What’s fair about fair trade?

This weekend I will be celebrating World Fair Trade Day on May 13 and Mother’s Day on May 14. The combination seems very appropriate, as it was my mother who introduced me to the world of fair trade over 40 years ago.

In fact, the woman who started the fair trade movement in North America was also a mother.

Edna Ruth Byler

Edna Ruth Byler

Edna Ruth Byler was an MCC volunteer and mother of two who, while accompanying her husband Joe Byler on a trip to Puerto Rico in 1946, visited a Mennonite Central Committee project that taught women living in poverty to sew.

Recognizing the need for a new market for their beautiful lace products, Edna Ruth agreed to purchase some of their work to sell back in the United States, using the money from those sales to buy more products. Eventually, her work grew into Ten Thousand Villages, which is now the oldest and largest fair trade retailer in North America.

In some ways, it feels like fair trade has always been a part of my life, as for many years my mother sold fairly traded products out of our home. This was a time when SELFHELP Crafts of the World, now known as Ten Thousand Villages, was just becoming established in Canada, and there were few stores and festival sales, so the organization depended in large part on volunteers who sold product out of their homes. People would invite neighours, friends, family, and acquaintances to their house to learn about fair trade and to buy a gift.

My mother explained to me that selling the jewellery, cards, baskets, wooden boxes, ornaments, candle holders, tablecloths, napkins and other items handcrafted by people from countries around the world—and stored in our guest room—would help children in those countries go to school.

As someone who loved school, I couldn’t imagine a life without that opportunity. When the boxes were opened for people to shop, the guest room was transformed into a magical place where beautiful items were passed around and interesting stories were shared.

Ten Thousand Villages logoThanks to the creativity, initiative, and hard work of Edna Ruth Byler, the option to buy fair trade handicrafts has been available to North Americans for over 70 years. And today there are far more fair trade products, including food and clothing, available than ever before across North America and Europe.

I sometimes wonder, though, how most of us understand the concept of fair trade. What makes it fair and why isn’t all trade fair?

Fair trade is a both movement and a business model. It is defined as trade in which fair prices are paid to producers in developing countries—fair prices that adequately reimburse producers for the cost of materials and time spent making or growing the product.

The ten principles of fair trade focus on dialogue and building long-term relationships. They talk about transparency, accountability, capacity building, respect for the rights of women and children, safe working conditions, and environmental sustainability. In comparison, other trade and business models seem to be mainly about the rights of corporations and are concerned more with profits than people.

Rabeya Akter, Shuktara Handmade Paper Project, Bangladesh

Rabeya Akter at Shuktara Handmade Paper Project in Feni, Bangladesh.

However, people are at the heart of fair trade, and most of the producers or makers that Ten Thousand Villages works with are women, many of them mothers.

For those mothers, employment with a fair trade organization means income for regular meals, sturdier homes, school fees for some or all of their children, and access to medicines if someone falls ill. Flexible hours also mean mothers can be home with their children rather than spending twelve or more hours a day working outside the home. Women are provided with training opportunities, encouraged to participate in savings programs, and be financially independent.

This weekend, as we celebrate our mothers and the ways they have shaped us, we can also help to shape a better world through our consumer choices. Indeed, economic practices that place people first are a powerful way to change the world.

by Monica Scheifele, Program Assistant for the Ottawa Office. 

Swords into ploughshares

When Ernie Regehr and Murray Thomson started Project Ploughshares in 1976, their initiative was only supposed to last six months.

Just over forty years and many awards and accomplishments later, Ploughshares stands as one of the leading peace research organizations in Canada.

How did it all begin?

The seeds of Ploughshares were first sown four decades ago when two groups of people, each working separately on a common concern, came together.

Ernie Regehr—witnessing the links between militarism and under-development while working in southern Africa—teamed up with Murray Thomson (then-Director of CUSO) in 1976 to create a Working Group called “Ploughshares.” With the help of a bit of seed money and support (from CUSO, Canadian Friends Service Committee, Conrad Grebel University College, and Mennonite Central Committee), they studied the role of the international arms trade in impeding social and economic progress in developing countries.

Meanwhile, that same year, John Foster of the United Church had also convened a Working Group called “Canadian Defence Alternatives,” which aimed to educate the public on the increasing militarization of national security policy in Canada.

When these two groups merged together, Project Ploughshares was born.

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“Let us beat our swords into ploughshares,” by Evgeny Vuchetich (for the UN, 1959).

Emerging as the ecumenical voice on defence policy and disarmament, Ploughshares—formally established as a division of the Canadian Council of Churches—provided a critical assessment of the expansion of the Canadian arms industry, the nuclear arms race, and the impact of the world’s massive and growing stock of “swords” on security and development.

Not surprisingly, calling for the transformation of “swords into ploughshares” (Isaiah 2:4) was not an easy sell with political decision-makers.

As staff wrote in the very first issue of the The Ploughshares Monitor (which hit the shelves in April of 1977),

It is a common assertion of federal politicians and government officials that there is “no constituency” for peace issues. Public interest in the arms race, nuclear proliferation, and related issues is said to be minimal, making it difficult to place these items on the national political agenda. However, people with an active concern about these issues know otherwise. There is a “peace constituency” out there….

Over the decades, Ploughshares has proven that the peace constituency is alive and well!

Our office copy of the very first Ploughshares Monitor (Vol. 1, No.1)!

Serving as the focal point for broader church and civil society participation, they have shaped public policy conversations on some of the most complex international security challenges—from nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, to conventional arms control, weaponization of space, reduction of armed violence, and more.

Some of this work has focused on mobilizing Canadians to act for peace.

In the 1980s, for instance, during a time of deep public anxiety about the Cold War, Ploughshares not only led a high-level church leaders’ delegation to meet with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on nuclear disarmament, but they organized Canadians to send two million postcards to MPs, urging them to oppose the modernization of nuclear arsenals.

Later, in the lead-up to the 2003 war on Iraq, Ploughshares co-wrote Prepare for Peace in Iraq, a statement endorsed by 40,000 Canadians, which helped influence the government’s decision not to participate in the “coalition of the willing.”

Other elements of Ploughshares’ work may have been less visible to the broader public, but have played a significant role in furthering various agendas of the global disarmament community.

indexIn 1986, for example, they created the only database on Canadian military production and exports, still used by international organizations researching the global arms industry.

Since 1987, they’ve published the annual (and popular!) Armed Conflicts Report, which monitors the number and nature of conflicts worldwide.

And in 2003, they initiated the annual Space Security Index project, the first and only comprehensive and integrated assessment of space security.

In addition to providing technical expertise, Ploughshares has co-founded some important coalitions (the International Action Network on Small Arms, Mines Action Canada, etc.) and provided thoughtful leadership on others (like Control Arms Coalition). This civil society collaboration has been particularly important in the development of a convention like the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

Since the 1990s, Ploughshares, in partnership with other NGOs, actively and persistently promoted a treaty to regulate the trade and transfer of conventional weapons. In 2013, this decades-long endeavor finally paid off when, after rigorous negotiations, the UN adopted the ATT—a monumental achievement for the disarmament community.

Over the last number of years, they’ve weighed-in on many important public debates: in 2010, they critiqued the planned Joint Strike Fighter Jet program, long before it became top political news; this last year they’ve questioned the government’s $15 billion Saudi arms deal through innumerable op-eds and interviews; and, most recently, they’ve called out Canada—once a disarmament champion—for its absence at UN negotiations to create a worldwide nuclear ban.

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Ploughshares staff, past and present (photograph by Emilia Zibaei–at the 40th anniversary celebration; from the Ploughshares website)

As new staff have come on board, Ploughshares has been able to delve more deeply into research on fully autonomous weapons systems, and to expand into new areas such as refugees and forced migration.

Known for its credible research, precise analysis, and long-term commitment to advancing policies for peace, Project Ploughshares as consistently punched well above its weight.

Where will the next 40 years lead?

Jenn Wiebe is Director of the MCC Ottawa Office and serves on the Governing Committee of Project Ploughshares 

Will Canada “be back” as a disarmament champion?

Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the Ottawa Treaty to ban landmines—a disarmament effort that radically curtailed global use (and virtually eliminated trade) of a lethal and indiscriminate weapon.

Canada’s political leadership was front-and-centre in this historic achievement.images1

Since then, great international strides have been made to establish agreements and norms against other weapons that cause grievous suffering to civilians.

Following the model of the landmine treaty, cluster bombs were categorically banned a decade later in Norway. And, in 2014, the Arms Trade Treaty became the first (and long overdue!) global agreement regulating the trade and transfer of conventional arms.

Where is Canada in all of this? Well, in the twenty years since the Ottawa Treaty captured the world’s attention, Canada’s disarmament leadership has waned.

Once a major donor in mine action, Canada’s funding dropped significantly after 2010. Then, in 2015, the previous government passed (with little political fallout) widely-condemned cluster munitions ratification legislation that contravened the spirit and letter of the Convention. And, to date, Canada is the only country of all 28 NATO members not to have signed the landmark Arms Trade Treaty.

While we have seen “sunny ways” on various issues since last fall, there has been barely a whisper on disarmament…until last week.

At a speech in Toronto on October 28 during Disarmament Week, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion acknowledged Ottawa’s historic role in banning landmines, and signaled a number of government priorities for arms control and disarmament—some positive, some a bit ambiguous, and some not-so-good.

Acknowledging the rather troubling fact that Canada has yet to accede to the Arms Trade Treaty, Dion promised to make good on his mandate by “introducing the legislation necessary to join the ATT in the House of Commons by the end of this year.”

Civil society will be eagerly awaiting its full ratification into Canadian law.

06B18LancerCBU2Dion also recognized the need to “make more progress in the elimination of cluster munitions.” Though decidedly short on details, this is welcome news if it means Canada will increase investments in land clearance and victims assistance (as it did recently for landmines in Colombia).

Less welcome, however, is the government’s inaction on closing the controversial legal loophole that allows joint military operations with countries outside the treaty. Such inaction is curious considering that while in Opposition, the Liberals and NDP pushed (unsuccessfully) for amendments that would have categorically ruled out any connection to the use of these lethal weapons.

But the most problematic? Canada’s take on nuclear weapons.

According to Dion’s speech, a ban on nukes—the most indiscriminate, disproportionate, and destructive of all weapons (of which there are still over 15,000)—seems to be a utopian dream.

Canada recently voted against a widely-supported UN resolution to start a process towards negotiations for a legally binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons—backing instead the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty as the “more realistic” approach.

Minister Dion argues a ban isn’t possible, isn’t practical, and is divisive. Disarmament activists, however, argue that the world is rapidly changing, and the step-by-step approach to reducing nuclear arsenals is not only tired, it’s completely broken.

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Courtesy of ICAN

As billions continue to be spent modernizing nuclear arsenals, a ban is needed. And we should be under no illusion that there will ever be a “perfect” security environment in which to undertake this Herculean task.

Decades ago, a total ban on landmines would have been unthinkable—arguments about national security, military necessity, and their importance in joint military operations were used then, as they are now. Yet the thinkable became possible thanks, in part, to the standard-setting leadership Canada took in advancing humanitarian considerations, even in the face of aggressive opposition from allies.

Indeed, implementing an unequivocal ban on landmines helped contribute to the broad stigmatization of the weapon and encouraged even non-party states to adapt to new norms in military theater.

As a Project Ploughshares staff once said, “advocating arms control and disarmament is an incremental, often tedious activity with surprisingly rapid and successful exceptions—like the Ottawa Process.”

Big change can happen when there is political will.

Does Canada have the will to “be back” as a disarmament champion?

By Jenn Wiebe, Director of the Ottawa Office

Advocacy, living water and a prayer for parliamentarians

“If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water. … whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”  John 4:10, 14

If Jesus offered you a drink of “living water” what would you hope to receive from it? What would you need from the water?

These were questions asked by Kati Garrison from MCC’s liaison office at the UN in New York, as she led a devotional during a recent gathering of staff from MCC’s three advocacy offices (Ottawa, Washington and the UN). Kati was reflecting on the story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at a well — a passage  made familiar by Sunday School and the occasional sermon — and relating it to the work of advocacy.

I personally have never really considered what it might mean for me to receive “living water.” And in particular, what support and strengthening do I need for working in advocacy?

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Staff from MCC’s advocacy offices pose in front of famous words from Isaiah, near the United Nations offices in New York.  MCC photo/Doug Hostetter

Each participant at the gathering was encouraged to write their response on a piece of paper shaped like a drop of water and to place it in an empty pitcher. At a later point, we were each invited to receive some “living water” by returning to the pitcher and removing a drop. I had written “hope” on the drop I deposited and found “peace” on the drop I received. May I offer hope to those needing an advocate and may I find peace for the long journey that is advocacy.

Kati also encouraged us to remember that it was to a Samaritan woman that Jesus first offered a drink of living water. She was someone the disciples viewed as “other.” In our current contexts, who do we view as “other”? How can we see past their “otherness” to see one another as human beings and find God’s light in each other?

In our work in advocacy, it is often all too easy to see politicians as “other.” We sometimes forget that they are people, too, struggling with difficult decisions and challenges. Sometimes we only see them as the government or part of a particular political party and not as individuals like ourselves seeking to make a difference in the world. Occasionally we may even see parliamentarians and civil servants as part of the problems we are seeking to solve or the challenge we are trying to overcome, rather than a part of the solution as God intended.

The Peace Tower at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

Parliament Hill, Ottawa. MCC photo/Alison Ralph

In less than two weeks, parliamentarians will be returning to Ottawa to resume the first session of the 42nd Parliament. Here in the Ottawa Office we will be watching a number of government initiatives including: a possible peacekeeping mission in Africa, the inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women, the government’s ongoing response to the Syrian refugee crisis, and next steps following consultations and reviews around international humanitarian assistance and defence. As we monitor these and other issues, we will also be praying for those “others” that we may hear each other, understand each other, and find God’s light in one another.

Lord,

Thank you for the gift of living water and the love, hope, peace, courage, trust, patience, community, and so much more that it provides. As we receive this gift may we also find ways to be “living water” for others. May we offer hope, understanding, strength, compassion, love, and light to those we meet and interact with each day as we seek to make this world a better place.

We pray for parliamentarians who face long days filled with meetings, debates and events, while away from their families for weeks at a time. Grant them strength and wisdom to make difficult decisions around complex issues. May they have the patience to hear the voices of all those concerned. May we see them as individual people seeking to serve the people of Canada and not just part of a particular party or system.

We pray for government officials and civil servants that they may receive wisdom as they advise members of Parliament, understanding as they work to implement government decisions and policies, and patience as they strive to work within systems that do not always value people.

We pray for all the support staff working in the high pressure environment of Parliament Hill that they too may find strength, wisdom and patience as they assist with the work of government.

May God’s light shine through each of us, casting away the shadows so that we may truly be revealed to each other.

AMEN

By Monica Scheifele, program assistant in the Ottawa Office.

 

Haiti is passionate

The international press offers a single narrative of Haiti – one of political instability, malnutrition, disease and devastation. “The poorest country in the Western hemisphere” – this is how Haiti is too often described, ignoring the many layers that comprise Haitian culture and customs and make Haiti one of the most fascinating yet least understood countries in the region.

In late May, four staff from MCC’s North American advocacy offices and the Colombia-based regional policy analyst visited Haiti for one week to engage with MCC Haiti partners with the goal of strengthening MCC’s Haiti advocacy work among its New York, Ottawa, Washington, Colombia and Port-au-Prince offices. During this time they got to encounter Haiti as it is, not as the sensationalist press so often describes it. What follows is Rebekah Sears’ description of Haiti as she experienced it. It originally was published on the MCC Haiti blog

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Members of CCODMIR and the Dominican human rights organization Centro Bono with the MCC team in Malpasse.  Photo/Ted Owald.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic (D.R.) are facing a migration crisis. For much of their history, tensions have been high between the two nations, most recently due to D.R. policies that discriminate against Dominicans of Haitian descent and Haitian migrants. In 2013, a new law stripped tens of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship and, along with Haitian migrants, were made victim to sporadic and sometimes violent deportations to Haiti.

These policies and actions in the D.R. can be understood as a further attempt by the D.R. government to blame the country’s social and economic ills on Haitian migrants or Dominicans of Haitian descent, essentially scapegoating an entire group of people.

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When one person’s human rights are violated, everyone’s rights are violated.” — Pierre Garot Nere, Coordinator of CODDEMIR in Malpasse, Haiti. Photo/Anna Vogt.

During our journey in Haiti we spent time at the border, visiting those working on the front lines of this crisis. We met with members of a coalition of 15 Haitian groups, collectively known as CODDEMIR. For the past seven years, CODDEMIR (in English, the Collective of Organizations working for the Defence of Human Rights for Migrants and the Repatriated) has been pooling financial and human resources for one common goal of standing with the displaced from the D.R.

CODDEMIR engages in national and international advocacy on their behalf, through press releases, reporting, emergency assistance and education. Their passion and dedication spoke volumes to me; I felt hopeful creating a sense of hope as they shared their desire to protect  those who face difficult and divisive situations

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Stripped palms on Lake Peligre, in the border area of Malpasse. Photo/Anna Vogt.

The influx of people crossing the border since June 2015 has caused resentment in some Haitian communities. CODDEMIR has come alongside these communities to educate them about returnees’ needs. As a result, when CODDEMIR’s welcoming center is overcrowded, more local families and communities take displaced people into their homes.

Human rights groups, including CODDEMIR, are calling for significant action; action inside the D.R. to reverse laws discriminating against Haitians and those of Haitian descent, and action by the Haitian national government to come alongside migrants and also invest more in Haitian communities so people don’t feel they have to leave. They are also calling on the international community to pressure both governments to respond justly to the situation.

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In 2015 Michana (R) was living in the D.R. with her infant son. They were deported spontaneously and had no relations to help them on the Haiti side of the border. Miatrice (L) saw her crying on the side of the road and convinced her parents, who already had 8 people living in their home, to take them in. Terre Froide. Photo/Ted Barlow, Operation Blessing.

At the core, these organizations are calling for the recognition of our common humanity, encouraging all of us to welcome others, support each other, and stand together. In this, we can say that Haiti is passionate about welcoming and caring for others.

Rebekah Sears is a policy analyst with MCC’s Ottawa Office. 

A prayer for refugees for World Refugee Day

The United Nations has designated June 20 as World Refugee Day — a day to commemorate the strength, courage and resilience of millions of refugees.  To help churches and groups mark this important day, MCC has prepared a worship and information packet  called “Hospitality and Hope: Resources for Worship, Learning and Action.” The following prayer, written by Steve Plenert, is excerpted from the packet. 

Lord Jesus Christ,

We remember that in your infancy you were a refugee. The political leaders of your country sought to end your life, and so your parents fled with you to another country in secret. We don’t know how long before you were able to return to your home and your people.

Help us, O Lord, to grow in compassion for those who are displaced from their homes in our day. Help us not to see them only as problems, statistics or threats. Help us to see refugees as fellow humans who have been forced to flee their homes, and as people who have gifts to share with us.

RefugeeO God, we know refugees and displaced persons must make excruciating decisions, and we ask for your mercy upon them. We ask for mercy for parents who take children from their homes. Mercy for children who leave parents too weak to travel. Mercy for those who choose to stay for whatever reasons and who live with severe consequences for those choices. We ask for mercy for those whose housing is inadequate – cold in winter, hot in summer, insufficient for privacy or hygiene or satisfaction. Have mercy on your children who have left their homes, O Lord.

O God, we know – sometimes too well – the causes of displacement and migration. We pray for the situations that have led to the refugee crises in our world. We pray for those who promote extremist ideologies, that they would change their ways and not choose violence. We pray for repressive regimes, that they would seek to engage people in building freedom.

Help us, O Lord, to be compassionate and to know how we can help those who have been displaced. Help us to know when it is time to provide relief, when it is time for resettlement, and when advocacy for peace and change is what is needed most. Give us courage and strength to be people of compassion and justice in the face of complex and overwhelming demands.

