Creating space for transformative conversations
How to sponsor international cooperation
Donna Kennedy-Glans, LLB., 47
- Founder & Executive Director, Bridges Social Development, Canada
- Corporate Responsibility and Integrity Speaker, Advisor and Author
Principal, Integrity Bridges
- Lead Author, Corporate Integrity: A Toolkit for Managing beyond Compliance (Wiley 2005)
- Board of Directors, Transparency International (Canada)
In 2002, two years after I had made a decision to leave the private sector as a Vice President of a large internationally focused Canadian energy company, I was invited by the President of the Government of Yemen to bring volunteers to Yemen to train and mentor educated women working in healthcare, law, journalism, law and politics. I know it sounds odd, but I had been working with this government for several years and understood their commitment to gender equality. When I announced my departure from the private sector, the President of Yemen asked if I could bring volunteers to Yemen to support their equality initiative. Strange, yet true.
Inspired by this work, and in collaboration with local grassroots partners, I founded Bridges Social Development as a not-for-profit organization with an independent Board of Directors, financial and tax expertise, and a long list of interested volunteers. Bridges brings volunteer professionals from the west — doctors, nurses and midwives, lawyers and judges, journalists, teachers and politicians — to exchange knowledge and wisdom with local counterparts in Yemen.
Working with a volunteer team of experts, Bridges identified ways to evaluate volunteers' interests, motivation and expertise. We use our "Be the Change Challenge" questionnaire to help volunteers explore the area of work that best suits them. We work with local partners in Yemen to clearly understand and define their priorities, and how third-party training could support those needs. We are entirely driven by locally identified needs. Our founding Board was very clear that we would have no faith-based, ideological or political advocacy. We simply care about human engagement and capacity building, and we are entirely transparent in this objective.
We now take training teams of Canadian experts to Yemen quite regularly and are assessing our ability to respond to invitations in other countries in the Muslim world.
After September 11th, we were all stopped in our tracks. The world had changed. There was pressure to be afraid, and to build walls that further divide people from each other. Bridges is an antidote to fear. Within Bridges, we connect human-to-human with people in Yemen - a nurse from Canada trains a nurse from Yemen. There is much common ground and, as a bonus, our volunteers learn as much as we teach! The Yemeni are living in an extremely poor country in a changing world. Women were invited to be educated in the mid-90s and now they are graduating. The government of Yemen — a military dictatorship — chose to have democratic elections. The combination of educated women and democracy was invigorating for many, yet challenging for traditionalists. We don't preach human rights or democracy; we simply support people to be strong and self-confident and, through these changes, to make an impact.
After receiving the invitation from the Government of Yemen, I gathered like-minded people around me — people committed to change at the grassroots, who wanted to make change not just talk about it. Together we discussed ways to proceed with this invitation; solicited the advice of experts; and looked at the options. Ultimately, Bridges was created as a transparent, simple engagement strategy.
Once we had our guiding principles in place, we identified our key priorities: volunteers, strategic partners in Yemen at the grassroots level, funding and strategic partners in Canada. Our Board is a working board: each member has an expertise that we focus on in our training (e.g. journalist, lawyer, doctor, nurse etc.) We started with healthcare, a place where we personally had experience and relationships, then moved into other fields of training as local partnerships and expectations were clarified. We also chose to focus on technical/professional training combined with leadership/management training — never one without the other. This was the only way we could find that would really address the self-confidence deficit. Women and men were professionally trained, yet were reluctant to advance their values. When we could help them to see what their expertise and training could do to relieve the suffering of others they felt empowered.
We adopt a pull approach, never a push. Projects that are pushed don't work, or don't work for very long. We also identify funding needs as the last step in the project design. We're fairly lean on funding needs because we only fund the disbursements of volunteers travelling to Yemen to train.
Tracking the impacts of human capacity building can be challenging. There is no building to photograph and place in a glossy brochure! We always ask trainees for inputs on what they did with the training received; we focus on the need for trainees to share the education with others and we've started to formalize ‘train the trainer' objectives. We continue to train in the same hospitals, schools, legal bar associations etc. and monitor the changes in written reports. We stay connected to other development agencies in Yemen, and ensure that what we do adds value and doesn't duplicate work that is already being done. We are ruthlessly transparent about our training and impacts. We also regularly recommend training approaches for the government (e.g. identify a training coordinator in each decentralized community for healthcare). We have loads of anecdotal stories that we share in videos and reports. We continue to identify key indicators of impact together with our strategic partners.
One result we didn't anticipate — and it is a bonus — is the impact on our Canadian volunteers. We have law firms, health authorities and companies in Canada asking..."what did you do to so-and-so in Yemen; she came back so motivated!" There is a rich dialogue unfolding in Canada that is expanding — human by human — about the role of Canadians in the world. We give Canadians the opportunity to break down barriers and misperception by building one human-to-human bridge at a time.