This post was written by Douglas Olthof, Project Researcher and MA in International Studies at Simon Fraser University.
On January 19, 2011 the Engaging Diasporas in Development Project convened the first in its series of public dialogues. The dialogue was entitled “Innovations in Poverty Reduction and Economic Development” and covered three core themes: responding to basic needs through grassroots mobilizations, business and economic development, and tapping the potential: learning from the diaspora.
Participants began filtering into the Morris J. Work Centre for Dialogue amid considerable buzz. Soon thereafter, as the sounds of dozens of conversations mingled above the assembly, a single voice cut through the din and invited everyone to join together in conversation and collaboration. Vanessa Richards urged the participants to join in song and for the next few minutes the diverse crowd became a united chorus. With melody and harmony still reverberating through the room, the dialogue had begun.
The first session got underway with a focus on “responding to basic needs through grassroots mobilization.” Three ‘storytellers’ shared their experiences with the assembled participants. Kaye Kerlande, conveyed her experience as a second generation Canadian of Haitian decent and her struggle to formulate a meaningful response to the overwhelming disaster that befell that country in January of 2010. Sumana Wijeratna, a Sri Lankan-Canadian, was the second storyteller and her story can be found in a previous blog post. Finally, Lorie Corcuera of ENSPIRE shared her experiences in organizing with other members of the Filipino diaspora and partnering with an organization in that country to create long-term housing solutions for low-income and marginalized families in Manila. What followed was an open dialogue covering topics including the role of women in development, the varied nature of diaspora identity and the importance of local partnerships, to name a few. SFU Communications professor June Francis tied the first session together by highlighting common themes and providing thoughtful insights on the empathy and visceral connection that diasporas bring to their development work.
The second section of the dialogue addressed “business as economic development.” Two storytellers, Miriam Egwalu and Antonio Arreaga, constructed a compelling launch pad for the discussion. Miriam Egwalu is an immigrant to Canada from Uganda and her story can be found in a previous blog post. Antonio Arreaga is Honorary Consul of Costa Rica in Vancouver. He related to the dialogue participants a number of sector-specific examples whereby “Canadian know-how” was “tropicalized” to improve the performance of Central American businesses. The session continued with a wide-ranging dialogue covering topics including the transfer of market knowledge from Canada to developing countries, the effectiveness of small-scale projects, direct support to individuals in developing countries and the specific challenges facing diaspora youth.
The dialogue closed with comments from SFU professor of History and Latin American Studies, Alexander Dawson. Professor Dawson invoked the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 5) in highlighting the responsibility of countries like Canada to address poverty wherever it is found. In so doing, he cautioned the dialogue participants to avoid placing responsibility for poverty reduction at the feet of the diaspora. Furthermore, he urged participants to avoid emphasizing the specific to the exclusion of the general, and asked what role the diaspora might play in affecting policy change both here in Canada and in the developing countries with which they identify.
As the dialogue came to a close, participants began filtering out to the reception area and the conversation continued. In a dozen or more small circles people exchanged ideas and contact information. Some reflected on the ideas raised by Professor Dawson, others on how they could better engage with the diaspora in their own development initiatives and still others on how they might use their own diaspora connections to start engaging with development. Many were heartened and invigorated through connecting with others who are doing the same thing. This was the start of a conversation the Engaging Diasporas in Development project hopes to help sustain over the months ahead.
The January 19 dialogue was only the first in a series of 5 that will take place over the next 7 months. The next dialogue “Improving Health” will be held at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue (580 West Hastings) on March 16, 2011. This dialogue will take as its starting point the question “What does being part of a diaspora mean to you and how does it affect your experience and understanding of health?” Participants will be encouraged to contribute to a discussion of the particular skills, knowledge and networks members of the diaspora can draw upon to improve health, both in Canada and in the other countries with which they identify. Through inclusive exchanges, the assembled group will explore the various efforts and initiatives currently underway and, crucially, will address the potential that may yet lie untapped. The goal will be to better understand how the connections or “bridges” diasporas form between one place and another facilitate change and improvement in health at both ends.