CIDA – Lester Pearson and .7%

by Glen

As the Canadian International Development Agency continues performing under a microscope of intense scrutiny, it’s almost inevitable that the subject of Lester B. Pearson and his goal of reaching .7% of GDP for international aid is repeatedly introduced. We begin our studies of CIDA under that lengthy shadow cast by perhaps our greatest internationalist prime minister.

Pearson introduced the .7 target in a report published shortly after his retirement from politics. It was robust yet many thought it do-able, despite the hefty costs. The world was different back then and his reasoning behind the target needs to be understood in that context.

The global community was still in the grips of the Cold War in 1968 and Pearson had been one of the progressive world leaders in determining how to come to terms with limiting the communist threat. It wasn’t easy. South of the border, the Americans were ratcheting up every aspect of their military, to a degree that the concerns of nuclear annihilation seemed legitimate. International alliances such as NATO were formed during that era to act as a deterrent to the Soviet Union and its intentions of expansion. Back then, everything, including foreign aid, was observed through that lens of imminent threat.

Following World War Two, numerous nations came into existence through independence and each had its own challenging needs if it was to survive. The West and the East rushed in to be the protectors and suppliers of these emerging nations. For many such countries, poverty was their main challenge and the need for international assistance became a geopolitical tool through which the dominant nations attempting to influence and win over the struggling governments they were helping. Watching his friends in the U.S. build up their military might, Pearson chose a softer approach and encouraged other wealthy nations to consider foreign aid as a lever whereby poor people could be persuaded to accept democracy as a proper governing structure.

In truth, he had little time. The Soviet Union and China were swallowing up emerging or struggling nations at an alarming rate and attempting to make them satellite extensions of the Cold War. And so Lester Pearson came up with an eminently practical and Canadian solution: win these countries to the West through poverty alleviation, assistance to women and strengthening democratic parties. But that would take significant amounts of cash and he presented .7% of GDP as a means for providing steady resources for the great challenge of tackling world poverty.

We all know the Cold War is over, and the result is that many modern observers have concluded Pearson’s target is no longer as necessary. While it’s true that Lester Pearson viewed aid as a diplomatic and strategic tool, it nevertheless didn’t alter the fact that the alleviation of poverty was, to him, a far more effective way of reaching world peace than a phalanx of ICBM ballistic missiles. That is still true today, as the struggles of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan now suggest. Our enemies today are cell groups, nascent terrorist insurgencies, or powerful individuals who cross borders with relative ease and who gain footholds by stirring up the passions of the poor and destitute.

Far from being unrealistic, Lester B. Pearson’s lofty target is more viable today than back in the 1960s, as terrorism finds root among the bottom billion. Successive Canadian governments have looked at this Pearsonian tradition through a kind of pragmatic lens – acknowledging its symbolism while refusing to fulfill it. Some nations have already achieved it, while others struggle to get there by 2015. Canada, with aid at roughly .3% of GDP, has failed to live up to even its own reputation internationally. It’s time that changed. Will someone in this country pick up where Lester Pearson left off?