By Jessica Werb

A circle of chairs and a flip chart: are these the key to addressing poverty in the developing world? Absolutely, according to Bridges That Unite, a travelling exhibition at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre until Sunday (June 22), which uses photographs, text, video, and interactive Web-based tools to explore Canada’s role in international development.

A celebration of a 25-year partnership between the Aga Khan Development Network and this country, Bridges That Unite brings to light stories you don’t typically read in the papers: progress in the education of women in Afghanistan; the creation of the University of Central Asia, with its three campuses under construction in Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Tajikistan.

At the centre of all these initiatives have been the humble flip chart and chairs, explains Khalil Shariff, CEO of the Aga Khan Foundation Canada, by phone on his way home to Ottawa.

“It’s a symbol of the work we’ve done in helping to build strong, local, village-level institutions that then identify their own priorities at the village level and actually begin working toward them,” he says. “It’s not about handing things out. It’s really about investing in communities’ abilities to help themselves over a longer term.”

By enabling communities to define their own futures, long-term and meaningful change can be effected, Shariff insists. “We’ve used this approach for the last 25 years with Canada in the northern areas of Pakistan. Twenty-five years later, there’s a vibrant civil society that’s been created, that’s had incredible results.” Incomes have tripled, infant mortality has dropped by 75 percent, and literacy rates are at an all-time high, he says. “All of it, we think, sustainable, because ultimately it’s been led by strong community institutions themselves.”

In addition to addressing issues of poverty, education, and health, Bridges That Unite also posits that fostering and nurturing culture is another key to sustained success. “Why restore a 16th-century garden in war-ravaged Kabul, Afghanistan?” asks a section of the exhibit that explains how the gardens of Bagh-e Babur in Kabul, which contain the tomb of the first Mogul emperor Babur, were restored to their former glory, providing an oasis of calm for local residents.

“This is an exhibition of hope,” says Shariff. “What does it look like when Canada’s at its best in the developing world? The story, it turns out, is very positive.…Someone told me that a school not burned down is not a headline. That’s why we’ve done this exhibition: to give people a real sense of what it might look like, in a visceral way, to see these efforts up close.”

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