The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: G8

Coalition Language

No, this isn’t what you think it is.  Talk of a coalition between Liberals and NDP has been brewing in Ottawa for the last couple of weeks.  I read and watched it in the media, but no one has even mentioned it to me personally.

No, I want to talk about the coalition “over there” – the one in Britain that has become more successful than people at first believed.  The new coalition government has been releasing a number of key statements of its plans for moving ahead, including a rather interesting one on international development.

It might surprise some to learn that all 3 parties held to strong promises on this file, including full agreement to reach the old Lester Pearson goal of allocating 0.7% of its Gross National Income by 2013.  The fact the Conservative leader also signed onto this during the campaign reveals how much farther down the road the UK is than Canada.

With the election decided and a new coalition now underway, the new government’s language about foreign aid is remarkable in its cogency – it isn’t messing around.  Some examples:

  • We will support actions to achieve the Millennium Development Goals
  • We will use the aid budget to support of local democratic institutions (in recipient countries), civil society groups, the media, and enterprise; and support efforts to tackle corruption
  • We will introduce full transparency in aid and publish details of all UK aid spending online.  We will push for similarly high levels of transparency internationally.
  • We will create new mechanisms to give British people a direct say in how an element of the aid budget is spent
  • We will keep aid untied from commercial interests, and will maintain DFID (Britain’s version of CIDA) as an independent department focused on poverty reduction
  • We will stick to the rules laid down by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) about what spending counts as aid.

Keep in mind, this isn’t election language; that’s now in the past.  For all their differences in policy and direction, the two parties now forming the British government have been clear that international development will be front-and-centre in all they do.

This is exactly where Canada gets it wrong.  I presume that some 60-70% of our own development goals would find agreement among all parties, but that doesn’t make any difference.  I’m not talking here about Liberals and NDP, but of all four parties coming to terms with the truth that the international development train has left the station and we are still coughing and sputtering, just as the G8 leaders are about to descend upon us.  But there was no consultation with the other parties on something so pivotal – only a government bent on forcing its own agenda on its other partner countries.  This is no way to undertake something as serious as foreign development.  The will is in Parliament now to form a coalition on some of these key points without having to resort to brinksmanship.  The UK leaders are demonstrating statecraft, before, during, and following the election.  We are nowhere near that point of sophistication, right at the time when our international donor partners expect it from us and are about to come calling in Muskoka.

This language from the Brits is remarkable for its commitment.  But they have been engaged enough internationally to know where the future is headed.  Sadly, we’ve misplaced our map.

500 Year-old Problems

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.

The G8 and Canada – Into the Sunset

Internationalists are observing that the upcoming G8 hosted in Canada next month might very well be the last.  Like the aged Security Council in the United Nations, members of the G8 are more the victors of past efforts than prescient visionaries of the internationalism encroaching on the world.  Any great economic club that doesn’t include Brazil, China or India has already passed the point of redundancy.

Canada used to be one of the premiere players in the club, in part because of its sound economic practices but also due to its commitment to international development and the legacy of Lester Pearson.  Not any more.  Our fiscal legacy is still strong, but in foreign aid, like the G8 itself, we have failed to keep up with the rest of the world in all things humanitarian – our increase in aid hasn’t kept up with others.  The sad irony is that the confluence of diminished returns come together on Canadian soil.

While all the hoopla has been about abortion and child and maternal health, broader realities have actually been proceeding at a pace that leaves Canada far behind the pack.  While many lauded Stephen Harper’s announcement that, as host, we would concentrate on the child and maternal health file for the G8, few talked about how this country has broken with the global consensus and other G8 partners in the realm of international development and foreign aid.  Even when the Liberals failed to attain their international promises, they nevertheless functioned within the G8 consensus on things like the Millennium Development Goals.  With all of the G8 there was the clear understanding that whether or not their particular targets were reached, the main goal of their collective actions was to reduce poverty among the world’s poorest, and most of those were in Africa.

That harmony no longer holds, as the present government has distanced itself from the global consensus on the importance of Africa itself.  Speaking with international development experts from other G8 nations, they express clear disappointment and confusion as to how Canada can appear to be championing a MDG goal of child and maternal health when it has packed up and left Africa, where the most desperate women and children live.  Hardly anyone has addressed that question – not the government, the opposition parties or the majority of NGOs,   But abortion?  Well, no shortage of opinions there.

By moving into their own orbit, the Conservatives haven’t just dropped international consensus but have violated the bond.  Thus while notables like the Globe and Mail and Canada’s G8 partners meet at length with Bono on the renewal of commitment to Africa, a senior CIDA official claimed it wasn’t the organization’s intent “to please Irish rock stars.”  Clearly, we’re out of sync.

