Jo Lee Talks To The Incomparable Rudyard

By Josephina Lee Mascioli-Mansell

Rudyard Griffiths

I had just returned from Nairobi and was having dinner with great friends – great philanthropists. It was a rainy night and a cool breeze wisped among the trees along the screened-in patio as we sat in deep conversation beneath the comfort of heat lamps.

Each of us had spent a number of years assisting Africa, a nation suffering from incredible disease, and as I told the phenomenal tale of visiting and being the only white person among the two plus million people within the largest shantytown in the world, my friend’s husband interjected with much excitement. He spoke of the upcoming Munk Debate featuring former United Nations special envoy Stephen Lewis and Oxford economics professor Paul Collier arguing for the benefits of foreign aid. Arguing against them would be Dambisa Moyo, a Goldman Sachs economist, and Hernando de Soto – hailed as the greatest living economist by former U.S. president Bill Clinton.

We attended the debate and were blown away not only by the four debaters but also by the immense presence of the co-organizer and moderator of the Munk Debates, Rudyard Griffiths.

Rudyard is also the co-director, together with Patrick Luciani, of the Salon Speakers Series. He’s been recognized as one of Canada’s Top 40 Under 40, is the co-founder of the Dominion Institute, an advisor to the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. and the author of Who We Are: A Citizen’s Manifesto (Douglas & McIntyre).

The Venue

Jo Lee: And what a privilege to talk with you, Rudyard! Do you suppose the uniqueness of your name is part of the maze that encompasses the rarity of what you do – oh so well?

Rudyard Griffiths: My name sometimes feels like a curse insofar as I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time spelling it to reservation clerks and telephone operators – oh to be named Peter, Paul or John! That said, the Just So Stories were a favorite of mine as a child and whether you agree with my namesake’s politics or not he was an outstanding writer who captured the spirit of his age for posterity.

JL: Tell me, how did the Munk Debates come about?

I understand that the Munk Debates is a signature initiative of the Aurea Foundation, a charitable organization, established in 2006 by Peter and Melanie Munk, that supports individuals and institutions involved in the study and development of public policy debate and research.

RG: Jo Lee, Peter Munk of Barrick Gold, was a very generous supporter of the Dominion Institute when I was executive director. When I stepped down after more than a decade, I was fortunate enough to get the nod from Peter to take on the challenge of launching and building what Peter envisioned as an international class debating series. The goal was to bring the world to Canada. He believed strongly that the forces of globalization are real and transformative and that Canadians need to be exposed to big international issues and events that are shaping and reshaping the global commons.

JL: And so, it began. Was the dream an instance where you and Peter immediately envisioned an exact design that took hold?

RG: Precisely. Our approach to each bi-annual event would be simple.

Today, with over 2,000 members, the Munk Debates have become not only a hot ticket in Toronto, but also an important national event – its success a testament to Canadians’ interest in high-quality discussion of the big issues facing our country and the world.

In an era where political spin and public grandstanding are fast displacing serious discussion about the challenges facing Canada and the world, the Munk Debates provide a lively and substantive forum for leading thinkers to discuss the pressing issues of our time.

JL: And via all these outstanding minds, Rudyard: four more were brought to the fold to explore the opportunities and hazards of foreign aid, by debating the resolution, “be it resolved that foreign aid to developing countries is doing more harm than good.”

It considered whether wealthy nations should be increasing foreign aid in a world where over three billion people live on under $2 a day and where the ills of underdevelopment (e.g. civil strife) can have global repercussions. The debate also explored the poor track record of state-to-state foreign aid in increasing Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the support it can provide to dictators and tyrants, and the potential for freer and fairer trade to lift up developing nations.

RG: As you experienced, Jo Lee, it was a riveting evening.

Arguing for the benefits for foreign aid was development expert Paul Collier, a professor of economics and Director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University. His book The Bottom Billion” won the Lionel Gelber Prize and the Arthur Ross Book Award of the Council on Foreign Relations.

“We need compassion to get ourselves started, and enlightened self-interest to get ourselves serious . . . that’s the alliance that changes the world.”

Paul was joined by Stephen Lewis, Professor in Global Health at McMaster University and former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.

“Truthfully, when I see what we can accomplish with money on the ground, it’s the only time in my life I have wished I was Bill Gates.”

Speaking against foreign aid was Dambisa Moyo, a Global Economist at Goldman Sachs in London. A native of Zambia, she has been dubbed “the Anti-Bono” by The New York Times.

“Evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that aid to Africa has made the poor poorer, and the growth slower.”

Dambisa was joined by Hernando de Soto, president of Peru’s Institute for Liberty and Democracy, considered by The Economist to be one of the most important think tanks in the world.

“Poor people have always been seen as recipients of aid . . . whatever you are giving to them is peanuts compared to what they themselves can do.”

