May 28, 2013

Emerging Leaders’ Initiative a Hopeful Sign for Canadian Development Cooperation

This year’s CCIC Forum, which wrapped up on Friday, focused on envisioning what the future of Canadian international development co-operation could look like, 25 years from now. During his plenary presentation, Michael Edwards of Demos led his audience through an exercise where we were actually asked to close our eyes and picture this future. What did we want it to be? What might it look like?

One of the older participants later noted, “When I did that exercise, at first all I could think of was…in 25 years, I’ll be dead!” Certainly, most of the attendees, including almost all the current NGO leadership, hope to be retired by then. Luckily, one of the most prescient moves by the CCIC was to introduce, for the first time this year, the ‘Emerging Leaders’ category of participant. These are younger professionals, most under 30 years old, who work for, and are nominated by, CCIC member organizations. It is these emerging leaders whom we must count on to carry on the baton in realizing the hopes and the dreams of today’s leadership. And of course, since Canada’s international NGO sector values inclusion, it is only right that these young leaders also add their voices to the collective conversation about the future.

This year, 18 emerging leaders registered for the Forum, and it seems likely that this number will increase in future years. Their participation was a resounding success. Paul Heidebrecht of MCC Canada worked closely with Amy Bartlett, this year’s forum coordinator, to put together a special program for emerging leaders, in addition to the regular forum schedule. This included a pre-forum workshop on “Influencing policy in interesting times”, visits with Liberal and NDP MPs most engaged with international development and foreign affairs portfolios, and a final meeting to determine a vision and next steps for the more immediate future of the emerging leaders’ network.

Having sat in on many of these events, I was struck by how well the key themes from the main conference echoed with those specifically for young leaders. Kathy Vandergrift, the chair of the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children, spoke to the young leaders group about the changing Canadian political context. According to her view, the leading public discourse is based on fear, and our challenge is to move it to one of compassion. How, Kathy asked us, can civil society organizations develop an “empathetic imagination” within the Canadian public? And how do we find our own courage in doing so, if CSOs are afraid to take up advocacy roles because doing so may threaten their funding bases?

This theme of moving out of, and towards, a vision of hope and compassion came up again and again throughout the forum. It was raised by Michael Edwards, by many Forum participants, and even by some of the MPs we met with. As the legislation around the recent DFAIT/CIDA merger calls for the restructured development program to reflect ‘Canadian values’, there is a wide sense of optimism that these values really are based on compassion and solidarity. Young Canadians clearly share the desire to look outwards with compassion: international development is the most popular undergraduate degree amongst students, despite the uncertainty of future employment in the sector.

Personally, I have a very hard time imagining where Canadian international development cooperation may be in 25 years, because I am simply not sure what the world will look like in 25 years, given accelerated rates of social, political, ecological and technological change. Will we still be dependent on oil in 25 years? What will the gap between rich and poor be? Who will be the world’s super power? What will our national and international political organisation look like? What will the state of the environment be?

I’m not sure about any of these, but I am sure that the world we will gift to future generations is built on the actions we take today. I vote for a world of love, rather than fear, of open cooperation rather than closed competition. For Canadian CSOs, this starts with revisiting and reinvigorating their links with the Canadian public, as well with the world, reminding ourselves of the values we hold dear, celebrating the good work we have already done, and working collaboratively and creatively as we move forward. More than ever, Canadian CSOs depend directly on the Canadian public to understand and support their work, and they must open themselves to greater exchange. Likewise, while Canada has much to give to the world, we also have much to learn from our friends internationally, now more than ever.

I do not mean to downplay the current challenges, nor those that lay ahead, for CCIC and its members. They’re formidable. But I think we’re up to it. Having spent time in the last three days with the first group of CCIC emerging leaders, I can’t help but walk away with the impression that the future is bright.

Sarah Parkinson

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