacebuilding should be standalone goals of the post-2015 development framework, it is vital that clear goals and targets are mainstreamed throughout all the SDGs to address the root causes of violent conflict rather than just the symptoms.

How would you like to see the promotion of durable peace set out in the post-2015 development framework?

What DFATD can learn from CIDA

This week’s blog is written by Dan Leonard, Operating Principles Coordinator for MCC.  Originally from Philadelphia, Dan now lives in Winnipeg where he has learned to love the winter. In February, he nevertheless looks forward to the start of Major League Baseball spring training.

In November, the government released the Global Markets Action Plan, a government strategic plan for promoting international trade opportunities for the Canadian private sector. One of the standout lines in the document is this: “under the plan, all diplomatic assets of the Government of Canada will be marshalled on behalf of the private sector in order to achieve the stated objectives within key foreign markets.”

Goat project Jordan

A goat project in Jordan provides income and food for poor families. Khulood, 11, holds one of the offspring of the goat that her father received. MCC partners with the Wadi Araba Benevolent Society to provide goats for families.

The government’s focus on “economic diplomacy” is particularly interesting to read in light of the decision last year to amalgamate Canada’s foreign affairs, trade and development agendas into one new department—the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development (DFATD).

The action plan deals little with the development agenda specifically, other than to “leverage development programming to advance Canada’s trade interests.” This leads some to question whether global poverty reduction as an end in itself is still a goal for Canada. So what impact, if any, will prioritizing the international trade agenda have on Canada’s international development agenda? This question been discussed previously on this blog; MCC Canada’s ongoing concerns on policy coherence recently prompted letters to the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and International Development.

Some context for the Global Markets Action Plan is helpful. The 2012 Development Assistance Committee (DAC) peer review of Canadian foreign aid noted that Canada has a “strong reputation for its contributions to international development, multilateral organizations and the promotion of human rights.” Central to the effectiveness of Canadian development work has been the insistence that communities should be active participants in defining their own development. One of the key aspects of Canada’s commitment to the Aid Effectiveness Agenda is that “development must be locally-led in order to produce and sustain meaningful results.” More so, Canada has been at the forefront among donor countries pushing NGOs to integrate a gender lens into programming, regularly outspending other DAC members in resources allocated to gender equity and women’s empowerment.

Mahmoud Hassan sorts tomatoes he picked in the field where he works in Wadi Araba. The crops were grown with water from an MCC-supported water catchment project.

Mahmoud Hassan sorts tomatoes he picked in the field where he works in Wadi Araba, Jordan. The crops were grown with water from an MCC-supported water catchment project.

My intention is not to create an idyllic and selective narrative of CIDA’s past. But recognizing the role and reputation of Canada in international development in years past is useful for reflecting on how the intentions and values guiding Canadian development work overseas might change in the future, as Canada aligns a development agenda with a trade agenda.

For example, how will marshalling all Canadian diplomats “on behalf of the private sector” coincide with a desire for “locally-led” development? Will diplomats reviewing CIDA proposals analyze them for community participation, or for how well they align with Canadian economic interests, or perhaps both? Can gender equality help define trade interests? What might that even look like? Or for instance, will plans for a mining project be required to adopt a gender lens and demonstrate that the environment is not unnecessarily degraded? Or, in that same example, if a community does not want the mine, will the project be halted or adjusted even if it limits Canada’s economic opportunities?

The Marlin Mine in San Marcos, Guatemala is owned by Goldcorp, a global leader in gold mining.

The Marlin Mine in San Marcos, Guatemala is owned by Vancouver-based gold mining giant, Goldcorp.

Truthfully, we do not know fully what this amalgamation of agendas will mean in practice. But some clues are emerging in the Global Markets Action Plan. Even in the years leading up to the amalgamation, CIDA began funding partnerships between NGOs and mining companies, raising questions as to whether development is acting as a subsidy to, or public relations activity for, mining companies.

On the other hand, in the “development” section of the DFATD website, key priorities of gender equality and environmental sustainability are still mentioned. Projects implemented by NGOs are also still required to integrate a gender and environment lens. So perhaps there is potential for these principles to more forcefully speak into how we conduct trade–though there is no indication in the Global Markets Action Plan that this will be the case.

The win-win of Canadian growth and international development is admittedly tempting. The questions I raise here are not to dispute the merits of aid and trade, or to reject the idea that private sector and NGOs should work together. The point here is that Canada’s private sector interests overseas should not compromise the tremendous learning gained over years of  Canadian development work–namely, that essential ingredients to sustainable development are local ownership, gender equity, and environmental sustainability. This is true whether you are an NGO or part of the private sector. Otherwise the win-win of aid and trade will be more of a dream than a reality.