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WE Charity's practices continue to be questioned as Scheer calls out Liberals in question period

Last Updated Jul 20, 2020 at 5:42 pm MDT

OTTAWA – As the Opposition Conservatives accused the Liberals of either corruption or ignorance in regards to the WE Charity, at least one expert in international development is calling out the practices of the organization.

READ MORE: Scheer calls Liberals’ choice to give WE contract ‘corruption or incompetence’

“(It) has generally not been transparent and open to critique. And it’s unlike any organization I’ve seen over the last 20 years,” said Rebecca Tiessen with the School of International Development & Global Studies at the University of Ottawa.

She has been studying International Development for more than 20 years.

It’s a field that studies global development and how best to assist developing nations.

The WE Charity is one of the biggest names in the field–but Tiessen said that the multi-million dollar group doesn’t talk with others in the field, isn’t getting feedback or critique from colleagues, and is reluctant to answer questions about how it operates.

RELATED: Commons finance committee to begin probing WE Charity’s volunteering contract

“Unless we can begin to open up to these opportunities, to learn from scholars and researchers and other practitioners, they’re going to continue to make the same mistakes they’ve been making,” she told CityNews.

READ MORE: WE Charity to ‘refocus mission’ following grant controversy, cancels all events

But in response to this story, the charity provided this statement:

ID experts say they’d like to see WE participate more in the learning environment related to international development studies in Canada. They haven’t seen WE attend seminars, workshops, or conferences with regularity. They expressed concerns that WE hasn’t been able to hear about the latest research or experiential findings from academics, volunteers in the field, and the people from nations where NGOs regularly work.

WE Charity engages within the International Development community. Within Canada, we are also a proud and active member of the Ontario Council for International Cooperation (OCIC) and have been for many years. WE Charity is on the OCIC Membership Page, along with many other leading organizations.

As recently as February 7th, 2020, we hosted an international development event at our headquarters, which OCIC helped to organize along with Right to Play. One of the key purposes of the event, in addition to collaboration with the International Development community, was to involve youth in Canada’s international efforts, with particular attention to gender equality to mark the 30th IDW. We used our Global Classroom resources and teleconferencing abilities to draw in youth from across the country. We focused on the International Development Goals, as well as themes of equality for girls and women.

We respect that there are many conferences and trainings in Canada; however, WE Charity is a global organization, and given Canada is one small part of the global community, WE Charity allocates the majority of limited time to attending learning experiences and present its own research at global conferences, such as the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship and UN agency meetings such as UNESCO. WE Charity has hosted for the past four years an annual global gathering in partnership with UNAIDS, UN Women, and UN Global Compact etc., during the week of the opening of the UN General Assembly. Furthermore, WE Charity staff regularly engage in training and cooperation with not-for-profits through its field teams in the Global South.

They’d also like to be able to request and receive information from WE – even on banal matters like the number of volunteers being sent overseas, the length of their terms, what part of the world they’re working in, and the like. Some academics are trying to get a grip on the number of Canadians going overseas for volunteering and voluntourism – but have had difficulty getting information. Given the large number of projects WE undertakes, this information would go very far.

Our annual report, with impacts on education, health, sanitation, food security and opportunity, are published on our web site, as are our audited financial statements and multiple third-party reviews and published data. Please see here: https://www.we.org/en-CA/transparency-reporting/.

We also always try to be as helpful as possible to inquiring researchers, and we have assisted multiple individuals during their academic and scholarly research. We apologize if a specific academic with whom you are in conversation has previously pursued information from WE Charity without success. If so, we would appreciate if the individual could forward the previous inquiry to us. If the specific individual you reference has questions, we have a standard process whereby they can seek the engagement of our team for their academic questions. Of course, we respectfully ask for people’s patience for inquiries, as we must prioritize the on-the-ground delivery over Canadian academic study.

Additionally, we want to ensure that our donors see the value of their contribution and the impact of our international development partnerships, which is an important reason for why we run international trips to the developing communities where we partner.

There was also concern expressed about local ownership of projects, and wanted more information in this respect. As an example, WE may construct a school in a developing nation, but academics wanted to hear about the process whereby the ownership and administration of that school is turned over to local communities – as well as what’s done to ensure those communities have the capacity to continue to operate those schools in perpetuity.

At the very core of our WE Villages Five Pillar sustainable development model are the principles of community-driven development, done in partnership, to ensure community ownership and long-term sustainability.

In all international projects, we work with that country’s relevant government department, be it the Ministry of Education or Ministry of Health, as well as local governments. Outside of a few large scale projects in Kenya, such as the WE College, Baraka Hospital or high schools, all of our primary schools are government-run and community-owned schools.

We use an Asset-Based Development approach which 1) focuses on the strengths of a community rather than its problems and deficiencies and how to bring these strengths to bear in community development activities and 2) is community/internally-driven development rather than development driven by outside or external organizations. WE Villages also utilizes a Rights-based approach, which uses human rights as the basis for development initiatives and emphasizes that the project beneficiaries have entitlements/rights to basic necessities, such as basic education, primary health care, etc.

Community Participation, Ownership and Empowerment – WE Villages employs a participatory approach in all of its projects. Community members willingly contribute their time, labour and resources to the construction of projects in their community, thereby allowing them to achieve a sense of ownership of the process. Experience demonstrates that when community members have a sense of ownership of the project, they have a vested interest in helping ensure its long-term sustainability.