We know that you love all people, dear Lord. Help us to be the instruments of your love and peace in the world.  Amen.

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Building peace and hope one girl at a time

After being engulfed in over 20 years of bloody civil war between the north and the south, South Sudan gained independence in 2011, only for brutal and complex internal conflict to erupt again in late 2013. Often portrayed by the media as an “ethnic conflict,” South Sudan’s civil war connects acutely to politics and power issues and the constant shifting of alliances between groups, all coupled with a very heavily armed civilian population.

So far, an estimated two million people have been internally displaced by conflict, while all sides have been accused of gross human rights violations and attacks against civilians across the country. Reports from the United Nations  and other groups  describe the horrific sexual violence committed specifically against women and girls.

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Bekah (bottom R) poses with other MCC staff and members of Organization of Non-Violence and Development (ONAD) in Juba, South Sudan.  Photo/Bekah Sears

Even beyond armed conflict and sexual violence, the challenges for girls at the community level are many. Recently, as part of a small delegation from MCC offices in North America, I was able to visit programs and partners in South Sudan. In the town of Rumbek, northwest of Juba, we talked extensively about these challenges..

One of the biggest challenges facing girls, in addition to armed conflict, is early and forced marriage. Girls as young as 12 or 13 are forced into marriages often with pressure from family members, especially uncles and other male relatives. In this region of South Sudan, cattle farming is central to the local economy and practice, including marriage dowries. When a young man wants to get married he often has to borrow cattle from his older brothers and uncles to pay the bride price. Once this young man and his wife begin to have daughters of their own, his older brothers may apply intense pressure and even physical force – kidnapping girls from their parents’ houses – to have the daughters marry as soon as possible, in order to regain the cattle price.

In addition, for most families, education for boys is highly favoured over that of girls. The girls who actually start primary school are much less likely to finish, let alone start secondary school. Many are forced to drop out due to early marriage, or their brothers are given preference over the cost of school fees in secondary school. In a context where education as a whole makes up less than 1% of the national budget, these factors only further hinder girls from shaping their own lives and futures.

In a bold move ten years ago, the council of chiefs and leaders in the Rumbek area expressed a strong desire to develop a secondary school for girls. An Irish organization, Loreto, was invited to begin working with community leaders to help develop the Loreto Girls Secondary School. MCC has since joined to support this initiative.

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Students take a break from their classes at Loreto Girls Secondary School, Rumbek, South Sudan.  Photo/Bekah Sears

Starting off small, Loreto has quickly become a highly sought-after program for girls from around the country. This year, over 200 girls have applied for the 65-70 open spaces, which are awarded based on academic ability, regional diversity, and level of risk facing applicants. The school also serves as a safe space for girls and young women. Girls who feel they are in danger of a forced marriage, or their home region is caught up in violence, are permitted to remain on campus year round rather than return home for three months when school is not in session.

The school also emphasizes opportunity – encouraging students to dream big and think about their future. MCC supports after-school clubs in science, engineering and technology, where students experiment with various technologies, such as computer tablets, while working to improve math and science skills.

In addition, peace clubs are a key element of the school curriculum, providing a safe place for students to deal with personal issues, as well as learn conflict resolution skills that can be applied in their relationships with other students as well as with their families and communities.  Participation in peace clubs also gives the students, and anyone interacting with them, be it teachers or their friends and family, a vision for achieving peace in their country.

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Students prepare to participate in a debate.  Photo/Bekah Sears

Loreto monitors its alumni and has seen impressive results. In recent years over 40% of graduates have gone directly on to university, in South Sudan and other countries throughout the region. Many others continue into other training or transition into work.

A major highlight for our group was a drama and poetry performance. Here the students expressed their hopes for peace in South Sudan, and also their hopes to be valued for who they are – young women who are proud of themselves and their heritage. With smiles and laughter they demonstrated a keen knowledge of the unique challenges they face, but also the determination to press on.

One can easily get lost in the complexities of conflict in South Sudan, especially the challenges faced by women and girls. But hope and peace often emerge from the ground up, one girl at a time.

By Rebekah Sears, policy analyst for the Ottawa Office of MCC.