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Unity and communication key to grassroots influence

In 1988, Michael Dougherty invited Marcel Masse, the then-president of the Canadian International Development Agency, to speak at a national meeting of anti-poverty and peace activists in Montreal.

In 1988, Michael Dougherty invited Marcel Masse, the then-president of the Canadian International Development Agency, to speak at a national meeting of anti-poverty and peace activists in Montreal.

Masse, who headed Canada’s main foreign aid agency, pulled up to the Montreal conference hall in a chauffeured car with his wife in tow, and praised the do-gooders for their work.

He left the audience - the 50-person Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace - shocked.

“It was one of those mouth-open, draw-dropping kinds of things,” said the 39-year-old Dougherty, who was president of the Catholic organization at the time.

Dougherty’s group focused on localized sustainable development projects in Third World countries, from building homes to getting communities clean water.

These projects were “a release valve on the kettle cooker,” Masse said, referring to politically unstable populations that felt their governments were selling out to Western companies by offering them major infrastructure projects.

“You allow us to do the structural adjustments that we need to do in order to get this system functioning more efficiently,” Masse said, according to Dougherty.

Basically, the activists were helping the bad guys.

By deflecting anger that would have otherwise been directed towards the multinationals, Canada’s big engineering firms - who received money from the federal development agency - could more easily slip into countries and build the real money makers, said Masse.

“We had a very different kind of appreciation for what we were doing,” said Dougherty.

But then again, Masse flew with a very different flock in the foreign-aid world.

His agency funded and worked alongside major Canadian multinationals who lobbied for privatization in poor countries so that Canadian business could bid on lucrative infrastructure projects.

It was the “dominant economic paradigm” at the time, said Dougherty, and it’s existed in many forms since the end of the Second World War. Known as the “Washington Consensus,” the corporate-driven global setup was pushed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

“(Masse) saw us fitting right in the paradigm,” said Dougherty.

The activists thought they were changing the world.

By showing people how to build better homes, run better farms and get safer water, the sustainable development gurus thought they were replacing the corporate-driven agenda that kept poor countries poor and depending on the West.

Not so, said Masse.

In fact, the activists were strengthening the system they were trying to destroy, said Dougherty, who referred to the Masse incident during the first presentation of the Yukon Development Education Centre’s speaker series last Wednesday.

Masse’s speech highlights an inherent paradox in sustainable development - that helping people to help themselves at a grassroots level is too small an effort to ever change the overarching economic order.

And the big guys always come knocking when change is afoot.

“It’s very difficult for the great powers to accept that there might be alternative ways of living,” said Dougherty, who has watched sustainable-development efforts get snagged by the powers-that-be throughout his life.

Originally from Missouri, Dougherty got involved in anti-poverty groups in high school.

After doing graduate work at McGill University on sustainable development, he decided to stay in Canada.

He’s lived in Whitehorse for 19 years.

During last week’s presentation, Dougherty offered a short biography that brought to light the most serious shortcomings in sustainable development thinking.

In 1970, he was in Chile when Salvador Allende’s socialist government was elected, promising land and bank reforms to help the nation’s poor.

Dougherty was working with a group that was trying to help build more affordable housing, and he was encouraged by the remarkable breakthrough that Allende had made.

But in 1973, a US-backed coup stormed Chile’s government buildings and murdered Allende.

The infamous General Augusto Pinochet took power.

A government that devoted itself to homegrown economic structures was wiped out before Allende could finish his term.

Dougherty was also in Tanzania when Julius Nyerere came to power.

Nyerere was part of a new generation of post-colonial African politicians who advocated for economic modernization that supported Africans rather than Western companies.

He aimed for Tanzanian self-reliance, and Dougherty remembers a textile factory that offered unprecedented benefits to workers and devoted itself to supporting the surrounding community.

But the textile factory was privatized after Nyerere left office in the 1980s, said Dougherty.

Despite these setbacks, Dougherty still believes in the traditional sustainable development model.

But with micro-economic projects being so easily co-opted, shouldn’t a larger effort be made to erode the powers that eventually undermine sustainable development?

“You have to do both,” said Dougherty.

“You have to, at the time, be putting in international structures, coalitions and networks that deal with dominant paradigm,” he said.

“But they can’t be pyramidal, like the corporate structures.”

Networking between different environmental and human rights groups has given these grassroots efforts leverage against multinationals, he said.

But communications technology has also allowed more coverage and transparency on issues that Western companies would prefer Western people didn’t see.

The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace recently worked on a campaign to highlight polluting mines in Guyana, the Philippines and Peru.

The mining companies came through and joined the organization in calling for global environmental standards.

“The mining structures themselves were responding and saying we’ve got to adopt a global ethic,” said Dougherty. “But there are always going to be freebooters.”

And while the Washington Consensus has been heavily criticized by expert economists, the built-in contradictions in sustainable development remain.

“I’ve witnessed enough global shifts in what is acceptable and what is not acceptable to say that change does occur,” said Dougherty. “But we still have a few more shifts to go through.”

Michael Dougherty spoke at the first presentation of the Yukon Development Education Centre’s speaker series last Wednesday. The speaker series is held every Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Francophone Centre. This year’s theme is Sustainability: Global and Local Perspectives.

Contact James Munson at