Written by Layla Clarkson
Six months have gone by since I uprooted to Durban, South Africa with the Sustainable Communities International Internship Program (SCIIP). I’m finding it difficult to believe I will be back to Canada in less than one week. To summarize my experience in a single blog post would be a difficult feat. For that reason I will instead highlight some of the key discoveries I made from spending time in the office of the Municipal Institute of Learning (MILE). MILE is a local government-driven, practitioner-based initiative part of eThekwini Municipality that at its core helps to facilitate dialogue and learning in government. I worked in the Academic Collaboration pillar of MILE which makes city-academic partnerships happen.
Please note that the insights below come from my own experiences and perceptions.
1. Some of the most passionate people I’ve met work in government
When I revealed to those I met in Durban outside of the municipality that I was working in a government office the majority of them would respond along the lines of, “Well, you’ll certainly get a lesson in inefficiency.” Their comments alluded to frustrations over government officials who make broken promises, are greedy, and may also engage in corruption. While these officials certainly do exist in South Africa and around the world, I also had the pleasure of working with extremely passionate people in the MILE office and I met others at work events who also do not fit this stereotype. Through getting to know the MILE team especially, many truly care and work towards making the city of Durban a more caring, inclusive, prosperous and sustainable city.
2. There’s a lot we can learn from what is happening in Durban, South Africa
The reason I came to Durban to work in local government was to learn. There continues to be a huge influence in South Africa from the ‘West’ or ‘Global North’ (terms that are indeed problematic) in many facets including economic investment, pop culture and so on which can have some seriously concerning effects that I will not focus on at this time. For this reason and others, it is important to recognize the innovative, unique, and influential work being done in South Africa that other countries around the world can learn from. For example, MILE fits this kind of work entirely and having an initiative like a MILE in local government in Canada could be hugely beneficial I would predict. My colleagues and I joke that I need to start a CA-MILE (Canadian MILE)… and perhaps one day I will be lucky enough to do so.
3. City-University partnerships matter
In the past several years I have become passionate about citizen engagement and methods of improving citizen connections and communication with their governments. I have now also become an advocate for increased engagement between government and universities, or as popularly described ‘town and gown.’ Through working in the Academic Collaboration pillar of MILE, I’ve come to learn the value of having these major institutions come together. The value lies in learning from and collaborating with one another on many shared issues such as water and sanitation practices in the city and blending backgrounds of theory and practice.
4. Canadian and South African governments have some common challenges and some very different ones
Having worked in the Foreign Service during a previous internship and having taken international relations and political science courses throughout my degree, I have observed some common challenges in found in governments around the world including Canada and South Africa. These challenges include transitioning to sustainable practices, issues of political interference in administration, and issues of efficiency among others. More uniquely to Durban and South Africa I have also observed however, issues such as extreme drought and an unemployment rate of over 25% (as opposed to many cities back in Canada hovering around 5- 8%). This puts some similar and some different issues at the forefront of conversation here and to more critical degrees.
5. This opportunity through SCIIP is a rare one
I know opportunities like SCIIP aren’t available to everyone and I’m humbled to be able to be part of the program. I was the only international person in my office and I was often asked if there are similar opportunities for South Africans get to go to Canada via programs like SCIIP. Regrettably from my understanding this often isn’t often the case. I will be forever grateful for what I was able to learn and experience during my time at MILE, in Durban, South Africa.