Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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“WE” and “We” Have a Problem

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, August 10 / 20

Zack Gross

Dominating the news in recent weeks, besides the pandemic, has been the case of the WE Charity and its relationship to our federal government, as well as its internal workings.  Many politicians and commentators have weighed in on the controversy, seeing it as everything from a minor misunderstanding to a criminal case of corruption.

I have had bit to do with We over the years since the Kielburgers were teenagers fighting child labour.  I worked for an organization that put together a play about child labour based on Iqbal Masih, the Kielburgers’ original cause.  I’ve attended events where Craig Kielburger has spoken here in Manitoba.  I’ve talked to WE people on the phone about their programming (more on that later).  And six years ago, at our own expense, my family and I traveled to Kenya and while there, paid an unofficial visit to the clinic and school set up by ME to WE at Narok, and also visited the workshop outside Nairobi where Masai women are employed to make handicrafts that are marketed through WE’s corporate partners.  This was because my son who is a high school teacher in Toronto had led class tours to the Me to We site in Kenya and also had done some contract work for them in the past.

I’ve been of two minds about the WE Charity (also known as ME to WE and in the past as Free the Children).  On the one hand, they have inspired countless people, including me, to care about the immense and heart-wrenching problem of child labour and slavery.  On the other hand, they have created a high-powered profit/non-profit entity that has in my estimation sometimes drowned out the good work done by many local, smaller groups across our country. 

WE Day events, such as those held at Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg on an annual basis, pack 15,000 students and teachers into the arena for a glitzy experience with world famous speakers and musical acts.  While I haven’t attended one of these, when I have gone into schools to talk about world poverty or fair trade, I’ve asked students for their thoughts on WE Day.  There is a mixture of a very few classrooms or individuals who have become committed to creating a better world, but more who just remember that it was a high-energy, loud event that featured their favourite pop star.

I had a phone call several years ago, along with others from Manitoba, with WE officials to express our concern that there was little follow-up with schools after WE Day beyond fundraising, and that there were excellent educational programs already in existence in our province working year round to support students and staff interested in world issues. We received little sympathy.  WE Charity programmers were parachuted into Winnipeg for very limited periods of time to put on a big show and knew nothing of our work here, nor did they express any interest.

In Kenya, when I raised my own personal concern about the strong corporate connections WE had with businesses that didn’t necessarily themselves work on social equity, I received what I’d describe as a stony silence.  Insiders tell me that some of the above concerns existed among WE staff but that they were unable to deal with these items within the organization.  As well, the “voluntourism” model of sending untrained individuals or groups of students to “help” people in poor countries is one that many reject as being as much a bother overseas as a benefit.

The WE Charity, from my point of view, is only one of several organizations that may have lost their way in choosing growth and forgetting the values that motivated their creation in the first place.  Why and how we do things and what we want to accomplish really do matter, but sometimes we forget and then maybe only size seems to matter.  Pride comes before the fall and that seems to have happened here.  We shouldn’t forget that WE has also done good things in motivating some youth on social issues, in providing some development programs in the Global South, and in speaking out about important issues.  In my role teaching University courses on development, I’ve met young WE alumni who are great local and global citizens. 

What gets lost in all the mudslinging and defending is the development model that “WE|”and “we” continue to use to fight poverty in our world.  We shouldn’t use a development model that puts “us” at the centre of “their” development.  By making heroes of our youth in traveling to “help those poor folks” overseas and by raising funds from corporations and governments without working to change their trade policies which perpetuate poverty, we defeat the purpose of our development efforts.

WE has a problem, but we have a problem too.  We need to find new ways to do development work and bring about social change. Not only charity, but also real change.  That will make it possible for many more people to no longer need our charity and to meet their own personal and community goals.

Zack Gross is Board Chair of
The Marquis Project, a Manitoba-based international development organization.

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