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Interview: Glen Pearson, Liberal party critic for International Cooperation

Graham F. Scott

Verbatim — the transcribed version of Listen to This, This Magazine's podcast.

Glen PearsonWith today’s edition of Verbatim, we’ve got This Magazine associate editor Nick Taylor-Vaisey in conversation with Liberal Party critic for International Cooperation Glen Pearson. You can hear the original podcast of this conversation, as always, on the podcast blog.

Nick and Glen discuss Canada’s humanitarian commitments past, present, and future, ranging from Darfur to Afghanistan to Haiti and Latin America. With the Afghanistan mission scheduled to end in 2011, Canada’s international development priorities are up for discussion again, but there appears to be little agreement in parliament about where exactly Canadian resources—attention, aid, military support—ought to go.


Nick Taylor-Vaisey: Let’s talk about, first, the aftermath in Afghanistan, when the Canadian combat mission in Kandahar ends in 2011. What happens next?

Glen Pearson: I think it’s a great time to ask that question because up until two weeks ago I was pretty sure I knew what was going to happen. Peter McKay the defence minister and I, we’re friends, but we discussed often, and I traveled to some of the NATO meetings with him in opposition, we talk about these things. He would say “Glen, pretty soon we’re wrapping up in Afghanistan, in 2011, and we need to consider where we go next.”

So he was thinking of three places in Africa, one was to maybe Darfur, which is a traditional one that people have looked at, one was maybe Somalia and one was maybe the Congo because of the UN declarations there.

So he’s asked me to do some thinking about it, and then I went off to Darfur and I just got back a couple of days ago. What happened between then and now is obviously Haiti. What you’re seeing with the Conservative government, and I’m not trying to be partisan, but they have tended to look at Africa as a Liberal construct and I’ve spoken to many people on the other side, on the Conservative side, and they want to find their own place where they can leave their own legacy and that will be in Latin and South America.

So as a result we’re opening up all these new lines of free-trade zones right there in Bolivia and Columbia and all those other things. As far as aid goes CIDA has now pulled out of eight African countries, mostly for its long-term development, and moved those funds over to places like Colombia, Haiti and other places. So that leaves defence, it seems to me that the Prime Minister and others over there wish to move the focus out of Africa—and I think Africa was the default position for two reasons: one is that it’s obviously the hardest pressed area in the world, and it’s kind of been a legacy here. Even with the Mulroney Government and the Diefenbaker government Africa mattered.

I think now that has begun to change. Now, it still was a default position and I think because of that Canada has made long-term commitments. We have donor nations who have agreed with Canada—United States, European Union and others—that Africa is the big thing.

So there’s the Millennial Development Goals and everything else. So I think I naturally assumed the default position would be Africa. But I’ve come to understand pretty well how the Conservatives think on things like aid and other things. I think right now there are more troops moving into Haiti then there are in Afghanistan at present. So I think if they ever wanted to make a move militarily to put some of their troops in various places, and I don’t mean battle type of things, but keeping security, peacekeeping, doing humanitarian aid, helping with various projects, now would be their time if they wanted to switch, because Haiti has given them the opportunity to capture the public’s attention and move them over.

It’s not like with Afghanistan, where that was a whole bunch of elites deciding that that’s where they were going to go. The public is already well ahead of the game about Haiti, so I think you’ll probably see the debate beginning to grow that the place for the troops to go will not be Africa. It will probably be a much larger enforcement group within Haiti and maybe in other countries, as well militarily.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: How would that discussion happen? How would that commitment come about?

Glen Pearson: Well, probably secretly. I mean, this is one of the things that has bothered me a lot. These issues are so important that they should be part of parliament having a discussion, because our troops are sent by parliament, they’re not sent by their general or even by the Prime Minister. These kinds of things have to be passed by an act of parliament for anything that’s major. One would hope that they would sit down and come to their counterparts. The Liberals and the Conservatives have a vested interest in both Haiti and Afghanistan, it was the Liberals that first went into Haiti for instance and it was also the Liberals who first went into Afghanistan.

