In keeping with the various events organized as a part of International Development Week, Mount Allison University’s chapter of World University Services for Canada (WUSC), in partnership with the university’s International Centre, invited the director of a local NGO to host an event on campus.
During the Feb. 6 event, Jeff Schnurr, founder of Community Forests International (CFI), spoke to an audience of approximately twenty students in the Avard-Dixon building on the topic of “Grassroots Change: Breaking the Development Mold.”
“Lydia [Blois], our SRC coordinator, has brought in Jeff before, so we knew who he was and we were really interested in having him again,” said WUSC President Erika Maxwell.
In the span of an hour, Schnurr covered a wide array of subjects that included the history behind the founding of the organization and, in broader terms, his views on the development and role of an international NGO. “[At first] I didn’t believe in international development. I didn’t think it was anyone’s place to go outside of their culture, drop in … and tell people how to do things. I was completely cynical,” Schnurr said.
At the time of CFI’s creation, and to this day, Schnurr has no formal education concerning the inner workings of an NGO or in ecology. He never had any clear intention of creating an NGO. Yet, word of his background as an experienced tree planter got to the ears of a member of the community of Pemba, in the Zanzibar Archipelago, who wondered if the same kind of work could be done in Pemba.
“I ended up [in Pemba] because my girlfriend at the time was doing rain conservation research. I was trying to write a book at the time. I’d say the only thing I brought to Pemba was the fact that I had seen a bunch of twenty-somethings in Canada planting trees,” explained Schnurr.
Soon enough, Schnurr realized that his lack of expertise prevented him from answering many of the community’s concerns, so he turned to the community itself to know exactly how to approach the idea.
“They had to be the experts. They knew the trees and knew what they wanted to grow and why,” Schnurr said. This focus on community-run projects would soon translate directly into the organization’s philosophy: “people can make their own change.”
CFI essentially plays the role of a facilitator in developing these projects. This translates into consultation with community members, research in finding the most sustainable way of accomplishing a project, and gathering the funds to complete it. “Imagine if the solution for climate change came from the people that need it the most,” reads their website.
While the funds they raise come from different sources, such as the European Union and the Canadian government, the bulk of the work they have accomplished is focused on the island of Pemba, located in the east African country of Tanzania. This was not originally planned, but that has now become both the bulk and the main focus of the organization’s work. CFI is currently developing a Rural Innovation Campus on the island.
“Instead of us going to other communities … I’ve been in Tanzania for a few years, I know the people, I have great friends, I’m starting to figure out a bit about the language—I can’t do that again. But through the Rural Innovation Campus, we are hoping to bring people to see things for themselves,” Schnurr said.