SAP Canada presents to Parliament’s foreign affairs committee
OTTAWA—Canada should look to civil society in South Asia to support shared values of democracy and religious tolerance, according to Ann Thomson, President of the South Asia Partnership Canada Board of Directors.
Ms. Thomson was one of four presenters to the Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs and International Trade hearings on “Canada’s Relations with the Countries of the Muslim World” this Thursday.
Ms. Thomson told the story of how SAP Canada’s partners in South Asia work on a day-to-day basis to empower impoverished communities in South Asia, including all religious groups.
The Committee is holding the hearings in advance of a planned trip to the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia in October 2003. The Committee first held hearings on May 6-7, 2003, prior to traveling to the United States, United Kingdom, France and Morocco.
South Asia (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) is home to nearly half of the world’s Muslims.
South Asia Partnership Canada is a coalition of 25 Canadian organizations – secular, Muslim, and Christian – that work for human development in South Asia. Human development is the practice of empowering communities in South Asia to design, implement and sustain their own solutions to the challenges they face every day to make ends meet.
Read the text of the presentation below.
Sharing Universal Values: Building Relationships Between Canada and South Asia
South Asia Partnership Canada presentation to the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade
Thank you for inviting South Asia Partnership Canada – SAP Canada – to speak to you today.
Founded in 1983, SAP Canada is a coalition of 24 Canadian organizations – secular, Muslim, and Christian – that work for human development in South Asia. We empower communities in South Asia to design, implement and sustain their own solutions to the challenges they face every day.
SAP’s work is focused on governance and democracy, peace and security and sustainable livelihoods. Gender equality is an important goal for all of our work. We generate support for our partners in South Asia to implement their grassroots development work and to raise issues with other organizations and networks in the region. In Canada, we provide learning and public engagement opportunities for our members and a diverse constituency of organizations.
SAP Canada is a member of SAP International, which facilitates our development work with national SAP organizations and other partners in five countries: Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Some of SAP Canada’s members are active on the ground in Afghanistan and we have organized events in Canada involving the Afghan community in North America. Over the years, CIDA has generously supported our work in the region. We have also worked with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade on a number of projects.
We note that previous witnesses before your Committee have provided substantial information and analysis on the Muslim world and the so-called “clash of civilizations”. The Committee has already learned that three of the four largest Muslim populations in the world are found in Bangladesh and Pakistan with Muslim majorities, and in India, which makes up 20 per cent of the population.
In South Asia, we see that Muslims in both majority and minority communities represent the same broad range of attitudes and practices that we have in Canada and in other parts of the world. Our experience shows that the great majority of people want to live peaceful, productive lives in harmony with others in their communities, regardless of religion and other differences. Our partners and colleagues tell us, and demonstrate for us, that the great mass of Muslims want to be able to practice their own religion, want others to respect it, and are perfectly ready to respect others.
Religious differences themselves are not an issue. Poverty, disparities in living standards, unfair treatment before the law, and lack of access to services and opportunity are the issues that give rise to conflict.
In our experience, we have seen that where there are incidents and conflicts, supposedly based on religious difference, they are not spontaneous but instigated by one or another interest for political purposes.
We have also observed that there are certain keystone issues that, without solution, perpetuate a wider sense of injustice and conflict in the Muslim communities. The Israeli-Palestinian issue is clearly one such for Muslims worldwide. The Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan is another.
Within the Muslim communities in South Asia there are people and organizations that provide dynamic leadership for what they see as universal values. These values stem from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other United Nations human rights instruments. The freedoms and responsibilities inherent in them lead directly to tolerance, pluralism, gender equality, public dialogue and non-violence to settle disputes, respect for all people regardless of differing characteristics – all part of what we call “Canadian values”. Such values are readily embraced and promoted by many local organizations in Muslim countries and communities in South Asia.
Today I want to tell you about how the South Asia Partnership network is making a difference in people’s lives, the lives of people of all faiths, in South Asia. By giving you a snapshot of the lives of ordinary people in South Asia I would like to reflect the experience and voices of our partners in South Asia and our members in Canada, who work with thousands of community organizations.
One of the most significant women’s organizations in northern Bangladesh started with five destitute women. When I say destitute, I mean women who have no way to make a living. They are often widows or have lost their homes or land by flood or expropriation. To make ends meet, each woman went from door to door, begging. What they found was that people gave them only one handful of rice. No money. So they had rice, but no money to purchase shelter, medicine, clothing, schooling for their children or themselves. These five women decided to combine their rice together and sell it in the market. SAP Bangladesh approached them and offered training and resources to improve their small business. They accepted the help and founded what is today one of the largest women-run non-governmental organizations in northern Bangladesh. They focus on income-generating activities for women like themselves, thus providing not only an income, but the voice and legitimacy for their members that the very poor do not have.
