MONTREAL — The McGill Middle East Program (MMEP) is facing the termination of its $1-million annual funding from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) after 15 years.
Director and founder Jim Torczyner said the money was supposed to run out this spring, but with lobbying, the MMEP was able to get an extension for one more year to carry on its activities in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.
He is, however, confident that new funding sources will be found and the MMEP will continue. Perennially optimistic, Torczyner envisions an expanded, rather than, diminished future.
The MMEP is becoming the International Community Action Network (ICAN), giving it a new name, but a similar mission.
CIDA funding covers about half of MMEP’s total budget, or 80 per cent of the costs if the Israel portion is excluded. CIDA never covered the bill for bringing Israeli students to McGill University or for setting up community service and advocacy centres in Israel, because Canada doesn’t consider Israel to be a developing country.
The Israel part of the program has largely been covered by private fundraising, which Torczyner is now spending much of his time trying to further develop in Canada and internationally.
Torczyner describes ICAN as “the coming of age” of MMEP. Its co-chairs are two MMEP stalwarts, former McGill chancellor Gretta Chambers and retired Superior Court justice Herbert Marx, a former Quebec justice minister.
The new configuration makes fundraising outside Canada easier (ICAN is recognized as a charitable group for tax purposes in the United States.)
MMEP – whose full name is the McGill Middle East Program in Civil Society and Peace Building – was launched in 1993 and began being funded by CIDA in 1997. The centrepiece was a specially designed two-year master’s program in social work, with an emphasis on learning North American-style community organizing.
Students initially came from Jordan and Israel, and included both Jews and Arabs. By the late 1990s, Palestinians were included.
The “fellows” spent one year studying at McGill and then a second year in the field establishing and leading “rights-based community action centres” in their homelands.
There have been no fellows at McGill since 2007-2008, due to an earlier reduction in the CIDA grant from $1.4 million to $1 million.
Fifty-three students completed the program, and there are now 11 centres in poor neighbourhoods in the Middle East: five each in Israel and the West Bank, and one in Amman.
Torczyner is aiming to open five new centres over the next five years.
MMEP has nine institutional partners in the region, mainly universities and NGOs such as the Red Crescent.
The centre’s staff and volunteers guide the disadvantaged in how to secure their rights – in housing, education, health care, employment and the legal system. The centres reach about 120,000 people a year.
Torczyner believes the MMEP is a casualty of the Harper government’s “shortsighted” withdrawal of funding from other Canadian non-governmental organizations working in the Middle East.
“We were basically told by CIDA that the government’s priorities have changed [with regard to the West Bank and Gaza], and it will be focusing on physical infrastructure projects such as courthouses in Ramallah and a forensic laboratory somewhere else,” said Torczyner.
“They also said we had been funded for 15 years and that they recognize our valuable contribution, but that we should not count on getting government support forever.”
In December 2007, the government made a commitment of $300 million to the Palestinian Authority over five years, mainly for projects related to security, governance and economic prosperity. But Foreign Minister John Baird reportedly dropped a reference to that aid in his speech to the UN General Assembly last September.
Although Torczyner has successfully staved off past CIDA warnings that the money was going to end, this time he is resigned that his recourses have run out.
The cutback isn’t due to the MMEP’s track record, Torczyner insisted, noting an independent evaluation commissioned by CIDA that said the MMEP has achieved excellent results despite political and economic instability in the region.
It continues to receive more modest support from the Quebec Ministry of International Relations and the Open Society Foundation, founded by billionaire George Soros, which promotes democracy around the world.
The “first generation” of the community centres are totally self-sufficient, the second are on their way, and the newest ones are still in the building stage, he said.
Torczyner believes the MMEP has made a practical contribution to not only bettering the lives of people, but to fostering peaceful co-existence between ordinary Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians.
It has turned former enemies into allies. One of the most notable is Sami Al-Kilani, a Palestinian poet and PLO activist who spent five years in prison in the 1980s because the Israelis considered him a security threat, although he never engaged in any violent or subversive activity.
Al-Kilani, who was born into a poor West Bank farming family, was in the first group of Palestinians at McGill in 1998-99 and founded the first MMEP centre in the Palestinian territories.
Today, at 60, he is the dean of the faculty of educational sciences at An-Najah National University in Nablus, a member of the Palestinian National Council, a founding member of the Arab non-violence movement, and an MMEP executive committee member.
The MMEP has gone a long way to alleviate the social inequities among his people that are often at the root of discontent that can translate into conflict, Al-Kilani believes.
“There is a very thin line between hope and hopelessness,” he said. “If you give people hope in solving their problems, the hope will oppose this mentality of hatred and revenge. Empowering people makes them less likely to be exposed to extremism.
“Although I never supported violence and always believed in a two-state solution, my personal transformation was not easy. But I decided I could no longer be a prisoner of my pain.”
Earlier this month, Al-Kilani returned to speak at a public MMEP event marking its 15 years in the West Bank. The MMEP has been unsuccessful in taking root in Gaza, Torczyner said, because a local partner institution could not be found.
Torczyner believes the MMEP is needed more than ever with people across the Middle East rising up and demanding more from their leaders.