By Clemence Junot
In December 2013, my family and I took a trip to South Africa. As she was reading a travel guide to plan the trip, my mother came across a few pages on Lesotho, a small and high (the whole state lies entirely above 1,000 metres) country land-locked in South Africa. This name rung a bell. She remembered playing Trivial Pursuit when she was young, and that one question no one ever seemed to get the answer to: “what is the capital of Lesotho?”. Having found out that was Maseru, the next step, she thought, was to go explore the rest of Lesotho. We thus went a few days in Lesotho, getting there by the infamous Sani Pass, a notoriously dangerous road. After a series of winding twists, hairpins, plunging drops, we got to Lesotho and spent a few days in a small village called Molumong. Needless to say, the trip was very enriching, the people of Lesotho were extremely welcoming, and the scenery mind-blowing. We visited a primary school in this town, which we had brought paper, pens and books for. Little did I know, the Molumong Primary School was actually one of the 34 Sesotho (the people of Lesotho) schools the charity School Aid and Dolen Cymru picked to send a consignment of books to. And little did I know, two years later, I would end up leaving France to study in Wales, a country that had established the first country to country link with Lesotho.
Dolen Cymru (the Wales-Lesotho link) began back in 1985, at a time where the idea of twinning countries was a very novel concept. The key motivation of its founders was then to “enable Wales to look out and encourage its understanding of the developing world”, to link communities at a grass-roots level and bridge a gulf in understanding. Thirty-two years later, Dolen Cymru still maintains these links. Exchanges and partnerships were created in a wide range of areas. These include between schools, churches, women’s organizations and even choirs. A significant health portfolio was also put in place, as well as a teacher placement program.
In order to understand Dolen-Cymru, the Wales-Lesotho link, and grasp the reasons why that link has proved so strong, one must first look at its origins and at its founding principles. People familiar with Dolen Cymru will claim that the greatest strength of the link was its capacity to see everyone on an equal footing and develop links between people and their communities rather than between governments. This is reflected in the story behind the creation of Dolen Cymru, a story of human to human relations, and a story of the quest for peace. One of the ways it can be told is through the experience of Dr. Iwan Carl Clowes, the founder, first chair and now Life President of Dolen Cymru.
Carl Iwan Clowes and the origins of the idea
The idea of a nation-to-nation link finds its origins in Carl Clowes’ experience of establishing himself as an oncologist within a rural practice in North-West Wales after graduating. At the time, the employment opportunities were low, the area was low in morale and Carl Clowes witnessed a community in decline and wished to act upon it. With time, he began to ask himself “how can I formulate my thought into something more constructive, [more] positive?”. While on a 2-year postgraduate course at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, he came across many people involved in countries all over the world and began to understand more about international health and development. He then furthered his understanding by reading WHO bulletins. As his awareness of the problems encountered by Least Developed Countries (LDCs) was increasing, his frustration was also growing: “It was not clear to me what Wales’ role was in any of this work”, he recalls. “Wales is very good at looking at its culture, its history, its tradition, but what could we do in terms of reaching out to the rest of the world?”. His first attempt to answer that question was an article in Y Faner in 1982 in which he suggested Wales could adopt one of the LDCs as a twinned country for assistance, adding Wales could well benefit from such a permanent relationship in terms of developing understanding.
Shortly after, he attended a conference on the topic of Wales’ role in the context of the World. Two points of views clashed. One side argued that Wales was part of the UK should thus only act if the UK got involved in international development. On the other hand, people amongst Carl Clowes, argued Wales needed to act independently, make its own voice heard to achieve its rightful role in the world. There, Carl Clowes presented his idea of country-to-country link which took hold, and gradually gained strength. Many dialogues followed and a steering committee was eventually put in place to develop the idea further. The first step, of course, was to choose country to twin with.
The ideal twin: Lesotho
Through the media, the people of Wales were consulted on most appropriate LDCs with which to twin and have a permanent relationship with. A lot of passionate letters flowed in and Botswana, Malawi, Tanzania, Lesotho were eventually shortlisted by the Dolen Cymru Committee. Lesotho was finally chosen because of its similarities to Wales in terms of size (both small), geography (mountainous), population (at the time 2-3 million). Both countries also share a mining tradition, bilingualism, and a love of choral singing. Moreover, Lesotho already had civil society bodies and organisations which would make it easier for people in Wales to link with the Sesotho communities. The similarities were sufficient to begin to approach the people of Lesotho. With the help of Owen Griffiths, former British High Commissioner in Lesotho, Bishop Graham Chadwick, priest in Lesotho for 16 years, O T Sefako, the High commissioner of Lesotho in London and many others, the Dolen Cymru team established contact with the government of Lesotho. At the time, the apartheid era was not over, and Lesotho was known around the globe as an island of peace in the middle of South-Africa where members of the African National Congress (ANC) could take refuge. Consequently, a large number of countries identified with Lesotho and supported it, making it the most aided country by capita in the world at the time. However, as Paul Williams, first secretary of Dolen Cymru highlights, “Most [aid] projects are, by their nature, short term. Experts come and go, their reports sadly often gathering dust. So a much longer term approach was needed”. This is what the intention of Dolen Cymru was: it aimed to develop an equitable and lasting relationship with both partners having equality within that relationship, as much as that was possible with one country having greater material means than the other. This approach was so original that “I think it fair to say that when our approach was first made, there was cynicism in corridors in Lesotho that it was another ‘aid organization’ wanting to get involved” recalls Carl Clowes. Dolen Cymru would have to prove its intentions were genuine.
The founding principles and aims of Dolen Cymru
As soon as the Wales-Lesotho link was established, several principles were drafted, differentiating it from the type of relationships between the global North and the global South which were usually seen in the 1980s. First, the link had to be, as far as possible, an equitable relationship, with both Wales and Lesotho benefiting and contributing. This principle would not be easy to maintain in practice because of the inequalities of the two countries in terms of resources, but nevertheless proved to be fulfilled over the years. Second, understanding and friendship should be the building blocks of the link, whereas material and financial aid would only play a part when it arose naturally over time out of the friendship made and the real understanding gained. Understanding was to come first, and involved learning about the development problems of Lesotho, but also its natural and cultural characteristics, its strengths per se. “For Wales, there should be great educational value in focusing on one nation, understanding its ambitions, noting the options available to its leaders regarding paths to development, appreciating the practical difficulties of implementing plans, sympathising with their anxiety that fundamental national values should not be undermined in the process” highlights Geraint Thomas in his set of Guidelines for Linking. Out of this understanding would eventually come friendship and involvement, then collaboration where links initiated by individuals, communities and organisations, both in Wales and in Lesotho led to common action in a particular sphere. So Dolen Cymru would not go into Lesotho with its own agenda but rather becomes involved in work based on need assessment.
One of the central feature of the link is that it was to be set at grass-roots, community level. Two very positive effects come out of this. Firstly, it makes the link sustainable and lasting. As highlighted by Carl Clowes, “Governments come and governments go, but people and communities remain throughout changing political allegiances. Thus, developing links between communities, could be more permanent than relying on governments to develop these bridges”. Second, encouraging learning from one another, promoting the capacity of one activity to potentiate another through the joint understanding and friendship and engaging in meaningful debates at a personal level could be considered as a new, peaceful way of doing international relations. In the words of Carl Clowes, “confrontational policies can never be the answer if we are to secure world peace and justice. Developing understanding between our various communities, however, can”.