So we have a vested interest in cooperating together as parties, but we’re not being consulted. I think what you’ll see, it (the decision to move troops out of Africa, to Haiti and South America) will be by stealth. So you’ll suddenly realize the troop deployment in Haiti is now 3000, and then it might be 4000 and we’ve established and airbase. It won’t be, I don’t believe, by some big announcement that we’ve decided to move the construct as to where we’re going to go because that would fly directly in the face of most of the NGOs that do international development. It will also fly in the face of the commitments you have made to the G8, G20 and others that you would pursue the millennial development goal in Africa.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: I wonder, would any commitment to Haiti militarily in terms of development hurt the Canadian commitment to Africa, which was made just a few years ago by the Liberals primarily? Is Africa going to be a forgotten continent again?

Glen Pearson: I think it’s very quickly on its way to becoming that within Canada. But I just finished meeting Mr. Obama’s key guy for U.S. Aid, his new person who he’s just appointed. They’re totally committed to Africa and they’re going to double their aid to Africa.

Gordon Brown, whom I’ve met and discussed things with, and also his assistant, they’ve just announced they’re going to reach their 0.7  percent  aid development target and that they’re going to do that in Africa. You’ve got places like China and Japan and others who are investing in Africa, not just in aid, but also in business and development. The European Union has a huge history in Africa, so obviously you’re not going to be able to wrench them away from it. So I think it’s going to be Canada that decides to now align itself with American foreign policy primarily. While Americans might be doubling their aid to Africa, their real interest is in the Americas. That’s where they want to be, for trade reasons and for other reasons, because there are lots of goods down there. I think it’s going to be difficult. My personal view is that it’s going to isolate us more from the world—just like Copenhagen did. You know, the formula we were supposed to follow and we never did and that was a Liberal problem and also a Conservative problem. But at the end of the day we’ve been isolated from the world environmentally. Now we’re going to be isolated from the world in the areas of Global Millennial development goals, which are supposed to be for the poorest of the poor. You can only measure them when you go to the poorest countries. Well, we just left those countries.

Now Conservatives will tell you: “No, we stayed in Africa.” But it’s emergency funding—it’s like Haiti funding. It’s not the long-term development goals that end up making the difference. That’s what’s gone wrong in Haiti; all this has become an aid economy. It’s an NGO-driven welfare state in Haiti because people didn’t really do development, they just kept doing aid every time a new natural disaster happened. There’s no long-term future in that. We need to get back to development and I just think that’s not going to happen and Canada will be isolated from the European Union and other nations.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: What would you do if you were in charge?

Glen Pearson: Paul Martin and I do a lot of work together. Paul is helping to lead the African development bank. I just talked with him a couple days ago and he’s pulling together what he calls the African common market. It’s much like the E.U., he’s getting all these countries that now have certain benefits and certain growth patterns to begin to cooperate together to get world wide investment. He and I often get into fights about it because I’ll say: “Well that doesn’t help me in Darfur with the people who are trying to get water.”

He has agreed to that, so he and I are trying to put together a kind of plan that’s sky high for him and the people that he’s going with, but also how do we get markets and things like that to grow in places like Darfur or Nigeria or whatever. So I think what has happened in the last four or five years is that people have begun to realize that many countries in Africa have rounded the corner, but it comes after 50 years of investment and people are tired of it. So just as we are there, we’re suddenly moving on and I really fear that.

Haiti has been through that process as well, just as we’re getting somewhere we kind of pull out and it fell back to where it was. The biggest problem that I see in that is not the aid that would be going to Africa but environmental refugees. We’re told probably 160 million refugees will be coming from Africa, especially the coastal regions, over the course of the next decade. Where we are in Darfur, the rains came last year, but they didn’t come this year. So those people will move to the places resources can be. And they won’t move within Darfur, they’ll move into Chad, which then becomes an international nightmare.

Immigration legislation, refugee legislation, no country has anything to handle environmental refugees. You’re a refugee if you’re being persecuted. But what happens if you’re being persecuted by our own pollution.

