Apr 1, 2014 | Event Summary

On Wednesday, March 19th, the Canadian International Council – Toronto Branch hosted a night of networking and inspirational discussion for aspiring development professionals. As an attendee, I can safely say I walked away feeling hopeful and more motivated toward my career path in international development; and with the recent cutbacks in funding by the Canadian government, this is a welcome change. The evening was sure to please NGO practitioners in various sectors as a panel of professionals including Lisa Swainston from OCIC, Connie Laurin-Bowie from Inclusion International, Jessica Dubelaar from CUSO International, Kate Giesbrecht from AMREF, Luke Stocking from Development & Peace and Dr. Jack Watters from HelpAge. Each panel member offered a new and innovative perspective on development projects, including raising awareness for the rights of elderly and disabled persons, two marginalized groups that deserve attention.  Key note speaker Ikem Opara, a Board member for OCIC, closed off the discussions with a thought provoking speech about the next generation of Canadian international development professionals.

LEGO and the Building Blocks for NGOs

Opara began his speech by separating the words “international” and “development.” He examined both words separately to place emphasis on the idea that we are building something together. Opara summoned the visual of a hammer and nail, the hammer being the global North and the nail being the global South. How do the two interact and build something together? Opara then brought the audience back to their childhood as we were all asked to imagine how many combinations one could create with six pieces of eight-prong LEGO pieces. The answer was a staggering 900 million combinations! This mental exercise highlighted the importance of collaboration and partnership for the future Canadian International Development Organizations (CIDOs). Development projects abroad should not be considered “something that happens over there,” but rather they should be understood as two (or more) partners, be they countries or private actors, working together towards sustainable change. Opara then outlined an orderly framework for all attendees to follow in their development career path: Learn; Collaborate; Fail; Learn; Succeed; Repeat. These six steps will ensure development practitioners’ have a greater chance of success as professionals.

Learn and Collaborate

In our fast paced world, it is important to remember our roots. Opara draws on indigenous theories to illustrate the importance of storytelling using non-verbals and symbols.  These are necessary skill sets for effective cross-cultural collaboration. They soften and expand an individual’s attitude toward learning, and help build the understanding of when not to collaborate, because often collaboration happens organically. Opara uses the old proverb, “give a man a fish, and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and feed him for a lifetime.” But why is he fishing, and how is it sustainable? As we learn, we must focus on our attitudes, and not just the skills required.

Fail and Learn

Failure is a scary thing for most people. It causes us to run away and hinders our learning experience. Opara asks that we openly acknowledge our failures to enhance personal strength. Engineers Without Borders has been producing Failure Reports since 2008 in the hopes of fostering richer innovation and creativity (http://www.ewb.ca/ventures/admitting-failure-af-fail-forward-ff). Additionally, failure reports can be attractive to potential donors as they show accountability and transparency. It’s time to address the stigma behind failure and move past our fears.

Succeed and Repeat

For the next two steps, Opara stresses that learning is not linear; you may pick up anywhere in the learning cycle. This ensures the next learning phase will be plentiful and the paths to success close at hand. Any of the six steps can be plugged into all skill sets to foster positive and thriving attitudes. Furthermore, it is important to understand that constraints must not limit creativity, as challenging constraints are healthy for further innovation. Opara reinforces that sometimes rules need to be broken for innovation to prevail.

“Immerse Yourself into the World”         

NGOs are driven by the work they do. Opara stresses this point and brings light to the importance of networking events. An openness to learn and collaborate is at the forefront of international development. We are a nation of people with the openness to learn. Strengthening capacities and engaging the public are vital in fortifying CIDOS. From grassroots to multi-sector organizations, it is important to work with the people you are helping and become part of their struggle. In our sophisticated community, it’s important not to take on more than we can handle. Cross-cutting sectors can help alleviate the NGO crusade to “be all things to all people.” Break out your LEGOs, engage those around you, and collaborate for the future.

Nicole Heaney

Guest Blogger, Canadian International Council – Toronto Branch