We are losing our moral compass

A profound darkness enveloped me. The cloudy night cut off even the bright orienting starlight that a moonless African night could offer. Fortunately my guide's accustomed eyes kept me from wandering into the ditch alongside the village road in Botswana.

A profound darkness enveloped me. The cloudy night cut off even the bright orienting starlight that a moonless African night could offer. Fortunately my guide’s accustomed eyes kept me from wandering into the ditch alongside the village road in Botswana. Finally a light shone. A single kerosene lamp sitting on a small open store-front counter directed us towards the goal of our evening walk.

Profound development challenges – often of the most basic kind, like lighting the dark – still confront hundreds of millions of people across our planet today. Earlier I had accompanied Mennonite Central Committee field workers out to a village on the edge of the Kalahari desert in this landlocked southern African republic. Along the dirt track we had passed girls and women carrying water, often for kilometres, back to their homes. In this region the distinctive mud-plastered rondavels with conical thatched roofs built from all-local materials marked extended family compounds.

The MCC staffers came to participate in a kgotla, a village meeting presided over by community elders. An interested klatch gathered to discuss a proposal to develop a model farm to serve in upgrading local agricultural practices. Conflict had arisen, though, when a family claimed they had been given the right to use the communal land in question. Under the demanding African sun we sat on the ground and listened to the arguments about traditional rights and the community’s needs to grow more and better foods.

Land, rights, water and light made up my journal notes during those days in Botswana some three decades ago. Basic needs and fundamental rights provided the focus for most of the efforts by the international groups like MCC and CUSO that were working with local people on the development projects I visited there. At that time CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency, directly assisted their poverty reduction and human rights efforts. Not so any more.

These basic needs in Africa, and for that matter the whole of the Global South today, have not changed. However, the merger of CIDA with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) announce by the federal government in March worry many who have supported Canada’s longstanding, positive role in international development. Has the old battle between those seeking to tie aid to trade and groups committed to lifting the burden of poverty from the shoulders of the world’s poorest been decided in favour of Canada’s international economic goals? How will the life-changing efforts of those Canadian groups and individuals seeking to reduce poverty and improve living conditions among the poorest of our world be affected?

How will the omnibus Bill C-60, which includes the CIDA-DFAIT merger measure, impact laudable Canadian international efforts in promoting, gender equality, food security or efforts like the eradication of polio? Will supporting Canadian investment abroad become the be-all and end-all of our international aid dollars now?

We have already seen attempts by the Harper government to muzzle or sharply cutback nongovernmental groups like KAIROS, which have brought tremendous experience and commitment to the global effort to foster human rights, protect the environment and alleviate suffering from extreme poverty. Is the federal government’s international aid program losing its moral compass?

Pope John Paul II, in his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, said: “when interdependence is separated from its ethical requisites it has disastrous consequences for the weakest and … triggers negative consequences even in rich countries.” Should we and our international aid efforts be bent to serve economic ends or should our economy be controlled and focused on serving human needs first?

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact pazypan@yukon.net.

Namaste notes

Sunday, May 19 – Pentecost ends the Easter season and commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. A suggested reading is John 20:19-23.

Tuesday, May 21 – World Cultural Diversity Day’s “Do One Thing for Diversity and Inclusion” campaign sees bridging the gap between cultures as “urgent and necessary for peace, stability and development.”

Wednesday, May 22 – International Day for Biodiversity’s 2013 theme is “Water and Biodiversity.” Water, which underpins all ecosystems, is a major challenge for sustainable development.

Thursday, May 23 – The Declaration of the Bab marks the inception of the Baha’i faith in 1844.

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