Our model and its effectiveness has been evaluated by Mission Measurement, one of the leading impact measurement firms in the world. Among its findings: WE Villages programs and approach are aligned with practices espoused and practiced by the leading development organizations. And are designed around the accepted core tenens of sustainable development. Specifically: WE Villages communities have demonstrated increased ownership over their continued growth.

This report is available online: MM – WE Villages – https://staticsb.we.org/f/52095/x/1cf9fce574/mission-measurement_we-villages-research-report_final-draft4.pdf?_ga=2.213563668.1877522871.1594909800-1471941221.1569702949

Volunteers said they wanted a clearer relationship between WE and ME to WE. Some felt they contributed great amounts of labour to the for-profit side of operations, when that was not what was promised or pitched to them.

Students and families who participate on trips have both a cultural experience and a volunteer experience, participating with the local community on some development projects, usually school building. ME to WE runs the trips and logistics, but the development projects are run by WE Charity.

More information about the volunteer and cultural immersion are on our website: https://travel.metowe.com/en-CA/volunteer/

The impact and efficacy of our trips has been studied by Mission Measurement and is available online. – https://staticsb.we.org/f/52095/x/375b76bee6/mission-measurementme-to-we-trips-report-current.pdf?_ga=2.124239498.1877522871.1594909800-1471941221.1569702949

ME to WE Social Enterprises supports the work of WE Charity through three principle avenues:

• Auditors show an average of 90% of ME to WE Social Enterprise profits over last five years were donated to WE Charity. Since founding, 100% of ME to WE Social Enterprise profits have always been donated to WE Charity or reinvested to grow the social mission of enterprise – meaning no dividends are distributed, all profits go to social good (LINK). Since its founding, ME to WE Social Enterprise has contributed millions more in cash to WE Charity than WE Charity has purchased in services such as trip hosting. However, this is an incomplete metric, as there are two additional elements (next points).
• Creating empowering jobs in underserved rural WE Village regions around the world in eco-travel, artisans products, and Fairtrade consumables to help families lift themselves out of poverty.
• Providing services to assist the charity, especially hosting at ME to WE travel locations WE Charity donors who are visiting charity projects and youth service trip scholarship. This has resulted in tens of millions of dollars directly donated by these funders to WE Charity.

Volunteers also say they wanted a clearer look at how international operations work, for their own understanding. Some people who had worked as speakers say they were confronted by students or teachers who wanted information on where or how donated money was being spent, and did not receive responses when they asked WE.

If there are participants who did not receive responses to their questions, we are more than happy to follow up with them. We are proud of our model, in which 90 per cent of every dollar raised goes to programming, with 10 per cent going to cover administration costs.

One of the most extraordinary aspects of the trips is that donors can transparently visit their project to see, touch, and witness how their donation changed lives. Few organizations are able to make such a commitment to transparency.

Additional aspects for your consideration:
• WE Charity has unqualified audits (i.e. without findings of significant concern) every year since the charity’s founding (see HERE)
• WE Charity has built 1,500 schools and schoolhouses; 200,000 educated; 30,000 women in alternative income programs; and 1 million people with improved access to healthcare and clean water.
• WE Schools delivers service-learning programs to 7,000 schools across Canada, empowering youth to help 3,000+ causes.
• WE Charity has received the Roosevelt Freedom Metal, the World Children’s Prize for the Right of the Child, the inaugural Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. It has been the subject of multiple reviews by global foundations and corporations that have supported its work.

Others expressed concern that their overseas volunteering experience was not substantive, and wanted assurances that there would be a change to the way future volunteer positions were handled – ensuring volunteers are contributing in a serious way to development, while ensuring communities are benefitting and volunteers are developing a strong understanding of existing, accepted principles of international development.

Our trips create globally aware young people. Volunteering during these trips is just one component of the experience, which includes workshops, leadership training and immersive cultural experiences.

We respect that an individual may hold an opinion, but this question has been studied in-depth by independent measurement experts on the topic who based their analysis on data, interviews, long-term tracking, and an informed understanding about the model. The impact and efficacy of our trips has been studied by Mission Measurement and is available online. – https://staticsb.we.org/f/52095/x/375b76bee6/mission-measurementme-to-we-trips-report-current.pdf?_ga=2.124239498.1877522871.1594909800-1471941221.1569702949

Tiessen is part of a growing cohort of international development workers who are raising pointed questions about what WE does. She said that she’s heard concerns about WE for over a decade, but getting answers from the organization is nearly impossible.

“I’ve reached out to the organization in the past, asking very banal questions – like can you tell me how many students you’ve sent abroad on your voluntourism trips? Because I’ve been trying to track (it) and we have no good numbers on how many young people actually go overseas for these sorts of learning opportunities. And (we’re) getting no response.”

A former speaker said he noticed problems as well. Matthew Cimone is a former staffer and worked for WE when it was Free The Children.

WATCH: Wage Subsidy Vs. WE Charity

“I was never given any of that information. It was always ‘don’t worry, we’re doing good work abroad’,” said Matthew Cimone. “But when I tried to get more details, like ‘let’s provide a transparent view of that to students’, there was always resistance around that.”

Cimone said he worked on the first WE Day, and says the organization’s focus has shifted over time, to fundraising and boosting its corporate partners.

“WE is basically like, conscious-capitalism concerts. That’s essentially what this has become. I know some people who are really uncomfortable with that. I know I was. That’s not what I signed up for with the organization.”