Advocacy is not all it seems

This week’s writer is Janessa Mann, Advocacy Research Intern in the Ottawa Office. 

In the global north, advocacy is often held up as a way to fight for justice in the global south, and a way for students to be active in the political sphere. As I found out reading Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism (Zed Books. 2015), advocacy is not all it seems.

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Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism. Edited by Alex de Waal. Zed Books, 2015.

The book, edited by Alex de Waal, is a compilation of essays on specific advocacy campaigns and their unintended consequences—consequences that we do not often question or even notice. The book focuses primarily on Western advocates and how they have impacted communities in the global south with their efforts. The essays challenge the dominant discourse by creating dialogue about the “misrepresentations and inadequacies of advocacies” (p. viii).

I found this book very interesting, because it exposed new truths that I had not previously known about specific advocacy movements. I recommend it for MCC programmers, students, and activists — to renew your desire to fight for justice.

The central argument of the book is that advocacy should be responsible, with the people most affected by the conflict leading the advocacy movements. For advocacy campaigns to be effective and promote sustainable development, they must be “more self-reflective and accountable to the people and the evolving situations they represent” (p. 1). As one example, the writers of the book explored the negative impacts of Invisible Children’s Kony2012 campaign, which highlighted the violent actions of Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony.  The organization encouraged students to get activist kits to pressure the US Congress to stop Kony, but did not encourage students to think about agency for Africans or any negative impacts that might result from their efforts.

Within the introduction, the writers ask some very interesting questions about advocacy campaigns. Do advocates in the global north have the right to propose solutions to global south problems, based on their perspectives? How can advocacy groups be involved in development work? How can we reconcile academic knowledge with practical activism? Is it ethical to use celebrities as “bridge characters” for activist issues (p. 5)? These questions are all then answered in the following chapters with varied examples.

This book gives an in-depth analysis of specific transnational campaigns, their achievements, and ethical challenges. It incorporates global south perspectives on the dominant discourse of advocacy, illustrating that programming often does not address local knowledge effectively. One of the chapters discusses Global Witness’ shaming of companies using products made from conflict minerals in DR Congo.

The international campaign focused on policy-based evidence, making use of a specific narrative that did nothing to reduce violence in the DRC. Advocates didn’t know that their boycotting and protests would cause many Congolese to lose their jobs, as well as increase smuggling. The Congolese population, as well as academics, were able to predict this outcome, which shows that transnational advocates were not effectively investigating the consequences of their actions.

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Students at Kiroba Primary  School, near Kamuli, Uganda.  MCC supports students affected by HIV/AIDS.  MCC photo/Lynn Longenecker

Advocacy in Conflict provides a fresh perspective on transnational advocacy, urging activists to educate themselves on situations before becoming involved. I feel encouraged in MCC’s work that there are so many people involved (especially the Ottawa Office) in ensuring we know as much of the story as we can, to provide constructive, sustainable, and ethical advocacy work in our programming. The work is rooted in program work, our relationship with partners, and their experience.

The biggest takeaway from the book was that advocacy is not effective if it does not integrate diverse perspectives, consider stakeholders’ priorities, and make appropriate “asks” of policy-makers.

 

No secure future

This week’s guest writer is Myriam Ullah, Community Engagement Coordinator for MCC Saskatchewan.  She participated in an MCC learning tour to Palestine and Israel in February 2017.

We pulled up to a modest, concrete house in a rural-feeling suburb just outside of the city. Honey bees, the smell of rosemary, and hot tea greeted us as we were welcomed by the home owners. At first glance, the property looked beautiful and lush, with ten or so beehives scattered among the fruit trees.

The family who lives in this home is one of 500 living near Jerusalem that MCC has supported by helping to install water treatment systems and connect them to community agriculture projects. Through a translator and through MCC’s partner Applied Research Institute, Jerusalem (ARIJ), the family told  how they had been helped by such subsidies in a time of real need and were grateful for the access to a secure water source.

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ARIJ agricultural support project. Photo/Myriam Ullah

Our group, a collection of MCC constituents and staff from Canada, was on a two-week learning tour to gain understanding of MCC’s long-term work in Palestine and Israel and to understand how we, as Canadians, could continue to support projects like this when we returned home.

