The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: MDGs

Cooperating With The Inevitable

The above title was one of those simple yet profound truths written by Dale Carnegie, which he often used to urge people towards a progressive outlook when things can’t be changed.  It’s likely that his counsel is perhaps the best solution for dealing with the disappointments of the UN Summit on the Millennium Development Goals, and for Canada’s diminishing quality of official development assistance in recent years.

It is now clear that, with five years left in the timeline for the MDGs, that they will not be met.  The crucial ones – halving extreme poverty and hunger from 1990 levels, environmental action, slashing maternal mortality by three-quarters, and reducing the child mortality rate by two-thirds – formed a great challenge, one that in the end advanced nations couldn’t overcome.  The U.S., Germany, Japan and others fall far short of their commitments.  Canada, too, despite the PM’s legitimate concentration on child and maternal health, will also come up short of its promises.

While donor nations applauded themselves at the impressive reductions in desperate poverty, the reality is that most of the gains have occurred in China and other increasingly prosperous nations in East Asia.  Africa – the region of greatest poverty – won’t receive the assistance it requires at current levels.

The failure of the UN Summit last week, despite some encouraging signs, is especially ominous given the huge deficits donor nations face in the coming decade.  Another troubling sign occurred when Canada sought to provide leadership on one particular MDG – child and maternal health – but chose to let its commitments lag for most of the others.  The MDGs were specifically designed as an interconnected set of commitments that required attention on all fronts.  While groups involved in child and maternal health initiatives applauded the PM’s leadership on the file, his decision left those involved in commitments to the other goals deeply disillusioned.

One of Canada’s most esteemed development experts, Patrick Johnston, did us all a favour last week by providing a sobering account of Canada’s real commitment to global development in an article in the Globe and Mail. While the government attempted to garner praise for the maternal health initiative, Johnston reminded us that we presently reside in the bottom half of the 23 donors in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).  To make matters worse, we discover that 13 European nations were more generous foreign aid donors than Canada.

Stepping back and taking a longer view, Johnston revealed that our aid spending amounted to 0.5% of Gross National Income (GNI) in the mid-eighties, dropped to 0.4% a decade later, and has now dropped to 0.3%.  Now that the Harper government has opted to freeze aid levels for the next five years, it won’t take much time to fall below that 0.3% figure.  With five years remaining to fulfill the MDGs, Canada will sadly fail.  The UN recently concluded that this country ranks 29th in a field of 38 donors in the field of aid effectiveness.  As Johnston puts it:  “It is hard to escape the conclusion that Canada is a far less generous global donor today than it was 25 years ago.”

Many of us have dialogued faithfully with this government in an effort to assist it in achieving its promises.  We failed.  From every conceivable angle, experts, NGOs, and international institutions sought to enlighten the government in comprehending the interconnectedness of aid and the importance of NGOs in its delivery.  The stubborn resistance exhibited by the PMO has now resulted in the most disillusioning era of development assistance since CIDA was first established in 1968.  It has become clear that a government unwilling to listen to its former friends will hardly make the kind of commitments necessary to restore Canada’s humanitarian image in the world.

It’s time to listen to Dale Carnegie and come to terms with the inevitable.  Many are already doing so, as they plan for a time when the present form of rigid ideology gives way to the dawn of a new era in global assistance.  Our best efforts must now be spent on bringing together the implementors and experts in development assistance and planning for a more inclusive time somewhere in the near future.  Our heads hurt from hitting the brick wall of political ideology.  It’s time to regroup and plan for how we can re-engage with the world when that more progressive day arrives.

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.

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.

Blame It On Rio

What’s with Brazil? While the rest of the wealthy world struggles with how it can possibly meet their Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Brazil is placed well ahead of the game.

Just to reiterate, the MDGs were established in 2000 and set targets for a number of different key areas where poverty could be reduced and health and security could be attained in the poorest regions.  Despite all the fanfare, many of the globe’s most developed nations, including Canada, have fallen short of their commitments.  Research from last year shows that this country is one of the least generous of donor nations, ranking 16 of 22 in aid disbursements as a percent of the economy.  The OECD warned that if the other participating nations kept their MDG promises, Canada could fall to 20th place.

Meanwhile, Brazil has taken its destiny into its own hands and committed heavily to the entire MDG exercise.  It has already exceeded some these goals in various categories and is on track for fulfilling the rest within the allotted time.  This has caught some of the more advanced nations off-guard and in the process positioned Brazil as a major partner in aid development over the next decades.

The MDG exercise not only set key categories for commitment but also established a clear timeline for their fulfillment. By 2015 all participating countries are to have kept their promises – a problem, since most prosperous nations will inevitably fall short. An important step along the way occurs in a September meeting at the United Nations, where participating nations will have to report on their progress towards the MDGs. Canada will not only have to face the music about its own lack of performance, the recent freezing of successive CIDA budgets and the reality it earlier pulled out of eight African countries will leave it particularly vulnerable to criticism.  It won’t be alone, however, as other nations like the United States will occupy similar ground.

There is a small group of nations, many from Europe, who will be able to report success.  Yet no one expected Brazil to be so ahead in the game.  They will have reached their goals by dedicated financial commitments and by creatively involving numerous civil society organizations to participate in the effort. Unlike Canada, where governmental foreign aid remains a labyrinth of technical calculations, Brazil has mobilized society to take part in the grand enterprise of achieving its MDGs. They’ve even taken to pasting MDG bumper stickers on their cars to show their support.

As has been said earlier in these posts, foreign aid and development clearly stands at a crossroads. Part of that transition is the arrival of new players, and Brazil has now clearly stepped up to make its presence felt.  Last June, in Rome for the run-up to the G8 meetings there, I could sense in the Brazilian delegation an enthusiasm and dedication for being world leaders. Few expected them to take such a dramatic turn in commitment to international aid, but now that they have, the rather tired Western democracies are facing the embarrassment of not living up to their promises. Now out of large parts of Africa, and freezing what had been a commendable increase in development aid, Canada might well have to move aside for the new players who comprehend the importance of foreign aid to the world’s betterment. The post-Lester Pearson era is now upon us, sadly.

%d bloggers like this: