Paradkar: Voluntourism by charities like WE is based on faulty ideals of feel-good white saviourism

Good commentary:

“People have gotten used to looking at Africans as objects.”

Education advocate Chizoba Imoka had just finished delivering the Hancock Lecture at the University of Toronto two years ago when she crystallized a certain rage that anyone who seeks to decolonize structures will identify with. “What gives people the confidence to think, you know, you have four weeks off and you’re just going to travel to Africa to save Africa?”

The “saving Africa” kind of volunteering occupies a hefty presence on the Canadian imagination. “Raised funds for Africa” wins praise and opens opportunities for students. “Volunteered in Africa” is a resumé builder for professionals. “But they went to Africa!” is evidence of progressiveness, a stalwart defence against accusations of racism.

“Voluntourism” is a topic that deserves scrutiny during a time when the WE Charity and its tentacular affiliates are in the news for all the wrong reasons including allegations of: messy internal finances; complex relationships among its many arms that even confuse its own staff; a non-transparent speaker system; aggressive run-ins with media; and a relationship with the prime minister that has embroiled him in another ethics scandal.

All of this comes under the umbrella of feel-good white saviourism.

This is not to say charities in general are useless; those that support grassroots organizations can make a difference. But jumping up to save others is pointless if it is primarily self-serving.

Me to We’s volunteer travel site is startlingly honest in that it does not couch the western self-centredness of its mission. “Experience a new culture.” “Get ready for a world-changing adventure.” “An unforgettable team-building experience.” “A truly one-of-a-kind family vacation.”

“It’s never really been about us,” Imoka, who keeps one foot in Nigeria and the other in Canada, told me Wednesday from Edmonton. “It’s always been about the people in the West and what their desires are and what their resumés need to look like and the pictures they need to put up on Instagram.”

The idea of westerners flying in for a couple of weeks to fix another country (while taking a once-in-a-lifetime holiday!) is breathtakingly colonial. Would we welcome planeloads of African kids coming to ogle at our lifestyles and save Canadians? White saviourism means only other people need saving, whether they be on their own lands in other continents or forced on to reserves here. It reproduces relationships premised on white supremacy.

“Getting young people to think about the world beyond themselves, that’s a noble idea,” Imoka said, but “the young white people willing to save us still think we’re the way we are because … there is something deficit about us. So we take the surpluses in the West to go fix the deficits in the Global South.”

This shouldn’t require saying but the world doesn’t actually exist in a western vision of it. People in once-rich nations don’t become poor because they suddenly got lazy or just forgot to educate themselves and keep pace with the times.

“It would be much different if you teach them about the history of the world from an anti-colonial perspective,” Imoka said. “They don’t have wells, let’s go build wells — but why don’t they have wells? What has made it impossible for kids in that community not to do so? That critical thinking that takes a lot of work.”

That critical thinking would make clear that what needs to change is not necessarily in Africa — often perceived as a monolith rather than a varied continent — but global policies here, in the West, in Canada.

Got four weeks off and want to help? Go read up on history. As Imoka had said two years ago, “Take the Canadian foreign policy as your case study to understand how the Canadian foreign policy continues to enable colonization.” Maybe write to your member of Parliament. Fight where the Africans cannot — here, in the West.

Imoka was a teenager, too, when she started Unveiling Africa Foundation, which earlier this month launched a seven-weekend African-centred history program to develop young leaders. “It takes a lot of work to be able to ask foundational questions and takes much, much more work to bring it down to teenagers’ level. It’s difficult to get Instagram pictures for that. It’s not pretty work. It’s thankless work.”

Meanwhile people are still dying, and perhaps charities need to supplement policy work with donations. Unless people are emotionally moved, they don’t part with their money. Charities push the direst situations under our noses to snap us out of our daily pillar-to-post rush. To make us feel good about giving.

But saving Africa, on whose pillaging we’ve based our comfort, isn’t about feeling good. It’s about getting to real solutions. It’s about sacrifice. It’s about supporting those doing the hard work of decolonizing in their areas of specialty.

“It takes a lot of talking and learning and planning,” Imoka said. “You need to know the people on the ground that are getting their hands dirty, working to challenge structures, working to hold their political leaders accountable.”

Solidarity could also mean holding our own leaders accountable.


WE’s history with Beijing, from endorsements in People’s Daily to appearances at Chinese embassy

Yet another aspect of WE and how its business interests made it blind to Chinese government interests:

Amid the impressive array of endorsements, honorary degrees, actual degrees and accomplishments on Craig Kielburger’s LinkedIn page , one bit of acclaim particularly stands out.

His 2008 book Me to We: Finding meaning in a material world , was not just a New York Times bestseller, the profile says. It was also named “one of the best books for Chinese young people in People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the government of China, along with CCTV, China’s government broadcaster.”

Citing testimonials from an authoritarian regime’s chief print and television organs, though, is only one way the co-founder of the WE movement has forged ties with China.

WE Charity and its for-profit partner, Me to We, have had a significant presence there for years, performing development work in poor rural villages, holding at least two “mini” versions of their inspirational WE Day events and selling trips to Chinese youth that combined tourism and volunteer work.

Marc Kielburger, Craig’s brother and WE co-founder, was hosted by the Chinese ambassador to Canada at the Ottawa embassy in 2015, and Me to We was declared part of China’s celebrations of the 45 th anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic ties between Canada and Beijing.

The organization’s embrace of China mirrors in a sense the actions of myriad Canadian companies, post-secondary institutions and school boards eager to tap into the world’s second-biggest economy.

It also parallels the Liberal government’s policy until recently to broadly engage China.

But the response from Beijing seems part of an attempt by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), through its United Front Work Department (UFW), to co-opt such Western NGOs and burnish its own international image, says one critic of the regime.

“WE’s relationship with PRC has the classic signature of UFW at work,” said Ivy Li, spokeswoman for the group Canadian Friends of Hong Kong. “At the minimum, it tells us that UFW considers Kielburger and his book useful propaganda tools…. The CCP was essentially announcing to the Chinese people (and the world) that this Western guy is a ‘friend of China.’”

Despite continued reference online to its China connections, however, WE appears to have pulled back somewhat from the country.

It has not held a WE Day there in almost five years, no longer does “youth cultural trips” and its charity work is focused on supporting “past development projects,” said an unnamed WE spokesperson in response to questions.

It flatly denies having become cozy with Beijing authorities, or that China’s abysmal human-rights record calls into question its involvement in the country.

“WE Charity does not have a relationship with the Chinese government,” said the spokesperson via email. “WE Charity strives to ensure that all children, regardless of the political persuasion of their government, have access to healthcare, food security, and the fulfillment of their basic needs.”

The Kielburgers’ WE movement has attracted unprecedented scrutiny lately because of the untendered contract the federal government awarded it to run a student work program, despite close ties with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Some of that attention has focused on its unorthodox corporate structure, involving WE Charity and Me To We, a “social enterprise” that says it funnels most of its profits into the charity.

Both have been active in China.

WE Charity – formerly called Free the Children—- says it has built 250 school rooms , including multi-storey school buildings in rural China, spurred to action by reports in 2002 of child labourers being killed in a fireworks factory.

Meanwhile, Me To We has operated in China as a joint Sino-foreign venture since 2012, according to its Chinese website , catering to much more affluent schoolchildren. It says it engaged in quality international education, student exchanges between Canada and China and partnerships with official state bodies like the Beijing Dongcheng District Education Commission.

The trips for Chinese students included one to Fujian province. That involved studying the local culture, taking part in volunteer work and learning about the belt and road initiative, the infrastructure project that is a centrepiece of Beijing’s foreign policy, according to the company website .

And the group held “mini” versions of the flashy WE Day events that pack thousands of youth into arenas in North America and the United Kingdom.

At one in Beijing in 2015, former NBA star Yao Ming was among the presenters, according to a local news site, while a famous TV host appeared at a ME Day in Shanghai.

When Marc Kielburger and Victor Li, ME’s China-raised CFO, visited the embassy in Ottawa, then ambassador Luo Zhaohui praised ME for “promoting social welfare and charity programs, improving youth social responsibility consciousness and teamwork skills.“

Guy Saint-Jacques said the WE organization never popped onto his radar when he was Canada’s ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016, but said the official praise for Kielburger’s book might have been a response to incidents there in which bystanders callously ignored accident victims.

“It fits with the ideology of the CCP, ie., to be selfless and help others, etc.,” he said. “This happened at a time when the leadership was concerned that people were acting in very selfish ways, not providing assistance to someone injured.”

Li says she believes Beijing worked with WE for other purposes.

Those include helping to “build a gentle and benign facade for CCP, to provide evidence that CCP is working on human rights in China, CCP is trying hard to be ‘progressive left’, and to gain trust not just from WE, but from other similar NGOs and the international progressive left camp.”

Source: WE’s history with Beijing, from endorsements in People’s Daily to appearances at Chinese embassy

Lang: Missing – public servants who could warn Trudeau about WE conflict

Good commentary by Lang who worked under Herb Gray when he was deputy PM (I worked in PCO at the time and interacted with him time-to-time):

“Mandarin” is another word sometimes associated with such powerful bureaucrats, who were occasionally resented – but often valued – by politicians for their knowledge, wisdom and willingness to stand up to ministers to ensure the basic integrity of the ministry.

As the government has lurched from the SNC-Lavalin scandal of a year or so ago to the WE charity controversy of today – both of which centre on questions of prime ministerial and ministerial ethics and judgment – one question that isn’t asked enough is “Where are the mandarins in all this?”

When Justin Trudeau’s government came to office nearly five years ago, its chief hallmark was inexperience. The few ministers from previous Liberal administrations in its ranks at the beginning had little power. From its inception, power in the Trudeau government has been highly concentrated in the Prime Minister’s Office and among a few trusted ministers — notably Chrystia Freeland and Bill Morneau — none of whom had any prior government experience.

The feeling among some Ottawa watchers in the early days was that this inexperience would be managed and shaped by the mandarins. They would help ensure the government remained stable, competent and exhibited good judgment most of the time. This expectation was re-enforced by the prime minister himself, who stated early on that his government would rely much more heavily on the advice and counsel of the professional public service than his predecessor, Stephen Harper, had.

It doesn’t seem to have worked out that way. Or, perhaps there are no “old school” deputy ministers left in the government of Canada.

Take the SNC-Lavalin scandal. The issue boiled down to a big company allegedly threatening to cut jobs and investment in Canada if it was not given a specific legal concession from the government that would enable the firm to continue to bid on federal contracts.

Any decent mandarin should have known at the outset that corporations routinely tell the federal government job losses will result if they do not get X, Y or Z. This kind of thing used to be greeted with skepticism by the public service, justifiably so. But if the SNC threat was judged a serious risk, there was also a time when a few senior deputy ministers would have sprung into action and developed options for the government to manage its way of out of the issue, such that it might never even have come to public attention, much less have led to two ministerial resignations and threatened the viability of the government.

Today, we have the controversy surrounding WE, a charity that the prime minister and his wife have had a longstanding and very public association with, and to which the government intended to direct a contract worth some $19 million. The Clerk of the Privy Council, the prime minister’s deputy minister, must have known about Trudeau’s general relationship with WE.  He must have seen a conflict of interest here, or at least an appearance of conflict. An “old school” Clerk would have insisted on the prime minister recusing himself from any cabinet decision-making on this issue to protect the prime minister and the government. Instead, if we are to take Trudeau at his word, the public service more or less boxed him and his ministers in to an inevitable appearance of conflict of interest by recommending that only WE could do the job and offering no alternatives, something very rare in government.

None of this is to say that public servants are responsible for either the SNC-Lavalin scandal or the WE mess. Responsibility for both rests on the shoulders of the prime minister and his cabinet.  There is no legal, or even ethical, obligation on deputy ministers to stop ministers from exercising terrible judgment. Yet there was a time, not that long ago, when the expectation was that some wise, “old school” deputies had the government’s back.

Source: Lang: Missing – public servants who could warn Trudeau about WE conflict

Andrew MacDougall’s take is also worthy of note:

The thing you have to understand about the federal public service is that it isn’t geared toward excitement; it’s a “safety first” kind of place.

Pick a policy, any policy. If there’s a Flashy Option A and a Boring Option B, the public service opts for boring every day of the week and twice on Sunday. And that goes treble if Flashy Option A is, to pick a random example out of thin air, a sole-source contract worth nearly $1 billion to an organization with no track record of delivery of federal programming.

Put differently, the only way the public service recommended WE for the CSSG is if the political wing of the government gave it such narrow specifications that it could return only one answer. You can bet there exists, somewhere, an exquisitely crafted memo from the public service to cabinet saying, in effect: “If you really want to go forward with this completely brain-dead approach to federal programming, then you go right ahead, ministry.” The job of the opposition and the press is to now surface that memo.

Because thankfully for Trudeau, the federal bureaucracy is also rather polite, which explains why the prime minister is being allowed to hide behind his version of events. The public service is used to being human shields for politicians and will keep quiet.

Which isn’t to say the prime minister’s story is surviving contact with reality. Every day brings another WE tale of woe.

In this (still-surfacing) version of events, a charity with a long association with the prime minister, his family and his advisers, one that pays hundreds of thousands of dollars to Trudeau’s family members and puts together slick, campaign-style videos promoting the prime minister while simultaneously receiving millions of dollars of government grants and contributions and other sole-source contracts, is being laid low by the pernicious effects of the coronavirus. There is massive churn on the board of directors and large numbers of staff are being laid off as Canada enters lockdown. All looks lost. Until, that is, the Trudeau government comes to the rescue with an offer to administer a pandemic-related program.

According to the charity, the Prime Minister’s Office rang up the day after the program was announced in April to say it needed help from WE to deliver the program. All with the blessing of the federal public service of course, which already, by the way, runs the Canada Summer Jobs program targeted at much the same audience as the new Canada Student Service Grant. What are the odds?

Not that WE had ever delivered a similar program, mind you. Not that WE even have the staff to deliver the program (the charity had to hire back hundreds of laid-off staff in anticipation of getting the work before the program was formally announced in June). Not that WE even have any particularly good ideas to pull students into the program, other than throwing money at other groups to do it for them. And we’re meant to believe this group was the “only” one capable of delivering the program?

A sure sign Trudeau’s version of the story isn’t true is the fact he won’t release any evidence to support it. The government won’t even say which other groups were considered to deliver the grant.

In other words, this contract was friends, not safety, first.