The Right Stuff – A genesis story of a Uniterra volunteer
Malawi — Uniterra
The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.
— Franklin D. Roosevelt
It was on an evening in May of 2017 that I set in motion a chain of events that culminated in my taking a sabbatical from my job, and boarding an Ethiopian Airlines flight on January 14th, 2018 bound for Malawi , two days after my thirty-fifth birthday.
I remember that night clearly. I had just come back to my apartment in downtown Toronto after some post-work drinks with friends. Under the thrall of a midweek cinq-a-sept, my mind had started to wander into existential territory. Laying there on my couch, I came to the realization that 2017 would mark the first year of my second decade working on Bay Street.
That hit me hard.
I had been working now for TEN years (save for a short year-long stint where I did my MBA at the Schulich School of Business).
At the time, I was a director working in corporate finance at one of the big 5 banks in Canada, managing a loan portfolio of hundreds of millions of dollars. It was a culmination of a lot of hard work and education, and I had a lot to show for my modicum of success.
I was part of a great network of brilliant, hard-working colleagues and friends. I rubbed shoulders and lunched at Toronto’s finest restaurants with successful business people and entrepreneurs, and entertained clients at premiere sporting events, all on the company dime. I was giving back to my community as a director on two non-profit boards. I was a repeat keynote speaker for young people interested in finance. I was comfortably socking away my bonuses in my RRSP. I even had a flashy sports car just in case I ever forgot about all the other badges of success I had.
But all of it couldn’t soothe this nagging feeling deep in my heart, a feeling that was more pronounced than usual that evening in May. As many of us do these days, instead of sitting in silence to meditate on the thoughts and feelings feeding this unease, I reached for my phone for that cathartic thumb-swipe, and began a late evening of aimless meandering on the internet.
A serendipitous swipe
In my scurried thumb swiping, I started to zero in on the culprit of this existential ennui. I’m not sure if this issue had been there all along, all I knew was that I had to start giving it a voice.
I knew I wasn’t living out my purpose, despite having every trapping of success anyone could want.
Those that know me well know that I’ve got a passion for the history of economic development, and the economics and politics of inequality. There is some irony that a banker — a member of that “priesthood” that keeps the capitalist orthodoxy humming along — would find these areas as topics of interest. But the irony is only superficial, if you take my past into account.
I was five years old when I immigrated to Canada from Turkey with my parents. They were a lucky pair, both were US-educated masters degree holders who spoke English just fine. Despite their perfectly acceptable syntax, it was their accents, for better or worse, that served as badges of their origin to everyone that met them. Their story was not uncommon. They came to Canada in pursuit of a better future for themselves and their children.
Deep in my memories of childhood, I can remember the frustrations that my parents faced when we lived in Turkey. Things anyone living in Toronto would take for granted were not the norm back then and there, things like reliable electricity or being able to buy bananas any time of the year for cents per pound.
Around the time my parents decided to leave, Turkey embarked on a development renaissance, one that I witnessed in snapshots each time I went back to visit. I remember my trips back to my dad’s hometown near Bodrum during my teenage years, where I would sneak into bars with my cousins for some fun, and cajole the hospitality of some American development workers, surprising them with my unaccented English language skills. In addition to tourists, it was a normal sight to see these development workers in the 1990s flowing into Turkey. They personified the things I read about in Turkish newspapers about the latest IMF or World Bank deal.
Witnessing my birth country boot-strapping itself out of a legacy of economic malaise through international cooperation and market-centered development and placing itself amongst the top economies of the world definitely had a hand in cementing my interests I mentioned earlier.
And so, on that May evening, sitting on my couch and swiping my phone screen, I stumbled upon a website for an international development and cooperation program funded by Global Affairs Canada called Uniterra. I felt an immediate affinity with the profiles of the people featured on the website who had taken part in the program, mostly early to mid-career professionals from a wide array of disciplines. This was bigger than building wells in a remote village or teaching English to rural schoolkids. This was about being a part of systems-level change.
Since the mid-2000s, Uniterra has sent more than five thousand Canadians to developing countries around the world. By matching individuals and their skills to a developmental need abroad, they have incrementally moved the destinies of dozens of countries towards a better future, both socially and economically.
I was sold. I got up off my couch and started hammering away on the keyboard of my laptop, brushing up a very Bay Street oriented resume that would inevitably put me aboard a plane headed for Malawi.
I’m now working at FINCA Malawi as an advisor, a global microfinance bank that helps people lift themselves out of poverty by providing the seed capital necessary to make their ambitions a reality.
A millennial’s manifesto
I know some in my audience probably thinks how cliché all of what I’m doing is — joining that chorus of people giving up all the good things we know in life to opt for something less glitzy and more gritty in “international development”. Maybe the cynic in you thinks that real change isn’t even possible.
But what I’m doing isn’t cliché. It would be if everyone was doing it. Five thousand volunteers over 10+ years isn’t a lot. It works out to less than 0.01% of Canada’s population. Even if you add up all the people participating in programs like Uniterra throughout Canada, the proportion is still unacceptably tiny.
The slim numbers make sense though. Giving up the warm blanket of comfort is difficult, perhaps even a bit crazy. It took a lot of talking to myself in the mirror to give up the “success” ladder game, the safety of watching one’s purchasing power steadily accumulating in one’s bank account, giving up the “finer” things in life, and all the Instagram gratification it comes with.
I’m so happy that I pushed myself out of my comfort zone. If I didn’t I would have never met the cabal of international professionals in my six weeks here in Malawi. Brilliant people, masters of their respective crafts: doctors, nurses, engineers, social workers, and impact investors, among others.
What they all have in common is they have all “succumbed” to a disquietude that strikes those of us who see that deep, rewarding meaning lies just on the other side of the seduction of the steady paycheque, the short term pleasure of the after work drink-a-thon, or the obsessive pursuit of Insta-fame.
To the cynics I say this: we are all trying to matter. We all have a need to matter. I think it is primal to the human condition. Mattering is the only way we can transcend the finitude and smallness of our lives. But how to matter is the tricky part.
Our grandparents knew mattering in their time meant rallying against the rise of dehumanizing and destructive ideologies like fascism and communism. Our parents followed that up with their generational mission to build a civil society with equal rights for women, LGBTQ, racial and ethnic minorities, work that still continues at home and abroad. I think our generation has lost the unity and universality of a grand calling to rally around.
It would be sad indeed if our generation’s contribution to the histories were the blind pursuit of greed and unparalleled narcissism.
As a member of the first-born of the millennials, those that came into the world in the early 80’s, it breaks my heart to see so many people younger than me giving into quiet despair, whittling away their time scrolling through social media, or feeling hopeless in jobs that might not even exist in 10 to 15 years.
I see their purposelessness and aimlessness as contributing causes to unprecedented levels of depression, and in the worst cases, acts of random violence to themselves and others. We have been fooled to think that we do not have a great cause worthy to ascribe our lives to, but this is false.
The cynics are wrong. They want us to forget our power. But we must not.
Our generation is the most powerful one in all of human history.
On the precipice of a technological utopia and at a time where worldwide wealth is unimaginably plentiful, we have no excuse to not make our cause the greatest of all time.
Our cause must be to wage a world war against poverty. We must wage this war equitably and inclusively. We must wage this war sustainably, within the limits of earth’s ecological capacity. We must eradicate the needless suffering of more than two billion people on this planet. They deserve to also have a chance to make their voices count, and to realize their dreams.
I’m just one voice in a chorus. But I know this chorus is getting louder and louder.
Join us. Do your part, big or small, and sing the music of our time.