We questioned the family about how the water treatment system worked, and we learned more about how they had cultivated a more resilient and diversified crop. It was an inspiring visit and  a success story for ARIJ, a well-established NGO that was started with MCC seed-funding 25 years ago.

As we thanked the family and shuffled back onto the mini-bus, I thought to myself, “This situation could be anywhere in the world.” It is, after all, a fairly common story from MCC’s partners—supporting sustainable livelihoods for those found in unstable conditions because of conflict, war, or natural disaster.

The difference here was that we were just outside of a major tourist city. There had been no recent natural disaster, and access to food and water was actually abundant! Lush fields and crops grew just a few kilometers away.

The unique edge to this story is that ARIJ provides water treatment systems to Palestinian families living near Jerusalem because they are living under occupation. This means that their access to water is controlled by the Israeli government, which favours Israeli settlers in the West Bank by providing them with more than 3x the amount of daily water than their Palestinian neighbours receive. To conserve water, Palestinian families regularly endure weeks without running water, having to rely on rain collection barrels and systems like the ones ARIJ provides.

Although the West Bank and Gaza are considered Palestinian land by the international community, ARIJ spent the morning outlining for us the systematic increase in Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank on Palestinian-owned land.

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Water treatment system.  Photo/Myriam Ullah

There are over 760,000 settlers living within approximately 200 illegal settlements and just over 260 outposts (which are planned-for settlements). These settlements, and the people living in them, are most often enjoying a high standard of living with maintained roadways, 24/7 security, strong education systems, and abundant food/water sources. Palestinians, on the other hand, are crowded into smaller strips of land with separated roadways, frequent military detentions, limited access to water, risk of home demolitions, and the inability to travel within their land without permits.

After 50 years of living under the longest occupation in history, organizations like ARIJ offer Palestinian families much-needed, immediate support. However, they can’t instill long-term hope for a people who have little assurance they will not be issued a home demolition order at some point in the near future.

When we first arrived at the airport in Tel-Aviv, our learning tour guide welcomed us with a challenge: to fully listen as we hear the stories of loss and pain, and to do so without trying to offer simple solutions or explanations of a situation we don’t fully understand.

Throughout our two weeks, we saw time and again evidence of Palestinian homes and villages destroyed. We even heard stories of some families choosing to demolish their own homes, as this was less expensive than being made to pay the bill for having their homes demolished by military order — and for the cost of the security personnel needed to force them out.

We heard stories of children as young as 12 being imprisoned and elementary school students being tear gassed. We felt the presence of the security wall, as it shadowed over a single, remaining home we visited—a home surrounded by settlements and fences where a Palestinian family (with their own checkpoint) was restricted from leaving their own driveway.

I don’t believe anyone from our group came home with a full understanding of the situation in Israel and Palestine. And we definitely didn’t return home with a sense of a solution. However, for me, I did leave with a sense of the incredible disparities between those who are afforded a livelihood and hope for a secure future, and those who calculate their days by permits, checkpoints, and rubble.

I returned home haunted by the notion that power does not want to hear truth and that the conflict over these lands has a lifetime yet to live.

Learning and unlearning — for reconciliation

This week’s guest writer is Pam Peters-Pries, associate program director for MCC Canada.

March 21 is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.  March 21 was chosen because on that day in 1960, police killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid “pass laws” in Sharpeville, South Africa.  The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the day in 1966, calling on the international community to increase its efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination.

We should celebrate the many steps, big and small, that have been taken to eliminate racial discrimination since then. The apartheid system in South Africa has been dismantled. The American civil rights movement resulted in many policy changes prohibiting racial discrimination and segregation and protecting the rights of minorities.  In our own country, the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission acknowledged and urged action to address the long and tragic history of systemic discrimination against Indigenous peoples in what we now call Canada.

An International Day of Anything proclaimed by the United Nations can be an occasion for grand thoughts and actions – to look across the sweep of history and acknowledge change, or to address the highest ranks of power in our societies and demand change we yet wish to see.

