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Léger Foundation

Member Profile May-June 2012

In May 2012, during the CCIC AGM in Ottawa, we sat down with Norman MacIsaac, Executive Directeur of Léger Foundation (L’OEUVRE LÉGER), a CCIC member organization based out of Montréal. For over 60 years, the Léger Foundation has worked to promote human dignity, by supporting and reinforcing community initiatives carried out by organizations that work alongside the most marginalized populations, while facilitating public participation and maximizing the impact of donations. Here is the interview.


Can you tell us a bit about one of the overseas partner organizations that the Léger Foundation (L’OEUVRE LÉGER) is working with?

Norman MacIsaac: One of the fundamental aspects of our approach is long term work with partners that have developed innovative approaches based on the local context and needs. We don’t bring a top-down approach; we don’t have one pre-defined approach.

An example of that is our work in Asia, and in the Asian region our work is focussed on child protection, specifically children and young women who have been victims of sexual exploitation and human trafficking. One of the partners that we work with is Prajwala, based in Hyderabad, which emerged after there were police raids and the police did not know what to do with girls and boys (sometimes as young as five years old), who were rescued from sexual exploitation. Prajwala has developed a number of different approaches to that issue, ranging from rehabilitation, re-insertion in the community, education, and health care (because a large number unfortunately are living with HIV/AIDS). The project takes a strategic approach to addressing the issue of helping those survivors to re-integrate. Prajwala, for example, has developed norms state-wide which have been replicated in other states, and are now going to be replicated at a national level for the rehabilitation of victims of sexual violence. And they also work with regional partners, who have become Léger partners, because we are looking to expand with them, because we already work in those countries but we wish to take on partners who are partners of our partners, in order to address the issue at a regional level.

India is the country where there is the most human trafficking for sexual exploitation of children in the world. And it is the country of demand (in economic terms), whereas the supply countries are mainly Nepal and Bangladesh, both of which have porous borders with India. Prajwala works in collaboration with partners in those countries, and we are moving towards a more regional approach in our work in addressing that issue, but always with our partners. This is an example of an organization that has evolved unique approaches. In terms of vision, Prajwala aims to change society’s views. Most of society views the sexual exploitation of children as horrible. But then in the re-integration process when you say to somebody, “Why don’t you hire one of these girls to work in your hotel?” they say “well… maybe not in our hotel. We don’t want that kind of girl”. This is the type of discrimination and prejudice that our partners are working with.

What have been some of the challenges faced by the Léger Foundation in the past few years?

Norman MacIsaac: In the last year and a half, starting in early 2011, one challenge was facing the new funding approach at CIDA. They went from an approach of renewing programs, to an approach of calls for proposals. Once the Léger Foundation had completed the second call for proposals, we immediately began a re-organization process. When we got the decisions -one positive and one negative - it resulted in lower levels of CIDA funding for us. This accelerated the re-engineering process of our organization, which has been a very exciting and positive process, despite the fact that it is hard. Every position we had to lose in the process is a person we miss dearly. But at the same time, the process was designed to strengthen our capacity. It meant reducing support positions and bringing in a lot of strong expertise. Our team has become very strong, with new staff, new positions, an entire new structure of the organization which will allow smooth operations while maintaining quality control and better information on the results we achieve. Secondly we have also a team of consultants, which acts more like friends and employees, but they are consultants which gives us flexibility to respond to specific areas. Our team has also become very much trilingual. We have really been strengthening the team, strengthening the vision, narrowing down to three key thematic areas, reducing the number of countries (which is also a hard process but a necessary one), and compromising between CIDA’s short-term, service-delivery approach, with our approach of long term partnerships. We are maintaining a smaller number of long-term partnerships, but we are looking for strategic opportunities to increase financing. This is a compromise between our strong commitment to long-term partnerships and the demanding context in which we have to go project-by-project to get funding.

Can you tell us, from your experience, what is the value to the Léger Foundation of being a member of CCIC?

Norman MacIsaac: CCIC is in transition, and as the CCIC Board Chair Jim Cornelius said in his address to the CCIC AGM earlier today, we are watching to see what the new CCIC can deliver. In times when the entire movement is facing a number of challenges, it is the time to demonstrate solidarity. At the same time there are questions from our board about the relevance and value-added of CCIC. I think what we have seen is very positive change with the restructuring of CCIC, strong leadership emerging under Julia Sánchez, which we fully support. We see a good dynamic team emerging, with maximum use of volunteers.

I think it is very important to be represented in these fora, because, for example CIDA is present, the government is present. It is very important for us to have eyes and ears in those fora even though we don’t always have the ability to be present. Looking forward, I think there is more we can do, in order to respond not only to the international co-operation side of changes in government at CIDA, but to respond also to what’s happening in the public, to the expectations of the public and as we discussed in the AGM this year  - the whole question of metrics being used, and to somehow use CCIC as a forum to educate the public, to really define what our standards are, without imposing standards, to define for the public what they should be looking for. If somebody goes to a source, where would they go to find whether or not an organization is worth supporting? I hope they would be able to go to CCIC, in the same way that CCIC has played an important role with the Code of Ethics. This has been a strong element for us, and I think for most NGOs.

We would hope that one day people would go to CCIC to say, “How do I assess an organization?” Perhaps we can do this without putting grades or artificial numbers or standardizing but to give people tools to ask the questions they find are important. I don’t think we can have one set of grades and say – “NGO A is an 87 and NGO B is a 75.” I think that is what the metrics feel like sometimes. Your operating costs and administration fees are 12% and theirs are 13% so I pick you. Hopefully that’s not it. I don’t pick, say, Adidas shoes because their marketing costs are lower. I pick Adidas shoes because they fit well and because I like them. It should be the same for NGOs; we should pick high quality NGOs. People should evaluate NGOs and be able to say, “I’m passionate about this issue, they have competent people, they do a good job, they’re well connected, they are leaders in their field.” So I hope that CCIC can grow into that role and help be a leader in the community, collaborating also with groups like Imagine Canada, who are also doing excellent work. I’m very happy to see that the coalitions are coming together in these difficult times. I think there are some good changes on the horizon, but of course we are watching very closely and we are anxious to participate in those changes as well.

Quebec has been a very dynamic place to be for the past several months. Please tell us your thoughts on the high levels of civic engagement in Quebec, from civil society and from the student movement. More broadly, what is the role of the CSO in society as part of these social movements?

Norman MacIsaac: There are two lessons that emerge from this. One is that we have erased the idea that youth are apathetic. But this is something that we knew before. Youth is a major focus of Léger’s programming. Leger has programming on three continents with youth, but also in almost every region of Quebec. We also have programs to promote youth involvement here and around the globe, especially Jeune citoyen engagé (Young Engaged Citizen), which gives youth small grants to be able to finance their projects. These are grants based on receipted expenses, rather than being an award or prize. It is a grant to implement a project, some of which are in Quebec, and some are international. The response has been amazing: last year we had 168 applications. Now in some cases the ability to go ahead with these student initiatives has been affected by the prolonged student conflict and the fact that many students aren’t at school, so that has been an unfortunate negative side effect.

We knew that this generation is extremely active, extremely demanding. They join us heart and soul. We have a new campaign which we launched last year which we call HD – which means Human Dignity. HD is a play on words for High Definition, and in this case it is HD development. That is really our call to action for human dignity, which encompasses both poverty and rights. The youth have jumped on that message, for them it is clear. And we have seen that in their projects and their creativity. We are very happy to see the population realizing that this generation is an activist generation - and we need it.

For us, youth has always been a big theme – in Quebec and internationally. Within Quebec, the population is very divided on the student protest issue, and that demonstrates the importance for dialogue and creating space for dialogue. We are also a partner with Forces AVENIR, which is an organization that gives awards to people for student leadership, and we give one for community action (entraide) in Quebec, and we send them on an international internship. Our first intern, Jasmyn Beauséjour, went to Mali, and Léonie Matteau went to Haiti for a life-changing experience, and this year’s recipient, Jacques-Arnaud Vanier, is going to the Philippines. Youth programming has been a major part of what we do and are doing. We can’t deny that the youth of this generation are active - and we see a positively inspiring generation that wants to change the world for the better.


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