The Student Association of International Development (SAID) at the University of Waterloo recently partnered with the Waterloo chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) to host a two-day conference centered on the emerging role of the private sector in international development. Students from many faculties and programs attended the event, as well as faculty and community members.
The first day involved three keynote speakers, each offering a different perspective on Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) and other emerging issues in the field of international aid. The conference chair, International Development student Liam Wilkinson, pointed out that although not exactly a glamorous topic in the world of development, PPPs might be one of the most successful models for alleviating poverty.
PPPs are especially relevant because the recent federal budget has the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) folding into the Foreign Affairs department. The downsize will likely make government funding for international aid less reliable, therefore private sector donors will be called upon to fill in the funding gaps.
The first speaker was Shannon Kindornay from the North South Institute, Canada’s first think tank specializing in international development. Kindornay gave an energetic overview of the challenges and benefits of PPPs for development and aid. She emphasized the essential role of governments in bringing NGOs and private sector donors together Often businesses want to participate in aid but they don’t quite know how – this is where the government comes in.
The final keynote resonated the most with the audience. John Siebert, the executive director of Project Ploughshares, explained why armed conflict is on the rise, while the number of wars is in decline. “The good news is, we’ve gotten good at stopping wars,” he declared, adding that the increase in armed conflict is a result of the combination of gangs, guns and drugs. “Conflict happens; it’s responding violently to conflict that we need to stop,” Siebert explained.
Siebert spoke to an audience of mostly International Development students with their sights set on careers with NGOs similar to Ploughshares.
Siebert reminded the audience that the greatest impacts of climate change are occurring around the equator, which is also where the greatest amount of armed conflict happens. Project Ploughshares does not think this is a coincidence. Siebert cited the war and genocide in Darfur as potentially the first climate change driven conflict. He reminded the International Development students in the audience that a lot of development careers are going to be focused on mitigating the effects of climate change.
The discussion-based workshops on the second day built on material from the previous day, focusing on the politics of development in Canada. Students from Engineers Without Borders presented several workshops and emphasized the importance of moving beyond the math and science of their rigid curriculum to become “good” engineers. This is essentially the reason for this new partnership between SAID and EWB.
Wilkinson pointed out that both student groups have similar ideals and goals but had never interacted, despite existing on the same campus. The partnership represents the benefits of interdisciplinary approaches to development issues. He also offered a dose of optimism: “There are many reasons to despair over the state of development efforts around the world. The very fact that we can have this conference and that there are students who are passionate enough to attend tells me that these challenges can be met.”
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