Sunday, April 1, 2012

Pursuing peace through humanitarian assistance

NGOs play a vital role in the pursuit of peace
Non-governmental organizations (NGO) play a vital role in promoting justice and in building peace. The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace recently learned that the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has drastically reduced its funding.

In 2011, the public contributed $12.6 million in donations to Development and Peace, while CIDA’s contribution was $8.2 million. From 2006-2011, CIDA contributed $44.6 million. Over the next five years, CIDA will contribute a paltry $14.5 million, and has stipulated that this money can only be used in 7 of the 30 countries where Development and Peace operates. Although Development and Peace has a substantial presence in Africa, only 1 African country is on the CIDA list. This is shocking since the continent is plagued with problems, like poverty, drought, starvation, AIDS, and civil strife.

NGOs make an important contribution to the global community. Development and Peace, for example, works with other voluntary international agencies to promote sustainable development, to reduce poverty, to empower women, and to protect human rights in Africa, Central and Latin America, and parts of Asia, collectively called the Global South. This is the work of peace building, and it benefits all of us.

The Cambodian experience - an example
I recently had the opportunity to hear Mam Sambath, the executive director of Development and Partnership in Action (DPA), a Cambodian NGO and partner of Development and Peace, speak about the successes and challenges of reconstructing Cambodian society after the 1975-1979 genocide of the Pol Pot regime that killed 2 million Cambodians.

The Cambodian example is instructive for understanding the problems that threaten the wellbeing of thousands of people daily throughout the Global South. DPA’s work in education, natural resource management, food security, and health are helpful in understanding the important contribution of NGOs.

Raising the standard of living for a community
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Some specific DPA projects include literacy training for women, building schools, and providing scholarships, especially for girls. Educating communities in proper agricultural techniques, livestock management, and fish culture secures the food supply, and increases income. Literacy and agricultural projects raise the standard of living throughout the community.

Seeking justice for indigenous communities
In Cambodia, as elsewhere, the physical and spiritual wellbeing of indigenous communities is integrally connected with the land. Through its natural resource management programs, DPA helps communities develop sustainable land projects. It advocates for indigenous land rights, and helps communities obtain legal recognition for projects, and legal land titles. This is important when companies with government granted land concessions seek to develop the land for mining or plantations.

Improving health
Simple measures improve health for both individuals and the community. Water pumps, filter containers and hand washing reduce the incidence of disease. Mosquito nets protect against malaria and dengue fever.

Coping with climate change
With DPA’s help, communities develop an action plan to cope with climate change. Small irrigation projects, dams and canals help communities avoid or mitigate widespread damage from drought and floods.

While projects and programs improve the standard of living in rural areas, it is more difficult to impact government attitudes that contribute to systemic injustice. Mam noted that human rights abuses, the prohibition against public assembly, and limited access to public information are continuing challenges.

Longing for peace
While Cambodia’s experience of gender inequality, illiteracy, poverty, and the exploitation of indigenous communities is a common story, so is the people’s desire to live in peace and with dignity. This longing in the human heart unites people in the Global North and in the Global South, and is a reminder of our common humanity, and our responsibility for one another.

Of the world’s 184 recognized nations, 157 nations comprise the Global South, where lack of safe drinking water, inadequate sanitation, environmental degradation, human and civil rights abuses, and ethnic conflict are part of daily life. NGOs help communities address some of these challenges, and are a tool for positive action in the Global South.

Humanitarian projects are worth the money
In my view, government funding of NGOs is taxpayer dollars well spent. NGOs are an effective, efficient, and inexpensive tool for positive action. NGOs pursue peace through projects that fashion a more equitable and compassionate world, where all people share in the good gifts of the earth. Without respect for the dignity and rights of all people, there can be no peace.

The Canadian government continues to cut funding to humanitarian organizations. In the long run, this may contribute to sustaining conflict, rather than promoting a culture of peace.

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