Joanna Kerr is a lifelong feminist and activist. Since 1992, right after graduating from her MA in Gender and Development at IDS, Joanna has been actively leading some of the large development organisations in and outside Canada, working for gender equality, environmental protection and Indigenous rights. For years, Joanna led the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), working hard to make it an influential gender and women’s rights advocacy organisation. She served as the first female Chief Executive of ActionAid International, a global federation based in South Africa as well as holding senior positions in Oxfam as Director of Policy and Outreach. She also worked as the Executive Director for Greenpeace Canada, an independent campaigning organisation that exposes global environmental problems. She is currently the President and CEO of MakeWay – a Canadian national charity, building partnerships and solutions to help nature and communities thrive together. She serves on boards too, with the Equality Fund – Canada’s only global Fund for women and as the International Board Chair of World Animal Protection. Here, IDS’s Mariyam Suleman Anees (MAGen34) interviews her.
One thing that stands out for me about you, aside from leading some of the biggest development organisations, is that you are so personally invested in the causes you work on. What made you choose this path and interest in social justice, especially issues of inequality, women’s rights and environment?
It started as a child, when at the age of 10 my father got a job in Tanzania, so my mother and I travelled with him. It was year 1977 and economically a very challenging time for Tanzania. During a cholera break-out, I was worried if I would get sick like so many other children, but then my mother explained that in our house, we had tap water we could boil, it was clean to drink. So it was that early age when I became aware of the privileges and profound inequalities different people experience in the same place at the same time. This set my mind about global injustice and inspired me to learn more, continue my education in African Studies, then in Gender and Development Studies in IDS and work with organisations that really took social injustices into account.
While studying at IDS I met several students from different parts of the world. As much as I wanted to work in the Global South, I was constantly reminded by my colleagues that it was the foreign policy of governments of the north that had to change because they were reinforcing global poverty. At the time I was not sure how it was all going to come along but then, right after my MA, I got a job at the North South Institute in Ottawa to help set up a whole new gender program, which focused on policy research to influence Canadian foreign policy from a gendered perspective. This included programs on violence against women as a development issue, the negative impacts of structural adjustments and the lack of understanding of the gendered nature of poverty as a result of trade and aid policies.
You’ve had a lot of experience in development from viewing inequalities and injustice in your childhood, studying development for your MA, then onto working to change policies through research. How effective do you find policy research when it comes to action and actual change?
All through the seven years I worked at North South Institute to change policies, I found it really influential and important but at the same time, an extremely slow way to change the world. You would take years to do research and develop reports and then the planning and implementation would take years again. Ultimately, the activist in me had to find other ways to shake things up! This happened through an organisation called The Association of Women and Development, which at the time was a group of mostly North American academics and policymakers. When I joined its board, I found it to be rather colonial, and not politicized enough. Years after becoming its Executive Director and with the support of other members, I had the opportunity to expand the organisation from 800 to 7000 members, primarily from the Global South and mostly young feminists. We changed our name to Association of Women’s Rights and Development so we became explicitly feminist. We ended up doing a lot of action research around funding for women’s rights work and movement building.
Through your work, you have tried to influence policies and create awareness through projects and funding for women’s rights with the inclusion of feminists, academics and activists from the Global South. With your work being primarily based in Canada, have there been instances where you have been able to work not for, but alongside activists and feminists in the Global South and how was that different?
Of course. Perhaps the best example is from my time at ActionAid, where I was based in South Africa. As much as our work involved a feminist perspective and inculcated processes of feminist leadership inside the organisation on the local level, it really brought the issue of climate change into context. Everywhere I went women were very articulate about changing weather patterns, droughts, floods and heat waves that were affecting their lives. But the organisation was working with them on education, violence and participatory budgeting, not climate. This needed to change.
Without getting on the ground and listening to women, development does not make any sense. If our organisational work, no matter how big and good that is, does not necessarily address the very issues people are facing on a daily basis, they do not really matter.
So, what was your next step and what were the challenges?
Hearing women always talking about climate impacts as a barrier to their lives had a huge impact on me. I knew I had to be back in the global north to start working on addressing climate change, because rich countries were creating the problem. That’s when I decided to join Greenpeace.
As for the greatest challenges of doing this work? Perhaps the cognitive dissidence: where you are aware of something, the profound inequality and extreme poverty across the world, and the climate crisis yet working with and trying to influence those with relative wealth and privilege, and not much concern for the climate. Between raising money at big fundraisers amongst the wealthy and then trying to figure out how to use my privilege to move resources and move hearts and minds.
And there will always be the haters. I think it’s important to always navigate conflict in a way that enables you to see and appreciate the other side, knowing that people come at different issues, have different perspectives and varying values. I hope to always be a bridge builder and help those around me to be more curious, less judgmental, more open and less righteous.
Being a woman from the global south myself, especially from a place like Balochistan where political oppression, silence and a rigid cultural system are a norm, talking to Joanna took me back to my community. She reminded me of how challenging it is to make any kind of difference in a place like mine, yet many young women like myself have never lost hope and have continued finding ways to make a difference either through writing, working on the ground or simply sharing our thoughts. At times, when it becomes too hard to breathe in our political and social realities, our women simply find refuge in each other’s company, making efforts to drift apart from what we have experienced for so long and imagine a different reality where peace, justice and equality are a norm.
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