Stephen with RESULTS Australia’s CEO Maree in beautiful Sydney Harbour

Long time RESULTS Canada advocate Stephen St Denis recently came to visit us here at RESULTS Australia. It was wonderful to spend some time with Stephen and so inspiring to hear him reflect on his 25 years as an advocate with RESULTS, the achievements he has witnessed and the importance of aid.

When and why did you get involved with RESULTS?

I got involved in 1989, just after fire was discovered. I had been sponsoring a foster child, but was looking to take a more active role without having to quit my job and volunteering abroad. So I took an Oxfam course where I met one of Ottawa Group Leaders of RESULTS Canada. He convinced me to come to their monthly Education and Action (E&A) meeting where you learn about an issue and then write a letter to your MP, the newspapers, the Minister of International Development and even the Prime Minister. I was pretty skeptical at first about how much influence my little letter would have, but I was soon to become a believer.

Can you tell us about what you consider your greatest achievement/breakthrough as an RESULTS activist?

That’s a tough one, a lot has happened in 25 years. I would say getting our Prime Minister to co-host the World Summit for Children in 1990 which set the development agenda for the next decade. I pick this one because we were still a young, small group with no national office to reinforce our actions. We wrote so many letters and had so many publications, that one day the PMO phoned one of our people and said “Call your dogs off. The PM will co-chair the Summit.”

What campaign issues are you especially passionate about and why?

Education and microfinance. A quality education opens up a world of opportunities for a child. Without the hope that it gives, there is a risk of that child growing up disenfranchised and falling prey to a group of extremists. Ensuring girls go to school is probably the best investment a country can make since there are several secondary benefits.

Microfinance includes giving small loans to the very poorest who have no collateral to start a small business. I went with RESULTS US in 2000 to El Salvador to study a small microfinance institution (MFI). It was a real eye-opener. I was surprised the borrowers’ ingenuity, their innate good business sense and their seeming tireless commitment. But for all their success, I would say that unanimously they saw their business as merely a means to an end and that end being to provide a better life, usually a higher education, for their children.

Stephen blogTo the right is a photo of a couple I remember. They  would buy produce from a farmer at 5 AM, 6 day a week, to sell at the market. Over the course of many years, they had made enough money to send their son to study engineering in the U.S. The look of pride on their faces was priceless.

When someone tells you that aid doesn’t work and ‘charity begins at home’, how do you respond?

To counter the first argument, there is a new way to channel aid which relies on local ownership and planning by all stakeholders to ensure that new resources are directed to programs on the frontlines. Mechanisms have been established to ensure accountability, Funds are disbursed in phases based on the achievement of mutually agreed-upon outcomes. Two such organizations are the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the Global Partnership for Education. They are two of the leanest organizations ever to come into existence and they have a solid record of success in their dozen or so year history.

As for the argument that ‘charity begins at home’, I find this to be divisive and not very productive. I am not oblivious to the fact that there are homeless people and working families that rely on food banks right in my own city or Aboriginals living in reserves that can be compared to third world conditions. But I believe poverty, whether as home or abroad, is not caused a scarcity of resources, but an unequal distribution of them. There is no copyright on the RESULTS model. Anyone is free to adapt it for their own cause. In fact, there is a branch of RESULTS US that deals solely with domestic issues and recently the model is being used to advocate for measures to stop climate change. So if you think you can use the model for your cause, learn more about it and run with it.

What would you say to someone who are considering getting involved with RESULTS?

What we are doing is not rocket science. We are not trying to discover a cure for cancer. We know which set of targeted interventions can have an enormous impact on reducing the worst aspects of poverty, be it poor health, preventable deaths, a lack of access to education or capital. It is simply a matter of convincing the government to reallocate resources to these areas. Why should they listen to us? Because their members’ primary function is to represent us, their constituents. A lot of people associate democracy with just voting. That’s only the beginning. It doesn’t matter whether or not you voted for them or even like their party – twenty-five years of experience has taught me that if you treat Members of Parliament (or Congress) with respect, put aside the politics and give sound arguments, they will take notice. But don’t expect any easy wins, persistence is key to success.

But you’re not alone. You have other people in your group, groups across the country and great staff to support you. Their passion and optimism is contagious. If you go to the International Conference held In Washington   D.C. each year, you will find yourself in a room with 300+ people all moving in the same direction with the same vision of a poverty-free world. It will send chills down your spine.

One final point, I’ve found that my experience with RESULTS has broadened my horizons. I care about events and issues outside my little corner of the world and I’d like to think its made me a better person. This is one of the things RESULTS has given back to me.