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Feb '10

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Flora MacDonald's high altitude humanitarianism

In her two decades since retiring from Canada’s political scene, ex-Progressive Conservative minister Flora MacDonald has not just taken her pioneering expertise abroad, but taken it literally to new heights.

Recently featured in the CBC documentary Flora’s Mission for her development work in Afghanistan’s Bamyan Province, the now decidedly ex-Conservative MacDonald – who opposed the Harper merger, and recalls having last voted for the Green Party – was on the ground before NATO and before the War on Terror.

“During the civil war, after the Russians were driven out,” she says, “when you had all the different groups fighting with one another, something like two million – mostly men – were killed. It meant a large number of women left behind in the villages. When I went in there at first, it was with CARE Canada, providing food to those many, many widows.”

At the same time, MacDonald was working with Future Generations International, a group specializing in delivering aid to some of the world’s most remote frontiers. “We were working in places like Tibet, Northeast India, and Peru, and I began to appreciate what could be done in these high altitude areas, where not many other NGOs work,” she explains. In her personal effort to expand the group’s reach into Afghanistan, she recruited Afghan-Canadian Abdullah Barat, who features prominently in the documentary story. His roots in Bamyan Province’s Shahidan Valley made it the center of that expansion. “So that’s where we started,” she says, “and we’ve taken over that whole area of work from the international group.”

MacDonald believes the most crucial part of her current project is building the democratic institutions that make development durable.

“We got all the villages we were working in to elect their own local council,” she explains. “Before, everything was run by warlords, or run from the capital. This new approach involves the people in a way they never have been before. Where we find it most important is in health and education, that they have something to say about it.”

“We started with one village, and others saw what this council was doing, and they began to copy it,” she recollects. “Eventually every one of the 72 villages in the Shahidan Valley had their own council, and that system spread to other valleys, so what we got was the basic structure of governance chosen by the people themselves, and that’s very important.”

“Whether it’s getting electricity for a village by installing solar panels, or building aqueducts, or bringing in school programs,” she says, each community setting its own priorities is key. Logistical obstacles often dictate. “To look at some of the photographs I’ve taken for my PowerPoint presentations, you’d wonder how we ever get over the roads,” she marvels. “The flight time from Kabul to Bamyan is 20 minutes. The drive takes 10 hours, down into deep valleys and over high mountains.” She still has to climb in the back of a four-by-four to get around occasionally, and sees firsthand how “one major requirement is road building. Once you build the infrastructure of good roads, you can get a lot more done.”

“One of the first things we had to encourage,” she recalls, was a fundraising drive for a vehicle capable of getting Abdullah and his gear through the harsh terrain. “There are very few trucks of that nature in that province,” she notes, and once found and pressed into service, it became the workhorse of the operation. “So that’s been our vehicle for getting around to take all the supplies that we’re able to deliver,” she says, “whether it’s seeds, notebooks or pens, or whatever we’re able to help out with.”

Besides lacking transport and infrastructure, the communities that Future Generations reaches have their own kind of energy security concerns. “One of the things we desperately need is wood for home heating,” she says, “but we have to grow the trees to do that, so since 2002 we’ve planted about 850,000 trees – fast growing trees like willow,” that are harvestable in three or four years. “It changes the lives of the people when they have greater access to wood. There’s nothing else for fuel. So when I drive into Bamyan Province and see row after row after row of these trees growing it’s great.”

While some progress comes quickly, MacDonald sees other things taking time. There’s a sensitivity required “not to upset the kind of practices they’ve had traditionally,” she says, observing that at social events, for example, separation of men and women is the norm, “and that is not going to change easily. But when they have their councils and begin their planning it’s important – when we’re talking about birth control, for example – that men and women talk about it together.”

“At first it wasn’t easy for Abdullah to get in and answer questions about birth control,” she says. “But, he’s since been married, and has two lovely children, and he’s showing them that two children, if well spaced, is perhaps enough. He’ll talk to them about the things he and his wife talk about. It was difficult for him in the beginning but since he’s gone back to Bamyan he’s really become a leader in making sure that people open up and talk about things.”

If gender divisions are softening in Bamyan Province, the region has coincidentally been as much at the forefront of pioneering women’s leadership roles as the former leadership contender herself. “A year and a half ago in Bamyan Town, when they elected their Shura, for the first time they elected a woman to head it,” recalls MacDonald. “That hadn’t happened before in the whole history of Afghanistan.”

In a country where religious violence is still a lurking threat for every female, she says, “it wasn’t easy for that woman starting out. But when other women in other villages saw what she was doing they began to say ‘we can do it too.’ So now we see more and more women being chosen to be members of the local councils, and they become role models for other women.”

While the relative success of Bamyan is heartening, not every part of Afghanistan is so lucky. “Unfortunately, at the present time the Taliban is spreading. It hasn’t come into Bamyan Province, but it’s in the provinces that you need to pass through” in order to get there, MacDonald attests. “There are about ten provinces in the South and East where the Taliban is a force to be reckoned with. What I’d like to see in the other provinces is more of the kind of work we’re doing in Bamyan, because that’s providing more security – the people choosing what they want to do. It’s a stronger base.” And, she adds, more adapted to the scope of the task: “the Canadian troops in Kandahar and NATO elsewhere, they’re doing a good job, but they’re up against a much bigger force. The kind of work we’re doing with the people, so that they’re not lured away by the Taliban, is equally important.”

She sees that poorly understood in Ottawa. “I’m not happy with the current government,” she says, maintaining “there has to be a lot of change in the way that CIDA [the Canadian International Development Agency] operates. We don’t seem to have any strong ministers in charge, and the government doesn’t seem to be paying that much attention to it.”

When Canadians think of the situation, she says, “they should understand the length of time that these people live,” noting that the average Afghan woman lives to 49, with men just reaching 47.

“Anything we can do to help correct that – to help change that to a much longer, fuller life,” she says, “is worth doing.”

Info on Future Generations Canada is online at futuregen.ca.

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