But it should also be an occasion for us to look at small things, at the practical actions we can take in our everyday lives to contribute to a grand and global vision. This is a great day to think about what we can do to contribute to the ongoing work of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada, reconciliation that has the potential to eliminate the discrimination faced daily by Indigenous peoples.

Senninger's Learning ModelAt an intercultural competence and anti-racism training I attended last year, I learned about Senninger’s Learning Zone Model. The model assumes that in order to learn, we have to venture out into the unknown. We need to move from our comfort zone, where things are familiar and where we don’t have to take risks, to our learning zone.

The learning zone is a place where we are stretched, pursue our curiosity, and make new discoveries. As we learn, we should aim to get close to – but not into – our panic zone.  In the panic zone, our learning is shut down by a sense of fear.

The TRC’s Calls to Action place tremendous emphasis on education – on learning. What many of us learned about Indigenous history and current realities in school or through the media is inaccurate and inadequate. And so this learning zone model is instructive for us.  Certainly, we need to get out of our comfort zones. We may find comfort in the stories of settlers coming to an “empty” land that was peacefully “surrendered” by Indigenous people to settlers through treaty-making. We may find comfort in the belief that settlers prospered through hard work and perseverance alone, not through privileges – such as access to land – granted to them at the expense of others.

As we work towards reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people—a task each citizen in this country carries every day and not just on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination— we need to move out of these familiar comfort zones and into our learning zones.

In our learning zones, we may discover that the history we learned hides from us the history of systemic displacement of and discrimination against Indigenous peoples in this country. We may discover that discrimination against Indigenous peoples is not a thing of the past, but continues today in the lack of access to clean drinking water in many Indigenous communities, under-funding of Indigenous education, and disproportionate representation of Indigenous children in foster care and of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system.

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More than 7000 people joined the Walk for Reconciliation at the closing event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Ottawa, May 31, 2015. MCC photo/Alison Ralph

For some of us, venturing into our learning zones may mean heading very close to panic zones for a brief time, as a radical shake-up of long-held beliefs and perspectives may be needed for us to begin to see these things that have been hidden from us. But panic is not the goal, and is not a sustainable place. Learning is the goal.

So let’s be gentle but ready to dis-comfort each other.

The learning zone may be uncomfortable, but it may also be surprising and emboldening. It is a place we must explore if we are to unlearn the “comforting-to-some” myths and misperceptions that reinforce discrimination of Indigenous peoples. It is a place where we can learn the truth about Indigenous history, suffering, resilience and genius, and discover the grace and generosity inside ourselves that can feed the long work of reconciliation ahead .

Trauma knows no gender

Today’s guest writer is Karen Thind, a student at University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, BC. She participated in the recent student seminar of the Ottawa Office on Gender, peace and conflict: Exploring the intersection.

As we gathered together for the second day of our seminar, Thomas Coldwell, an MCC staff member from Alberta, began a discussion of masculinity, and the stereotypes attached to it. As we began calling out things like, “aggressive,” “man-spreading,” “protector…,” we started to narrow down the burden that society has placed upon the male gender. There was a specific lens, and specific qualities that made up a man, much like there are for women.

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Thomas Coldwell of MCC Alberta talking about masculinity. Photo Janessa Mann.

As our discussion progressed, it became apparent that our presentation would be about men and their experiences with violent conflict and PTSD.  I recoiled. Given that governments and NGOs are finally acknowledging the importance of women in addressing peace and security issues, do we really need to be addressing the needs of men? Surely we could make it three days without bringing the opposite sex into the conversation!

However, as I analyzed this train of thought, I became aware of how flippant and short-sighted I was being. Trauma and violence don’t just happen to women; they happen to communities, and those communities include men and boys.

Fighting violence against women should naturally include fighting the forces that feed that violence, and that means not only including a discussion about men and boys, but also recognizing the trauma and violence that they have experienced as well.

While Thomas queued up a video to watch, I had a moment to think, and my thoughts ran towards my nephews who have each, at ages 7 and 10, already heard the expression “man up.” I softened.  And I acknowledged that at one point male perpetrators of violence had been children, but the poison of social construct, and the cycle of violence had forced the abdication of their childhoods and demanded they forsake their humanity in exchange for a life filled with the void of masculinity.