I’m concerned about that and the second thing is I think Africa has huge resources. Not just natural, but people resources. Paul Martin has picked that up along with many in the World Bank, IMF and other and just as they see Africa now has the potential to also drive its own growth and it’s own interest we’re in the process of pulling out; that really worries me.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: So we’ve talked a lot now about Haiti and about Africa, what about Afghanistan? What do we do after the troops largely vacate Kandahar, how do we make sure that Afghanistan isn’t forgotten?

Glen Pearson: It’s just going to happen. I mean, I hate it, I hate telling you this, but it’s what we seem to do in the west. Like also, we have a tsunami so we pour a billion bucks into the place and so on and so forth, and it wasn’t invested well, it was wasted, projects were wasted and it’s because we moved on, we didn’t maintain our interest.

Already the public has moved on from Afghanistan and now I’m starting to notice politically—I’m one of the people in the Liberal party, and I’m one of the few, who feels we should stay on in Afghanistan militarily. I think we have to re-jig the mission somewhat to provide protection for development, but mine is not a popular view. But as a development person, all the work that I’ve been doing in Africa for the last 15 years, if all of a sudden you pulled out the security from those areas all the work that we’ve done over the years will just be run over. The leaders will be killed; the women’s leaders will be killed. And it’s going to happen in Afghanistan, the Taliban will remember who was helping to work with the Canadian projects, and who allowed the Canadian military to provide protection of their village and once we leave these forces will come in.

I think that’s a really major thing, it’s like bringing up a child, you can’t have a baby and just think it’s absolutely wonderful and when the baby is five you’re kind of tired of it and you move on. You can’t do that, development is not like that, development is a long time and a long-term waltz, very, very complicated. It takes a lot of compassion and you can’t just look to the public to give you the directions on where you should go because today it might be Darfur, tomorrow it might be Haiti. You have to have good policy that says where the neediest places in the world are, and says lets donate a half a century, a century to those places to help them grow.

So it’s interesting hearing the Prime Minister say yesterday that if we’re going to do anything we’re going to have to spend 10 years in Haiti, that’s very unlike him. He would rather do a temporary thing for a year and move on. Because his interest is in Central and South America, he’s willing to give them the 10 years, but he’s willing to pull out of Africa, it worries me.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: It seems like you’re talking about a long-term plan. That doesn’t’ really exist here in Canada, we seem to go from country to country, problem to problem. How can that be changed?

Glen Pearson: I think it needs to be changed at the government level by smart thinking. I don’t think you can expect the public to know all of those things, but I hosted a dinner here last June at the parliamentary restaurant for all the former foreign affairs ministers of the Liberal party. There were eight of them that came and it was a great session, but every single one of them admitted they never had a foreign policy. Canada has never had one, it’s not like Israel where it’s fighting for its survival and therefore has to have a policy because its survival is at stake. Canada is very much protected by that, we have access to trade and other things and so therefore a policy isn’t so important.

The difficulty for them as they said, we inherited the policy was from the people before us, they just went on and did that. I think we need to have a foreign policy that says: “Here are our interests.” They might involve trade, you know business corporate, those things; it might involve environment; it might involve women; it might involve development and micro enterprises; it might involve the poorest of the poor in education. You know we have to have a policy that says wherever Canada goes in the world; these are the five things that Canada looks at.

So we can go to China and go ahead and do business with that and that’s fine. But, we’ll also look to a place like Africa and realize since our major responsibility is to help the poorest of the poor, that’s where we’ll be. But without somebody setting up that agenda, the Liberals will pick up where the Conservatives left off.

Let’s say I was chosen as a minister in the government, lets say I was chosen as CIDA minister. What do I do now? Do I go the Haiti and Bolivia and Columbia and say, “It’s been swell, but we’re gone because my personal preference is back to Africa.” So all these deals that have been signed from CIDA and all these things is it right for me to come along because I have a personal preference for Africa? To roll up the carpet from Columbia and head back over to Sudan? That’s no way to do foreign policy. So I think we need to have a bipartisan effort, a multi-partisan effort of determining what are our values that are sacrosanct to us and then our foreign policy will reflect that and very much as part of that will be international development.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: People like priorities though, they like to know that Canada is committed to Afghanistan, or Canada is committed to Haiti and if you try to spread troops or foreign aid around to much people will say “Canada has no priorities.” How do you balance that?

