blog posts from GYC's participants, alumni, & staff
By Jon Telch (GYC Rwanda 2013)
I am a Canadian lobbyist. And every day I go to work, I think of Rwanda.
A broad stroke paints lobbyists as former political staffers who manipulate government outcomes for those ‘less than popular’ industries. While that is true for some, I like to think of myself and my firm as socially conscious lobbyists.
Yes I am now a lobbyist, but the majority of the clients I represent are First Nations communities and organizations. Moreover, at Steven A. Strauss & Associates, a Toronto based government relations and communications firm, we have a simple philosophy when working with First Nations communities and First Nations organizations: to put ourselves out of a job. We see ourselves, not just as providers of government relations services (effecting legislation, funding decisions and policy, etc.) but also, as training specialists, so that in a year or so, the community will no longer be reliant on our services. Our goal is to help move a community from dependent to independent.
So where does Rwanda fit in to all of this? Simply, it is thanks to my time spent in Rwanda as a part of GYC, that I truly understand the very model I apply to my work with First Nations. When I touched down in Kigali, Rwanda last August, I had no idea that what I was about to witness and experience was going to have a direct impact on my career in Canada.
As a principle, international development should make us feel all warm and fuzzy. Who realistically does not want to see a community in distress receive the assistance they need? But what defines the right kind of assistance? There are as many good practices in international development as there are bad ones. Too often,organizations, or foreign governments spend ridiculous amounts of money to ‘deal with’ a problem abroad, without addressing said problem.
First Nations issues in Canada have often suffered the same fate. Government, NGO’s and others have donated exorbitant amounts to First Nations, at times solving problems, but more often creating further community dependency. I tend to cringe when I imagine development, as a means of telling a community what is good for them, rather than being invited to assist problem solve.
It was not until I had the chance to visit and work with organizations like COPORWA and Search For Common Ground, that I truly understood what positive development actually was.
Development in Rwanda to Canada’s First Nations
COPORWA, an organization working with the indigenous Batwa minority in Rwanda, fears that genocide of culture is being committed against this tribe. In Ontario, First Nations experience a similar assault. After being left out of the education system and other aspects of essential quality of life needs, some Nations are falling behind, and losing touch with their roots as well as cultural practices.
Taking note from COPORWA’s example, we are helping one of our clients advocate for a curriculum, within which, First Nations students would be able to identify for the first time.
Search For Common Ground could spend it’s dollars on financially supporting victims of the genocide of the 1990’s, hoping that financial compensation would cure psychological trauma and mend strong community divides between perpetrators and victims.
Rather, this organization goes directly to the community, and facilitates public events where victims and perpetrators are face to face with one another, telling their stories, expressing their regrets, their fears and hopes for national reconciliation. It is a difficult project, but one that has had a direct impact on strengthening Rwandan communities by providing a venue to address their past while joining together in the hopes of finding a brighter future.
It is the practices of these organizations that got me thinking about development on a deeper level. What really hit me was the importance of creating a positive legacy. Rwanda lead me to develop a culturally sensitive approach to my work, as I was able to see the benefit first hand. My time in the country let me experience how change can be positive, it’s not to say that anything in the way of a major donation is bad, just that there needs to be a comprehensive strategy in place to shift from dependence to independence. Had I not had the chance to witness that in Rwanda, my client interactions would probably be quite different, and in some cases less successful. I think anyone can offer to help; anyone can work within politics if they want to, but what I truly believe in, and what makes our organization unique is that we put our effort into that shift away from dependence, and focus our attention on community success.
To me, positive legacy is that crucial transition away from dependence towards independence for communities. Thanks to my time in Rwanda, I believe I am helping to provide a lasting benefit to First Nations communities.
Thank You, Merci, Murakoze (Kinyarwanda), Miigwech (Ojibwe)