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The sign says, “Women are human.” Photo Janessa Mann

The film we watched underscored that ideal masculinity is hard to achieve and to maintain. Moreover, when that same masculinity is ripped away, the effects are just as explosive and dangerous, as those in the “making of the man.”

I had gone into the seminar with specific learning goals regarding the intersection of politics, policy, and advocacy in making gains against gender-based violence and sexual abuse. What I came away with was that and more! I came away with a clear understanding that not only do we need to “complexify” the narrative around gender, peace, and conflict, we also need to broaden our scope when it comes to the nuance of the victim/perpetrator dynamic in situations of mass violence.

The hunger for peace is  universal. The desire to live and thrive in an environment that is safe, whole, and accepting is felt by almost every person on the planet. Ideologies of masculinity have not diminished the urge for peace; rather, they have buried it under layers of expectation and —in the cases of some—forced them to become weapons of war. In the end, the hunger for peace remains.

A senator’s plea for friendship

We had gathered in Ottawa—eight MCC staff, along with 30 students and young adults from across the country—for our annual MCC Canada student seminar. The topic of the seminar was Gender, peace and conflict: Exploring the intersection.

One of our guest speakers was Senator Mobina Jaffer.  Jaffer has been active in promoting the Women, Peace and Security agenda for many years and she spoke about that work for several minutes. Then she asked permission to go “off topic.” She wanted to discuss what was really on her heart.

And what was on her heart was the reality of being a Muslim in Canada today.  Jaffer is herself Muslim—the first Muslim senator in Canada.  She spoke about the growing reality of Islamophobia in Canada and about her fears for the future.

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Senator Mobina Jaffer (centre) with seminar participants. Photo Thomas Coldwell.

Her words were influenced by the recent massacre of Muslims at prayer at a mosque in Quebec City, the increase of messages of hatred directed towards Muslims and others online, and the reaction to Liberal MP Iqra Khalid’s motion against Islamophobia in the House of Commons.  As a result of the motion, Khalid has received thousands of harassing and hateful emails, even including death threats.

Political developments in the U.S. and the impact on Muslims is also affecting Canada. Muslim asylum seekers from the U.S. are increasingly crossing the border into Canada at points other than official border crossings so as to avoid being returned to the U.S. through the Safe Third Country Agreement. Some Canadians are sounding the alarm about the potential threat these individuals pose.

“We are having a real crisis here in Canada,” Senator Jaffer said. “The conflict is at our door.”

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Small group discussion. Photo Janessa Mann

Nevertheless, she urged the students to be ambassadors of peace and goodwill and to resist the stereotypes which paint all Muslims as terrorists and a threat to society.  “Take time to get to know your Muslim neighbours,” she urged.  “Be curious about them. Ask them questions.”

Above all, she said, “Reach out.  Ask your Muslim neighbours, ‘How can I stand with you?’”

Jaffer’s plea for friendship and solidarity was a poignant interruption in the well-laid plans of our seminar.  At the conclusion of her speech, we paused to take a group photo and a few individuals spoke with her one on one. Then we continued with our agenda.

But the “interruption” returned at the conclusion of the seminar when two of the seminar participants shared their personal stories. Both are Muslims who arrived in Canada as refugees. Both felt emboldened to speak because of Jaffer’s words.

One young woman from Syria told how, as a result of the war in her country, she had lost her dream of becoming an engineer. After one year in Canada, she is beginning to believe the dream might become a reality. She reminded us of the saying, “I am because you are.” In other words, our lives as humans are intimately intertwined.

The other young woman, a Palestinian from Iraq, dreams of becoming a neurosurgeon. She urged her fellow students not to accept life as it is, but to commit to changing it for the good. “You can make a difference in the world!” she insisted. She expressed her deep gratitude for the Mennonite congregation that sponsored her and her family’s resettlement in Canada and for the friendship experienced at the seminar.

