500 Year-old Problems

by Glen

Finally, a realistic approach.  In an op-ed in today’s National Post, development observers Brett House and Desiree McGraw effectively said “enough already.” Reminding all of us of the propensity for successive G8 gatherings to make broad and expansive promises that they likely will never attain, they stake out a clear challenge to simply fulfill the promises already made in past years rather than raising the bar even higher with no hope of completion.

Neither of the authors of the piece are lightweights. McGraw is a professor of international development at McGill University and former senior policy analyst in the CIDA minister’s office, while House is the Senior Macroeconomist at the Earth Institute, Columbia University and former Principal Advisor to the present United Nations Secretary General.  They come with experience, clout, and, in this case, timely restraint, as when they state:

The University of Toronto’s G8 Resource Group estimates that some 254 commitments were made during Italy’s 2009 G8 Summit alone. Looking at 24 of the highest priority commitments, it found that G8 members have, on average, succeeded in going only about one-third of the way to making good on these promises. It’s hard to imagine that lower priority commitments have fared any better.”

Successive governments have partaken in an image cycle, where each year they raise commitments to impossibly high levels as they seek to adopt the mantle of international leadership and attempt to assuage domestic voters at the same time.  All this leads to a kind of perversity where the present matters more than the future, and the past is a littered graveyard of unfulfilled promises.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, under considerable pressure from aid organizations and other partner countries, commensurately announced a major new initiative for this year’s G8, pertaining to child and maternal health.  Yet as House/McGraw remind us: Canada and the other G8 members already made that commitment in 2005 as part of their signing on to the Millennium Develop Goals (MDGs).  Of all of these 8 key goals, the G8, including Canada, faces the greatest failure in the area of child and maternal health, which raises the question:  Why would we commit to a new initiative when we have yet to come even close to attaining our 2005 commitment?

Stephen Harper and Bev Oda would do far better to develop a constructive mechanism, accompanied by clear targets and timelines, as to how these key developed nations could actually fulfill an earlier promise rather than reducing past commitments to the ash heap while we price ourselves out of reality with some new kind of aspirations.

Canada is not alone in its failure to take such a task seriously.  While there will be heightened rhetoric and flourish at the G8 meetings next month, we are nevertheless confronted by a lack of political commitment.  And many wonder whether CIDA is actually up to that task.  One applicant for development funding made this comment to the Agency itself:  “You ask for 5 year strategic plans to develop 3 year projects with annual business plans and quarterly payment based on results – for a problem that is 500 years old.”  This kind of Gordian knot in development funding plagues CIDA to this day.  Like House and McGraw, this applicant drew a clear distinction between solid, achievable targets and the kind of rhetoric that makes exorbitant promises while lacking a clear mechanism for delivery.

The present government, while doing the world a service in focusing on a crucial problem, would find its time better spent just in helping its partners to find some way of at least attaining past commitments.  That way, the G8 itself will not be in vain.