Standing up for gender justice: the case of Development and Peace

As I write on Monday, March 29, I am listening to world leaders and heads of international financial institutions talking about the need for lasting solutions to foreign debt, which constitutes a severe impediment to pandemic recovery and the potential to live better in the world’s so-called “developing” countries.

I remember with pride the collaboration among churches and their development agencies in the Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative in the late 1990s as they gathered 640,000 signatures to demand cancellation of the debts of the world’s poorest countries.

Among that campaign’s enthusiasts were the people of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (CCODP, or D&P). Over many years, I have worked alongside D&P staff, volunteers and partners in Canada, Africa and Latin America to seek justice for people who affirm that another world is possible. 

It was collaboration with D&P staff in the wake of their support for communities in Honduras affected by a gold mine that engaged me more deeply in similar struggles in Guatemala, El Salvador, and elsewhere. D&P continues to work with other allies in the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA) to ensure that Canadian mining companies may be held accountable here for their actions overseas.

I write with full appreciation for all of these compañer@s.

But a small band of religious extremists has pressed Canada’s Catholic bishops and D&P leadership into breaking relations with some of D&P’s global south partners.

Since 2009, a far-right “news” site (banned recently by YouTube for posting fake reports about COVID vaccines) has published allegations about some D&P partners. The accusations came from people with no experience of North-South collaboration or of work in coalitions, and tended to focus on groups that empower women or that work in coalitions with women’s organizations. Subsequent developments have been well-covered in French-language media (especially Présence Information Réligieuse). In recent weeks, a stream of news releases and commentaries have also appeared in English, and I will provide some links below.

On Feb. 25, the CCCB and D&P released a news release summarising their review of D&P’s international partners. From a total of 205 global partners, 63 were examined. Of those, funding will be discontinued for 24 groups. Partnerships with 19 others had either ended or was about to end.

Decisions to cut the 24 partners were based on “a lack of clarification to resolve serious questions regarding support for positions or actions in conflict with the Church’s social and moral teachings,” the report said. Names of the groups affected were not divulged.

On March 8, Présence-Info published more detail about the methodology that was used to decide which groups would be cut. 

“The issue of abortion and the sexual health of women, as well as fear of scandal, were the principle reasons that pushed D&P to delist 24 of its international partners,” said Présence-Info after reviewing dozens of pages of internal documents. The partners were pressed to “justify themselves on questions that touched exclusively on sexual morality, particularly concerning women.” No questions were asked about corruption, racism, complicity with violent groups, or other development or solidarity issues.

On March 17, the Canadian Religious Conference (the body that represents members of religious orders) called on D&P to respond the Présence-Info report: 

“Is that what happened? If not, what happened? Development and Peace’s continued silence would be harmful to its credibility, which is already undermined by this lengthy partner review process.”

Canadian Jesuits published a statement of their own on March 22. “We are deeply saddened to learn that so many CCODP partners are losing this vital support from CCODP. We regret that the process to arrive to this decision was not marked by the transparency and collaboration that the Church knows are key virtues to witnessing to the Good News and to becoming a synodal Church,” the statement said.

“It appears that a review was undertaken with the purpose of judging the partners on their adherence to the Church’s teachings on sexual matters.  We believe,  however that the partners should be viewed with gratitude for their demonstrated and consistent commitment to the core richness of the Church’s social teachings. If consulted, lay people and the Religious of Canada, many of whom have worked in the Global South and who personally know many of these organizations and their contexts, could have provided more accurate information on the partners under review.”

On March 24, the Christian feminist collective L’autre Parole said the situation was unacceptable. It has had “particularly harmful repercussions for women in the Global South” and is “contrary to elementary principles of law and social justice.”

Over the years, some groups were targeted by the fake-news outlet, and others came forward themselves to say that they were under investigation. Among them are Radio Progreso, a Jesuit-backed community station in Progreso, Honduras, that I visited in 2009 a few weeks after the coup. Another is Famn Deside, a women’s group (founded in the late 80s by nuns, the Soeurs du Bon-Conseil) in Jacmel, Haiti. I had planned to visit them in February last year, but civil unrest and the pandemic prevented me from travelling. A March 25 article in Présence-Info describes both groups.

Like all development agencies that receive public funding, D&P has a gender policy. It includes a statement from Pope Francis, who is also a target of attacks from the religious and political far-right.

“History is burdened by the excesses of patriarchal cultures that considered women inferior…. There are those who believe that many of today’s problems have arisen because of female emancipation. This is false, untrue, a form of male chauvinism. The equal dignity of men and women makes us rejoice to see old forms of discrimination disappear, and within families there is a growing reciprocity…. [W]e must nonetheless see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women.”

  • Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia (2016)
  • L’autre Parole says that Famn Deside is still receiving its funding. “We are delighted. And we are convinced that the majority of recently excluded groups should regain their funding if the principles of social justice were applied in their assessment.”

    In coming days, I will share more about the vision and origins of Development and Peace. Their work provides lessons for all who strive to build North-South alliances of solidarity.

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