Global Poverty Forgotten in Election 2008

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Canadians prefer to see themselves as global citizens. We have a diverse population originating from many parts of the globe, and our expansive land reaches out to three seas. Canada enjoys many varied human and natural resources, and our economy is reasonably healthy. We believe we should do our part to face global challenges, and we want our government to lead us in meeting our global responsibilities.

Thus it comes as a real surprise, and a shameful wake up call, to realize that Canada is actually a laggard in action and in spending on international development. According to the Development Assistance Committee at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in 2007 Canada gave only 0.28% of Gross National Income (GNI) to Official Development Assistance (ODA). Canada was ranked 16th out of 22 donor countries, that is, among the bottom third of donors. Currently, Ottawa provides $4.6 billion in aid.

In 1969, former Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson recommended to the United Nations that rich countries allocate 0.7% of their GNI for international development assistance. This has been accepted as the international standard, and all Canadian political parties have promised to reach this goal. In June 2005, the House of Commons unanimously passed a groundbreaking resolution calling on the federal government to set a plan to reach 0.7% by 2015 and to introduce legislation to ensure that aid is provided in a manner consistent with Canada's human rights obligations and respectful of the perspectives of those living in poverty.

Five countries - Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg, Netherlands, and Denmark - have already reached or exceeded their 0.7% commitment. Another 11 countries, including the United Kingdom, France and Germany have timelines for doing so before 2015. But Canada is not among them.

Why is 2015 such an important date? In the year 2000, the UN’s member states, represented by their most senior leaders, met and agreed to reach the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. The 8 goals aim to meet a range of desirable outcomes: from eradicating hunger, achieving universal primary education, reducing child mortality to ensuring environmental stability.

When the world reached the halfway point to 2015, progress was evaluated.  Although some goals may be reached in some parts of the world, many of the poorest regions (most often in sub-Saharan Africa) will likely not reach any of the progress indicators. More recently, with the onset of climate change and the crisis in food markets which has resulted in a worldwide doubling of grain prices, it may be that progress will even be eroded. On September 25, the United Nations is holding a high level conference to review progress towards the MDGs, but Prime Minister Harper has not yet indicated whether he plans to attend.

Today more people are going hungry, kids (especially girls) are dropping out of school, and health indicators will fall as the numbers of people receiving treatment for HIV/AIDS decreases. Last August the World Bank redefined its indicator of dire poverty from US $1 to include anyone living on less than $1.25 a day – and estimated that 1.4 billion people currently suffer in this way.

During the 2006 federal election campaign, the Conservative party platform committed to improving Canada’s aid performance by reaching the OECD (i.e., the donor countries) average spending levels for aid (currently at 0.44% of GNI). The promise was not kept – Canada’s aid actually decreased as a percentage of our economy during these past two years.

Aid, on its own, will not solve global poverty. However, aid levels and spending priorities provide quantifiable measures of national commitment to international development. (The eighth MDG is precisely a measure of the donor countries’ commitment to achieving the MDGs.) Aid, when delivered well (that is to say, to the local community actors that are the artisans of successful development) can support the empowerment of citizens, promote democratization and allow local communities to have more say in their own governance. But to be truly successful, aid must be accompanied by structural changes in international trade and financial regimes, as well as reform of local social, cultural and political relations that may deter “pro-poor” development.

What can Canadians do to become better global citizens? The Canadian Council for International Cooperation, which represents non-governmental aid agencies in this country, recommends that Canada commit to increase aid spending by 15% annually over the next decade (even though this strategy recognizes that Canada will be too late to reach the 0.7% target by 2015). And thanks to the mobilization of Canadians, they can point to some successful efforts towards change.

I remember being present in the House of Commons in 2006 for the First Reading of Bill C-293, which was designed to make aid spending more accountable and transparent. Presented by Liberal MP John McKay, the only speakers who opposed the bill were representatives of the Conservative government. Yet, the bill eventually gathered unanimous support, and in June 2008, the “Better Aid Bill” was granted royal assent. Now all parties are on record as supporting three standards for Canadian aid: that it reduce poverty, match the needs of recipients, and be consistent with human rights standards. Additionally, the Conservative government has announced its intention to “un-tie” Canadian aid over the next 5 years, that is, to no longer demand the purchase of Canadian products and services with our aid dollars.

If we were to take up the challenge to once again increase and improve Canadian overseas development assistance, the 2008 election period could be a moment to expand global citizenship among Canadians.

Questions for the candidates:

  1. All federal parties are on record to commit 0.7% of GNI to development assistance, yet Canadian spending as a percentage of GNI has been falling. What aid increases would your party adhere to, and by when?
  2. What new actions would your party take to ensure that Canada’s stated commitment to reach the eight Millennium Development Goals is reached?

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Joe Gunn serves as Executive Director at CPJ.