With the new millennium came a new-found realization that Africa was, in fact, worthy of investment, including aid.  The sheer speed with which the G8, G20 and United Nations consensus came together to “get it right” this time in Africa was exhilarating.  The MDGs were the result of that new excitement and commitment.  Canada and the others ramped it up, focusing on African strengths, better aid delivery, and being part of a global comity that was in fact invigorating.  Those days, for Canada anyway, are gone.

So, while we rightfully acknowledge the decision of the government to focus on child and maternal health, let’s also remember the context.  Other nations are pulling away in their increases on aid, while Canada trails.  CIDA funds are now frozen over the coming years and hosting a G8 in its final days seems somehow fitting … and sad.

Getting Past The Promises

HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA – Canada’s hosting of this year’s G8 and G20 summits has placed a significant amount of pressure on the Harper government to show clear leadership at a time when international development in poorer countries is more required than ever.  When the Prime Minister announced that child and maternal health would form the subject of that leadership, many were heartened that a subject long-neglected would finally get due attention.

The meetings here in Halifax this week provided International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda with an opportunity to move other G8 partners towards a clear consensus on how to move ahead on the file in time for the official meetings in a few weeks in Ontario. For Oda though, there is one elephant in the room, and it’s not the abortion issue.  Rather, it’s the United Nations. Long before she became minister, the UN announced the Millennial Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000 and challenged all key donor countries to meet those targets that would be required to reduce desperate poverty around the world. There are deadlines attached to these goals (2015), and the G8’s problem is that some of its members, including Canada itself, are a long way from attaining them.

The goals themselves are ambitious: reduce child mortality for those children under 5 by two-thirds and reduce the number of women who die while pregnant or in childbirth by 75 per cent. The goals were applauded when announced, but countries like Canada immediately fell behind and never caught up. This is what made the Prime Minister’s announcement a welcome one.

The problem remains, however: how do the G8 nations get there? With 2010 being the target year for the promises made at Gleneagles in 2005, achieving those goals still seems a long way off. And since CIDA itself announced a freezing of it’s budget for the next few years, it will be difficult for this country to provide the leadership required. The trick for Bev Oda at these Halifax meetings will be to move the participants to actually supply the funds required to child and maternal health and not just promise to do so. For years now, unfulfilled pledges have become a stigma of all G8 and G20 summits. Participating countries twisted themselves into pretzels in endeavouring to show that they were serious about such promises, even though they were never attained.  Funny math is frequently employed to show that participating donor countries are arcing towards their commitments, but, as with CIDA’s disingenuous earlier announcement that it has doubled its aid to Africa, all such maneuvering doesn’t actually assist the people in ground in troubled regions if the money never materializes.

Hearing from various experts addressing the G8 ministers yesterday, one got the clear impression, supported by detailed and concise evidence, that foreign aid is making a clear difference, and in fact has been doing so for a number of years.  In child and maternal health, however, Canada, like some of the other countries at the table, has failed to live up to its commitment. That’s what makes Stephen Harper’s decision to focus on the plight of women and children so vital.  Bev Oda spent the day yesterday subtly moving her counterparts into a plan of action to attain clear-cut goals by 2015. All nodded their heads in agreement, but the plight of millions hangs on the details. Repeatedly yesterday, Canada was thanked for making child and maternal health issues the focal point of this year’s G8, highlighting Oda’s role of keeping them on-track with the discussions.

The problem with all such meetings is that promises come easy while delivery on them can be rare. These meetings aren’t about abortion but women and children; at least we’re talking about the right subject.

The Gender 8

Just a brief observation from the G8 sessions today on food security and child and maternal health. CIDA minister Bev Oda and her colleagues were kind enough to include me in many of the events today – something that provided me a ringside seat. It was only as the morning session was underway that I noticed the makeup of the large conference table seating all the development ministers from the G8 countries. Every single one was male. Except for Canada, that is. It was striking to witness Bev Oda and CIDA president Margaret Biggs seated at the head of the table and ably leading the discussions dominated by men.

All this reminded me once again what a special place CIDA has held in the world community in terms of gender programming and equality. In fact, I sat with the CIDA contingent for the morning session and was the only male – something I found heartening. Wherever CIDA goes in the future, its belief and practice of gender equality will remain one of its core strengths and a source of pride in all things Canadian. It was just odd for these two leading figures to be the only women present during a discussion on maternal health. Good on you CIDA.

%d bloggers like this: