Ottawa Citizen - - City Editorial - KATE HEART­FIELD

Peo­ple who live in Ottawa — or any cap­i­tal — get used to the idea that projects fail. The big­ger the project, the big­ger the fail­ure. Best not to try.

It’s a don’t-stick-your-neck-out kind of town. This is my ex­pla­na­tion for the cyn­i­cism about global poverty I en­counter in Ottawa. There is a big group of de­vel­op­ment en­thu­si­asts here, of course, and Ottawa has its share of earnest stu­dents. But there’s a wide gap be­tween those peo­ple and the oth­ers, the Ot­tawans who adopt the view that it’s too hard or too de­press­ing to help peo­ple in other coun­tries — or that it’s not pos­si­ble any­way.

The an­noy­ing thing about this at­ti­tude is that it’s a mis­per­cep­tion. The peo­ple who ac­tu­ally know a lot about poor coun­tries and spend time there don’t walk around like mar­tyrs, con­grat­u­lat­ing them­selves for do­ing noble, but doomed, work. In fact, most don’t find it as hard or de­press­ing as their neigh­bours imag­ine, and they’re too smart to work on any­thing doomed.

“I laugh a lot there,” says Peg Her­bert, who founded Help Le­sotho three years ago. “I never get dis­cour­aged.” She was teach­ing at the Univer­sity of Ottawa when she started to learn, through a stu­dent, about the tiny, poor, moun­tain­ous coun­try sur­rounded by South Africa.

Around the cor­ner from Peg Her­bert’s New Ed­in­burgh home and of­fice lives Dr. Don Kilby, the di­rec­tor of health ser­vices at the Univer­sity of Ottawa.

Dur­ing the Jeux de la Fran­co­phonie in Ottawa in 2001, Dr. Kilby worked with care providers from Africa. That in­ter­ac­tion de­vel­oped into the Canada Africa Com­mu­nity Health Al­liance. Now, he trav­els to Africa sev­eral times a year.

“It’s not about sick peo­ple and sad­ness and star­va­tion,” Dr. Kilby says. “There’s a lot of work to be done but th­ese peo­ple are strong and re­silient and I see a lot more laugh­ter and songs and smiles and hugs there than I see here in Canada. I think that tells us some­thing great about hu­man na­ture.”

As for it be­ing im­pos­si­ble to make a dif­fer­ence, tell that to the many peo­ple — AIDS or­phans, for ex­am­ple — who are ben­e­fit­ing from Help Le­sotho or CACHA.

Health care isn’t just a hu­man­i­tar­ian is­sue. Ed­u­cat­ing AIDS or­phans is good for the global econ­omy of which Ottawa is part. Do we want th­ese chil­dren to grow up to be aid re­cip­i­ents or en­trepreneur­s? The time and en­ergy spent be­ing sick, car­ing for sick peo­ple — even at­tend­ing fu­ner­als — makes it hard for peo­ple in Africa to be skilled and pro­duc­tive.

Both Dr. Kilby and Ms. Her­bert say their frus­tra­tions have more to do with donor coun­tries than with the work they do on the ground. What’s hard is com­ing back to Canada to drum up money. What’s de­press­ing is the cyn­i­cism and fa­tigue they en­counter.

When peo­ple in Ottawa say this kind of work is hard, what they mean is that the prob­lems are big. Poverty, AIDS, malaria, war — th­ese make the lo­cal light-rail de­bate look easy. The fact is, though, that big prob­lems can ac­tu­ally be much sim­pler than the light-rail de­bate. We know how to pre­vent the spread of HIV; we’ve done it here. Get a trucker’s wife ac­cess to con­doms, and you’ve pre­vented the spread of HIV.

“In medicine, you treat one per­son at a time,” says Dr. Kilby, who has years of ex­pe­ri­ence treat­ing HIV-pos­i­tive pa­tients in Ottawa.

Nei­ther Dr. Kilby nor Ms. Her­bert are in­ter­ested in go­ing to Africa to tell Africans what to do. “It’s re­ally not about us,” Ms. Her­bert says. The idea is to form part­ner­ships, learn from Africans what they need, and help them do it.

As Dr. Kilby says, healthy peo­ple come from healthy com­mu­ni­ties. So nei­ther or­ga­ni­za­tion is all about money and food and pills. The so­cial and psy­cho­log­i­cal ef­fects of AIDS in coun­tries such as Le­sotho are enor­mous, es­pe­cially on the chil­dren. Ms. Her­bert says, “There aren’t enough adults to go around.” If we want the next gen­er­a­tion of Africans to change their con­ti­nent, we have to give them some kind of child­hood, so they can learn to read.

Not ev­ery­body can or should tour African vil­lages Hol­ly­wood-celebrity style. To an ex­tent, we Ot­tawans have to trust our neigh­bours who do go to Africa, who re­turn and tell us whether lives are be­ing saved, schools be­ing built, economies be­ing strength­ened.

We can, if we choose, throw up our hands at the im­men­sity of the world’s prob­lems and spend our time on this planet think­ing only about park­ing me­ters in the Glebe and who should run Gatineau Park (both wor­thy top­ics to which I’ve de­voted many words). But let’s at least rec­og­nize that turn­ing in­ward is it­self a course of ac­tion with global ef­fects, and it’s not the only course avail­able to us.

Some­times, cyn­i­cism is a sign that peo­ple are so afraid to look naive, they lis­ten to ar­gu­ments based on ig­no­rance. Some­times, cyn­i­cism is just a mask for cheap­ness, lazi­ness or small­ness of spirit.

Dr. Kilby puts it in more char­i­ta­ble terms: “Of­ten the rea­son given for do­ing noth­ing is to say that it’s im­pos­si­ble to do any­thing.”


Peg Her­bert, founder and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Help Le­sotho, holds one of the dolls made by moth­ers in Le­sotho, which she sells to raise money for or­phans and vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren in the small, poverty-stricken south­ern African coun­try.

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