Glen Pearson: That’s why you need the policy, if the policy said “look we’re not just going to follow the Americans wherever they want us to go,” we’re a United Nations country, we’ve always believed in that. So if the United Nations has something, that’s part of our policy, we will go where they want us to go. But our policy should also be “If security is at stake and we regard that that is important, the public might want us to leave Afghanistan, but we don’t believe that that is the right thing to do because our European partners don’t want us to do it, the Americans don’t want us to do it, the UN doesn’t want us to do it, and definitely the Afghans don’t want us to do it.”

But then that’s the problem with democracy, it becomes an unpopular war because some 60 Canadian soldiers have been killed and when I go to an election I’ve got to try to sell people on the fact I’ve got to stay. People are going to say screw off; it’s not going to happen. People will vote us out of office.

So a much deeper amount of work needs to be done on how we preserve institutional arrangements and longevity of policy that can be better for any party so that we’re not at the whim of whatever is politically popular. Because if that is the case, we’ll always be in Haiti three months and then gone to the next one. It’s how we work.

Because we have everything here, we don’t understand about development and what it requires. So we just move on. The problem is not international development and the problem is not Haiti or Sudan, the problem is democracy. We have a citizenry that has probably everything that it wants, right? I realize there are sectors of the society that are really struggling, but overall we’re doing very well so we don’t have a development temperament. We don’t. As a result the Canadian image is going to continue to suffer.

We were in Cypress for something like 50 years, we’ve been in Africa since the end of World War II, and we’ve been in Haiti for something like 18 years. These things are important, it’s where our legacy came from that everybody respects and now we’re going to pull out of a bunch of those places. I think people are not going to respect that, it’s a problem, but the problem is democratic.

I’ll give you an example, I got $3 million out of the Prime Minister to build these women’s centres and also water centres for these refugees that came out of Darfur. That was two years ago, it was my first speech in the house. I spoke directly to the Prime Minister. I asked for the money, to my shock he gave it. It was given to the International Organization of Migration with us kind of parlaying that. This time when we went back in January we took a team of 15 people with us and we went in and they saw we had 130,000 refugees last year come out of Darfur into our area where we had been working for 10 years. Swamping over the area and we realized something had to be done. So that $3 million was given, it was given to the IOM and just four months ago they finished all their projects so we arrived a couple of weeks ago and I’ll tell you, I was blown away. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Here’s the Canadian flag on water towers, water systems, women’s micro-enterprises, this is Darfur I’m talking about and now we’re building a high school there for Darfur refugees. You tell me a person in Darfur who ever thought they would get a high school education. All of these things are happening because it’s government money. It’s not the little NGO that my wife and I lead; it would take us 50 years to raise that kind of money.

When government decides to act it makes a massive difference if it’s invested wisely. So the team all sat around with me, and they’ve known me for years, they said “Glen, we just think it’s awesome you got that $3 million, it made a big difference, we got to keep it going.” And I told them the way you keep these things going is you should help me in the next election, like you should get involved politically. I don’t care which party it is, but if you believe Darfur is important or people like that are, you need to get involved politically and make sure that politicians keep focus on these things that matter to you. And every single one of them said; “nah, politics is a nasty business.”

We’ve so much turned people off of politics that the idea that the public would keep our minds set on the things that we believe in, I’m not saying the public couldn’t, it just doesn’t care. It just doesn’t think that we as politicians anymore are worth it. So we get 59 percent voter turn out in the last election. It’s terrible.

How can Africa remain a priority, or Haiti, I don’t care what it is: any kind of foreign policy. How can it remain a priority when the vast majority of people who need to vote to keep that priority in mind and hold governments accountable will not vote? That’s the big issue, the big issue is not priorities over development, the big issue is the expansion of the franchise of democracy and we’re doing a pitsy job of it as politicians, its abysmal.

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