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In front of the Peace Tower.  Photo Thomas Coldwell

MCC has long been committed to building bridges of friendship with Muslims here in Canada and around the world.  Interfaith dialogue and bridge-building is, in fact, a key way that MCC, together with the partners we support around the world, seeks to build peace where there is hostility, friendship where there is fear.

We hadn’t identified interfaith friendship and peacebuilding  as one of the intended outcomes of our student seminar. But, thanks to a senator’s heartfelt plea, that’s precisely what happened.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for the Ottawa Office.

Everyone has something to offer

This week’s guest writer is Mark Tymm. A former intern in the Ottawa Office, Mark is currently working with MCC in Chad.

“What do you think, Paul?” I asked, looking at my supervisor during my internship with the MCC Ottawa Office in the fall of 2013. “How do I need to grow to better address issues of peace and justice? How do I live a life of more intentional discipleship?”

“Well, you’d benefit from some more grassroots or international experience… You’re passionate, but grassroots experience is invaluable,” was his response.

Over three years later, I find myself in N’Djamena, Chad, a hot and dry country in central Africa surrounded by Libya, Sudan, Central African Republic, and Nigeria. I came to Chad first with SALT, a one-year MCC program for young adults focused on Serving And Learning Together. Since completing the program, I have continued with MCC in Chad as a Service Worker, specifically working with our long term partner Ethics Peace and Justice (EPJ). EPJ’s work is centered predominantly on hosting interfaith workshops on conflict transformation across the country.

My time in Africa so far has certainly been eye-opening, challenging, filled with great friendships, perspective-changing moments, and life-giving experiences. One of these rich times was the recent All Africa Peace Exchange.

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Participants in the All Africa Peace Exchange. MCC photo by Mark Tymm

Following on the success of an exchange of education specialists in 2015, MCC decided to coordinate a summit of peace practitioners in 2017. This summit took place in Johannesburg, South Africa in January of this year.

Over thirty delegates from fourteen MCC programs across the continent, as well as visiting guests from MCC Ontario and US offices, came together to talk about our peacebuilding efforts. Participants brought a breadth of perspectives and peacebuilding experiences from contexts as diverse as Burkina Faso and Mozambique, from Ethiopia to Zimbabwe.

One of the presenters at the summit was Issa Ebombolo from Zambia, currently completing graduate studies at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario. Issa is the brains behind Peace Clubs, an MCC-funded project that teaches peacebuilding skills to children and youth. The Peace Clubs program began in Zambia but has since spread to South Africa, Burundi, Nigeria and pilot projects are being developed elsewhere, such as Chad.

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Participants from Mozambique, Zambia, Ethiopia and Ontario discuss the challenges of peace work in interfaith contexts.  MCC photo by Mark Tymm

My new friend shared his wisdom and insight with the group of peace practitioners. Issa encouraged us in our work with grassroots initiatives, rather than asking, “What do you need?” to reframe the question as, “What do you have?” Rather than demanding, “What needs to be done?” he urged us to ask, “What are you already doing?”

Be it life experience, time, energy, knowledge of the current context, or a wealth of cultural wisdom, Issa pointed out the depth of resources African peoples possess, resources which are often ignored. “No one under the sun has nothing; everyone has something to offer in any circumstances, including those we think have nothing.”

What a refreshing reminder for those who seek to create spaces of wholeness, peace and justice!

I have often struggled to identify exactly how a white middle class guy in his mid-twenties can possible contribute to building peace in Chad. Issa’s words also encouraged me to look at what I have to offer.

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MCC staff and partners listen to a presentation on contemporary issues in intercultural partnership in peacebuilding. MCC photo by Mark Tymm

Peacebuilders, it seems by nature, are people of high ideals. I know for myself personally, I am driven by the hope that one day injustice will be eliminated, equality and fullness will envelope our societies, and shalom will form the foundation for life. It is also important to remember that despite the messy reality of here-and-now, Jesus’ kingdom of justice, peace and good news also exists in a “now-yet-not-yet” kind of manifestation.

