On the Importance of Bearing Witness

At the University of Toronto, POL101: Introduction to Political Science is home to 1,200 students for an entire school year. It is among my favourite classes listed on my transcript and offered the lecture that affirmed my decision to major in the discipline. Professor Joseph Wong’s concluding remarks in March 2012 were simple, and far removed from the complex ideas of war, peace, democracy and dictatorship we had spent the year discussing. Instead, his last words simply summarized the three fundamental functions all political scientists serve: they make arguments, they bear witness, and they believe we can always do better.

I would like to focus on the second of these — the importance of bearing witness.

As my undergraduate years at the University of Toronto flew by, I grew increasingly preoccupied in my search for an answer to what was next. I knew what I wanted to do — which continues to be to find ways to beat poverty in our lifetimes. But other than attending public seminars or watching TED talks, I simply had no ideas about how it was being done or how I wanted to do it. Classrooms meant to expand our minds had shrunk my imagination.

So what does it mean to bear witness? Bearing witness demands a resolution to search out problems, not shy away from them. And it entails leaving our comfort zones to face the uncomfortable

Bearing witness requires us to get out of the classroom and into the world.

In June of this year, following ten months of preparatory work, four fellow undergraduates and I travelled to South Africa with Professor Joseph Wong (Ralph and Roz Halbert Professor of Innovation and Canada Research Chair in Health, Democracy and Development). There, sponsored by the MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth, we spent a week studying how South Africa has been able to achieve a near-universal birth registration rate (an indicator critical to ensuring that we don’t continue to leave the poor behind). We participated in thirty meetings across four different cities over five working days. We spoke to academics, bureaucrats, civil society organizers and doctors. We ran through hospital departments and stormed government offices searching for answers. We took meetings in coffee shops and in crowded cars.

Hurriedly taking notes during one of our thirty interviews

Each of these meetings and experiences allowed us to bear witness in unique ways. We bore witness to the realities of poverty — the image of a large grave site covered in rocks and marked with crosses encouraged me to reflect on how much untapped potential has never even existed in the eyes of the state. And we bore witness to the unsung heroes of development projects across the country, those that inspire us to believe that we can always do more and do better — the medical student who examines patients in freezing temperatures two hours outside of the city; the community health workers who are foot soldiers enabling the delivery of social services to hard to reach populations; and the civil society organizer who grew up in a village that often lacked electricity and water and who would go on to a DPhil at Oxford before returning home to help her own. And we bore witness to strategies being used to make a difference — mobile unit trucks that access remote rural areas to deliver social grants are an example of how we can innovate to beat poverty.

My field work in South Africa helped me see how brave people are doing important work. It also allowed me to recognize that, as Andrew Youn of One Acre Fund puts it, “ending poverty is simply a matter of delivering proven goods and services to people.” It set my imagination on fire and I begun to ask questions such as, “How could we better equip community workers to update the population size and needs of rural communities in real time?” and “How can we take innovations implemented in the global south and apply them at home in Canada?” Bearing witness enabled compassion and enlightened self-interest, it encouraged innovative thinking and approaches to pressing global challenges, and it strengthened my resolve to be an ambassador for progress, whether around the world or at home.

En route to Lion’s Head Mountain summit on our day off

Consider, for a moment, the consequences of failing to provide students with such opportunities. The training of a student of Political Science who is unable to see the impact of development policy firsthand — or a student of Criminology who never steps foot inside a federal penitentiary, or a student of Engineering who never bears witness to the end of life experience — means that universities may fail to equip their graduates to take on pressing real-world challenges.

How, then, do we ensure that all students are able to bear witness? Public sector funds, and therefore university funds, are few and far between. As a result, so is the associated impact of these funds. If universities find themselves constrained by financial realities, it is time to ask more of our colleagues in the private sector. The MasterCard Center’s commitment to sponsoring undergraduate research examining the delivery of social services to hard to reach populations is a start and serves as a model which other corporations can adopt. As corporations increasingly focus on corporate social responsibility initiatives, what better place to direct efforts than universities — pantheons of ideas filled with hopeful youth and daring risk-takers.

We must continue to strengthen the skills and encourage the ambitions of our student population if we are to build a citizenry of individuals that is committed to leaving no one behind. And this demands putting our money where our mouth is. We have to expose young people to ideas and experiences that inspire, and that equip them to meet important challenges head on. And we have to create an increasingly aware cohort of individuals who reject the premise that we can’t be better. What an immense responsibility. I have no doubt that if we work together, we can live up to it.