Peter Munk, Michael Ignatieff photography by Tom Sandler

JL: What an ingenious cast of characters! My gosh, for a moment, I thought Stephen Lewis was going to have a heart attack during one of Dambisa’s comments.

I truly believe all four debaters genuinely want the best for Africa but I must tell you that I, too, have spent considerable time in Africa – and not once have I ever vacillated as to whether aid should cease or not. Imagine the human cost of not making the investments!! If poverty increases – it touches us all. People are like symphonies. Their problems, their desires, like instruments: imagine rehearsing FOR NO big night.

The reason the Third World is poor is because of “syndrome mixing,” an inappropriate relationship between government and the economy that people believe is appropriate.

I so, so would have loved to ask Dambisa and Hernando: “What is in your minds? Why do you think these interventions will work? How can you explain that they have not? What is it you really want to achieve?”

You see, to have the continent of Africa run by the minds of those whom we are so fortunate to appreciate – is one arena. But economic minds in huge part are rarely found at the decision levels in African governments. It’s simply not a matter of Africa understanding. Rather it becomes a jigsaw puzzle of highly intelligent moves that indeed encompass the Western flair. This in no way means that Africa is wrong and the balance of the world right! No, no. All countries/peoples require assistance of some form and I believe it is the integrity and wisdom of industrialized countries to yes, rethink the way in which they engage with Africa but, to cease assistance because of Flawed Core Assumptions, A History of Implementation Problems, Unintended Consequences! Please. If WE are the donors – then WE, like any multi-national, should insist on the best managerial/financial minds to substantially eliminate multiple flaws, problems and consequences. Accountability, transparency, good governance.

Rudyard, this all touches home when one sees the tremendous grasp you have on organizational skills. Do great leaders do things differently? And why?

RG: Complexity is something leaders in our current era of globalization must learn to embrace. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions to the challenges that leaders of corporations, governments and civil society groups confront on a day-to-day basis. Yet, much of our business and political culture is based on the premise that leaders lead by reducing the complex to the simple. Don’t get me wrong; I am all in favor of simplicity. That said I am suspicious of leaders, especially politicians, who put forward overly simplistic solutions to the big social and economic problems we face today. Change is always incremental and the goal as a business or political leader is to nudge larger cultural forces that define the organizations we work in, the countries we belong to, the international issues we care about, in positive as opposed to negative directions. This takes skill, time and most of all patience.

JL: I bet you have a story or two to tell?

RG: I think our debate about foreign aid was a case in point regarding the dangers of approaching complex phenomena such as underdevelopment with cookie-cutter solutions. It would be terrific if we could turn off the aid tap and let developing nations use market mechanisms to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. As compelling as such a self-help model is, the challenges most developing countries face are structural and on a scale that swamps the majority of positive impacts generated by market forces and mechanisms. Paul Collier was pretty convincing in our debate when he explained how being a landlocked country or not is a far better predictor of our economic prospects as compared to having (or not) a liberalized economy or full-blown democracy.

JL: Rudyard, your Dominion Institute has been referred to as an historical Non-governmental Organization (NGO) and I gather you’ve been uncomfortable with this.

RG: Jo Lee, writer Charlotte Gray used the phrase. I don’t like the word. We were trying to do something different. The Dominion Institute is also a charity. Unlike other NGOs, we don’t have an axe to grind. We tried to produce content that made Canadians more aware of their history and shared citizenship and we used television, book publications, and public opinion research for the media. Thus, we tried to tackle this unfairly labeled, stigmatized subject that is seen by many people as irrelevant and boring. It should be at the core of the public good.

JL: Of all the surveys and projects generated by the Dominion Institute during your tenure as executive director, what stands out as a favorite for you?

Peter Munk, Melanie Munk, Rudyard Griffiths

RG: Launching the Institute and leading its development over a decade has been a phenomenal personal and professional experience.

What stands out for me was the campaign we launched to give Canada’s last soldier to fight in World War One a full state funeral. In a matter of a couple of weeks we had over 100,000 people sign our petition and shortly thereafter Canada’s parliament passed a unanimous resolution in support of honoring our last Great War veteran with a state funeral. This initiative demonstrated to me the power of public advocacy – the ability of a small organization to harness the energy of tens of thousands of people to get out-of-touch elected officials to do right by a generation of Canadians who sacrificed so much for our country.

JL: What a fascinating mind you are, Rudyard. Tell me about your Salon Speakers Series?

RG: Jo Lee, when Patrick and I started the Salon Speakers in the summer of 2004, our intention was to bring the best thinkers on current international issues to grano restaurant in Toronto, Canada. We felt strongly that Canadians needed to hear more about international problems that affect Canada such as the role of America in a post 9/11 world. But just as important, we wanted to break away from the traditional lecture forums and revert to a true salon where guests not only get to listen, but to interact with speakers in a casual, stimulating environment.

Based on the success of the series in Toronto, we expanded to Calgary at Teatro Restaurant in 2007 with our partner Peter W. White, to Montreal where we launched our series at Club 357 in 2008 with our co-director Deon Ramgoolam and now we’ve also taken our series into the United States with our first event held in Vero Beach, Florida in 2009. Our objective is the same in all these cities: to invite global thinkers and doers to address “the pressing issues of our times”.

Our approach to each event is simple: we ask our speakers to give an informal talk for 30 to 40 minutes without notes followed by a rigorous Q & A. Our speakers have included a roster of great minds including the late Samuel P. Huntington, Bernard Lewis, Christopher Hitchens, Gore Vidal, David Gergen, Paul Volcker, Niall Ferguson and Bob Woodward.

Given the enthusiastic reception to our series in all four cities, we know the formula works.

Then, as we discussed, based on the success of our series, Salon Speakers was retained in 2008 to organize and manage the bi-annual Munk Debates in Toronto. The Royal Ontario Museum, where each Munk Debate is held, has also engaged Salon Speakers to help with its lecture program to promote its exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 2009.

JL: Bravissimo! You are so involved in all things Canadian, Rudyard. Might you share your views on Canada and how we should be shaping the country for future generations?

RG: Jo Lee, in my view, the kind of forward looking, idea-driven gift to future generations that we should be taking on now as a sesquicentennial project is a National Charter of Civic Responsibility. Surely in a country as diverse and decentralized as Canada, all of us can acknowledge the need to create a greater consensus for what we – as citizens – owe each other and our country. Such a charter could have a positive and enduring impact on our schools, on our immigration and settlement systems and most important of all, on the legions of Canadians who treat their citizenship as an afterthought.

JL: You’ve spoken most clearly on Canada’s sesquicentennial celebrations. What should Canadians do in 2017 to celebrate 150 years of common history?

RG: My two cents are that we should avoid at all cost repeating the style and content of centennial. The myth of 1967 is sill too strong, so anything we do that looks and feels the same will seem underpowered and un-ambitious.

Here is a counterintuitive idea coming from an amateur historian:

Let’s use 2017 to focus on our future, not the past. Specifically, in the spirit of our forbearers, let’s think about new ideas, institutions and national symbols that we could unveil during the sesquicentennial that could become the patrimony of future generations of Canadians.

JL: How proud we are in having you, as our ambassador, Rudyard, for all things Canadian!

RG: I am flattered, but anything that I have accomplished to promote greater knowledge and understanding of Canada was a team effort. I have been hugely fortunate over the years to work with an outstanding number of committed young people and peers.

Pro: Dambisa Moyo, Hernando De Soto

Moderator: Rudyard Griffiths, Con: Stephen Lewis, Paul Collier

Vote announcement

JL: Rudyard, your book on Who We Are: A Citizen’s Manifesto is a treasured gift to Canada! You write of six core beliefs about what it means to be Canadian. Might you explain?

RG: Jo Lee, we cannot deal with the various challenges facing our country today and in the future in isolation. Instead, we must find a rallying cause to which we can summon the country’s latent civic energy. This single idea needs to speak to the reality of Canada today, not some idealized past or hypothetical future. And it must evoke the constellation of first principles that have given our society its momentum over the last century and a half: our sense of loyalty to each other, our egalitarian impulses, our belief in the power of public institutions, Canadian exceptionalism, nation building and, last but not least, raw national ambition and competitiveness vis-à-vis our peer nations. Fortunately, there is one such vehicle: the concept of Canadian citizenship. Citizenship – by which I mean the laws, institutions and symbols that define our individual membership in the Canadian nation – has the potential to raise our sights again. In fact, a revitalized citizenship may be the best and last hope for Canadians to reconnect with the enduring values and principles upon which our country’s greatness rests.

JL: Hummm Politics! Perhaps a political future?

RG: Never say never!

JL: Well let me say: YOU are a mind Canada needs!

Was your schooling Canadian or a mix with other countries?

RG: I’m a graduate of the Ontario, Canada public school system and went on to study history and political science at Trinity College, University of Toronto. I then went to grad school, studying political theory at Cambridge in England. The Department of Foreign Affairs then hired me on a contract position. When I founded the institute, my background was German philosophy, with a healthy dose of late 20th Century international relations. I am not an expert in Canadian history and I do not call myself an historian.

JL: What ever prompted you to take this road? To make a career of it?

RG: My parents like to joke that I am the product of a selective breeding program: my father is an academic and my mother an actress. Participating in the world of public policy advocacy is a way to fuse these two dimensions of my family life. It is also a means to give back to a city, Toronto, and a province, Ontario and a country, Canada that has provided me with every opportunity in life from great schools, to a strong civic life to a larger national identity and common history that all Canadians can take some justifiable pride in.

JL: I’ve loved every aspect of this interview. What a pleasure. Thank you, Rudyard.

RG: Ditto Jo Lee!

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