Peacebuilding rooted in faith was an important topic at the summit. We discussed MCC’s position of working with the existing local church, rather than establishing new churches. Alain Epp Weaver, director of strategic planning for MCC, noted that MCC’s work “is not focused on planting new churches, but [such churches] have emerged from MCC presence and the desire of MCC workers to share through their lives the gospel of God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ.”

One of the most exciting outcomes of the summit was the formation of an MCC Africa Peace Network, a formal space for MCC staff to discuss and meet on a regular basis. Though we haven’t met yet, seeing this group of peace practitioners commit to ongoing collaboration and to encouraging and supporting each other’s efforts is an inspiration.

The pursuit of peace continues to be a driving motivator for MCC workers across Africa, and collaboration between programs will no doubt be a good move. Echoed frequently across the continent is a proverb, the origins of which seem to have been lost from the annals of history:

“If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

Together we continue towards peace. On the journey, everyone has something to offer.

Savings groups “leave no one behind”

This week’s guest writer is Allison Enns, Food Security and Livelihood Coordinator for MCC Canada. She visited Kenya, Ethiopia and Cambodia in fall 2016 as part of a Canadian Foodgrains Bank tour to learn about savings groups.

Makueni County, Kenya – One by one, women come to the front of the circle and call out the amount of money they will be saving. In unison the group calls back the amount— “500 shillings!” —as bills and coins are dropped into a communal pot. Each woman does the same until all members of the group have announced how much they are saving this week. The total is counted and stored in a cooking pot, while amounts are meticulously recorded by the secretary.

This is a typical scene for over 12 million members of savings groups around the world. Savings groups are community groups that meet together regularly to save money, provide small loans to one another, and support each other financially when an unexpected cost such as illness occurs. Members create the rules and regulations for how the group functions, and manage the accounting entirely on their own.

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The weekly meeting of an all-women savings group in Kenya. Photo courtesy Joanna Beach.

One of the most profound impacts of savings groups is that they provide an ability to save and obtain loans for communities who lack access to banking services. Membership is targeted to those who are the most vulnerable and marginalised—those who aren’t eligible for loans from Micro Finance Institutes and those to whom local moneylenders are reluctant to loan money. Instead of relying on these outside resources that charge high interest rates and cause deep debt, savings group members are able to use their own resources to save and access loans that can help them start small businesses, buy livestock or seeds, support their families with food during hungry seasons, and send their children to school.

Savings groups not only provide financial support; they can also contribute to changes in attitude and perspective. Group members are most often women, and many express how when they first joined the groups they did not think it was possible to earn their own money, and had no say within their homes regarding household spending and other important decisions. In fact, most of their husbands were not supportive of them joining the groups.

One woman in Ethiopia tells her experience of joining a savings group and explains how, when she first joined, her husband teased her and thought nothing could come of such a group. Despite this, she persisted and continued to save, eventually being able to take out a significant loan to buy livestock and earn an income. When there was a particularly difficult time of year, she took out a loan to buy food for her family. Her husband was shocked at the strength of his wife during such a difficult time, and speaks emotionally about how, as a result of his wife’s involvement in the group, he didn’t need to ask for a loan from a moneylender. “Going to a moneylender is like telling them your secrets,” he shares, “my wife saved me from this shame.”  He is now supportive of his wife’s involvement in the savings group and has even joined one himself. Unlike before, they now make important household decisions about spending together.

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A savings groups in Ethiopia. Photo courtesy Joanna Beach

Last week was International Development Week, a time when there is a spotlight on the challenges and opportunities of working to support development in Canada and abroad. The theme of this year’s International Development Week—“leave no one behind”—expresses the global goals laid out in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

What does this call to “leave no one behind” really mean?

When I hear this phrase I am encouraged to think about how the most vulnerable and marginalised within communities can have opportunities to support themselves and their families. Sometimes new initiatives or technologies that are meant to help the poor aren’t actually accessible for the most vulnerable; they can’t necessarily afford to take the risks associated with something new and unknown.

The community-driven approach of savings groups, on the other hand, targets the most vulnerable and offers a low risk way to access capital. Those who face extreme poverty don’t need to be “left behind” in access to banking, and women don’t need to be “left behind” in earning an income and making decisions about household spending.