One of SAP Canada’s members, the International Development and Relief Foundation or IDRF, is working in the Jharkand state of India to improve the living conditions of slum residents. In these neighbourhoods, Muslim and Hindu communities live side-by-side faced by more or less the same problems. Poverty and its related problems are common to all the poor of the area so the work must include everyone. In three slums, IDRF with its partner are providing informal education to the children so they can continue their studies in the formal school systems. Women are organized into self-help groups that are saving on a regular basis to establish a revolving micro credit fund. Girls have access to vocational training and the resulting products are sold. The project is also providing the community with visiting nurses. Over three years, this project has improved girls’ access to education, mobilized the communities, generated income and improved healthcare. Leaders of this project are now showing interest in educating on a taboo subject in India: HIV and AIDS. By working together, this community has not only improved its living conditions, but has gained recognition and respect within society at large.
Another of our members, Human Concern International, supported by many Canadian Muslims, has provided support in India in response to two emergencies. One was to help victims of the earthquake in Gujarat and the other was to benefit victims of communal riots, also in Gujarat. The beneficiaries were disadvantaged people of different religions.
South Asia Partnership Pakistan has trained more than 1000 community groups and many other larger organizations to address livelihood issues in a context of tolerance and inclusion. The leaders of these groups have become activists for peace, human rights, gender equality and, while respectful of all religions, are secular in their attitudes. SAP Pakistan campaigns for among other things, the minority rights of Christians and Hindus. The story of Najma is a good example. Najma returned to her village in the North-West Frontier of Pakistan, a very conservative area. She began to organize women to have a voice in that community. The village elders swiftly banished her and her family. SAP Pakistan came to her aid by opening a dialogue with the women there. The women decided to stand up for Najma and her family and convinced the village elders to withdraw their banishment. Women now have a collective voice they did not traditionally have in that community. The women in this community are now organizing with women in neighbouring communities to promote basic rights and freedoms.
South Asia Partnership Sri Lanka focuses on community development in poor, rural areas. Sri Lanka has a majority Singhalese population and a Tamil population. What is little known is that there is a significant third minority, which is Muslim. SAP Sri Lanka puts a particular emphasis on bringing together Singhalese, Tamil and Muslim groups to work on livelihood and social problems. They found this approach reduces the risk of conflict and improves everyone’s lives.
During eight years of living and working in Bangladesh and Indonesia, I saw successes like these repeated over and over, even in the midst of conflict.
Canadian assistance lies behind each of these stories and Canada itself has 650,000 Muslim citizens. That number will grow significantly in the future. Like most Canadians, they live in cities and are increasingly becoming involved in the economic, social, cultural and political life of Canada. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks created a crisis for them as individuals and as a community. They have responded calmly and effectively to the backlash. Yet, many Muslims in Canada feel less secure than non-Muslim Canadians. Most are reluctant to travel to the United States because of that country’s use of arbitrary deportation and detention. Muslims in Canada are offended by the registration of immigrants by US authorities. Furthermore, the use of Canadian immigration laws as a tool in Canada’s war on terror, as seen in Toronto recently, has further strained the trust between Muslims and the Government of Canada. The challenge for Canada and Canadians is to guarantee that our citizens are treated equally and with respect – both at home and abroad. Canadians are proud of our open, multicultural society and these values have served us well in our domestic, foreign and international aid policies.
I would like to conclude with a few recommendations.
Since the majority of Muslims live in the developing world, in conditions of poverty, improving their livelihoods and reducing poverty is critical to building more just and equitable societies. In particular, reducing inequalities between these nations and the affluent “Western” world is an important means of improving relations and limiting the conditions that create support for desperate extremism such as international terrorism.
Muslims are active participants on all sides in the social, economic, political and cultural struggles of South Asian countries and in Canada. We should take full advantage of the opportunities to strengthen ties at the people to people level. Canada can support the rich fabric of civil society in Canada and in countries of Muslim majorities and minorities to help solve problems and build constructive, long-lasting relationships.
We should focus in our development cooperation abroad on eliminating poverty, improving livelihoods and social conditions, supporting gender equality, and encouraging democratic practices. Important to all of this is strengthening civil society in other countries and building the capacity of organizations, institutions, community groups, associations and networks to bring change from within. Active and democratic civil societies serve as the DNA of pluralism, tolerance and cooperation. Canada needs to support “people-structure” more than infrastructure.
In our relations with Muslim countries and communities overseas, we should draw on the knowledge and expertise of Canadian Muslim organizations. The Canadian government can work closely with progressive Muslim social justice organizations and support building of strong, practical partnerships between them and organizations in Muslim majority and minority countries.
I understand you are visiting South Asia soon. We would like to recommend you visit the SAP International Board Chair in Pakistan, (Mrs. Bushra Goher) and our other partners in the countries you visit. They will be pleased to introduce you to grassroots organizations and people working daily to improve their communities and their lives.
Canada will enhance its relations with Muslims across the globe by supporting their efforts to address fundamental concerns – clean water, health services, good education, women’s equality, safe jobs, peace and security, and so many more. By being a helpful partner to Muslims across the world, by providing a voice to those who would not otherwise be heard, and by building a relationship of respect rather than suspicion, Canada will improve dialogue, build trust, and alleviate the poverty that is the major barrier to sustainable and tolerant societies.