G8 meeting in Italy: Who will speak up for the world's poor?

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How do we persuade Stephen Harper to do the right thing?

Next week our Prime Minister joins seven other leaders of the world’s richest nations at the G8 in L’Aquila, Italy.

It seems eerily fitting that they will gather at the scene of a devastating earthquake in April. The lives of millions of the world’s poorest have been devastated as well, by a tsunami of economic forces not of their making. We have all been affected by this very man-made crisis, but the poor bear the brunt.

Rising food and fuel costs, cataclysmic climate change and the global downturn have meant 100 million more have swollen the ranks of those who go to bed hungry to a record one billion.  And we may be about to add to their misery.

Fears grow that powerful politicians will renege on commitments made to the world’s poorest nations during the heady days of seemingly unending growth.  Hopes dim for much-needed reform of international financial systems that now operate in the interests of the wealthiest nations. 

How ironic that this is happening just as the world begins to understand that freedom from extreme poverty is a human right, not a whimsical charitable impulse, and just as smarter, better aid is finally putting a dent in global poverty. Almost a decade of progress in reducing poverty -- much of it through the efforts of the poor themselves -- may be lost as Western governments scramble to insulate their own citizens from financial disaster.

Yet as he heads into the G8 meetings, Stephen Harper might keep in mind that, in the midst of our own travails, we actually want our government to do more for our global neighbours.  A recent poll by the Innovative Research Group shows the majority of us are ready to see Canada meet its long unfulfilled pledge to give 0.7 per cent of its income to foreign aid.  Even more encouraging, we want our assistance to be unselfish, helping those who need it most, rather than “aid” that is really designed to benefit Canadian markets.

How do we drive home this message of Canadian generosity so that Stephen Harper goes to the G8 equipped to truly represent and fight for what we want? 

Our Prime Minister is known as a practical man. But he’s also a devoted family man, who enjoys walking his children to school. Perhaps Stephen Harper could hold in his mind’s eye the thousands of African children using textbooks supplied by Canadians via his government. He might think too, of the mothers of these children. A staggering number of African mothers die in childbirth of complications almost unheard of in the developed world.  Our maternal death rate is 1 in 7300.  Theirs is 1 mother in 22.  

It’s an endless circle of despair that can be broken.   Clean water, proper sanitation, trained midwives, AIDS education -- that’s what it takes to make a difference and these are all things Canadians are good at providing. 

It seems a no-brainer for our Mr. Prime Minister: Save The Mother, Spare The Child. A true motherhood issue, so to speak. World leaders eagerly signed on to tackling maternal health in the UN’s Millennium Development Goals in 2000 and again at the 2005 G20 meetings. Yet little has happened. The mortality rate for women and children remains a shameful blot on the world’s soul.  

Even more worrying is the news that Canada is refocusing its aid away from Africa.  Quietly and suddenly, as Geoffrey York documented in The Globe and Mail of May 30, 2009, the Harper government has removed eight of Africa’s poorest countries, including Malawi, from its priority list in favour of projects in South America and the Caribbean.  Apparently, prospects are better there for Canadian products. It’s maddening beyond expression to see this at time when our African aid, modest though it is, was making a demonstrable difference.

It also goes against the will of Parliament. Just a year ago, MPs passed Bill C-293, a Better Aid Bill clearly targeting our aid to poverty reduction. This dovetails with the wishes of the majority of Canadians. That’s why we hope our Prime Minister can hold fast to the images of African families when he meets with his powerful colleagues in Italy. Not out of charity, but out of simple fairness and a sense of national responsibility.

The G8 is a working meeting and the Italian agenda is packed with a host of other poverty-reduction issues rightfully clamoring for attention. Some of the ideas will surely appeal to our Prime Minister’s practical side.

Take debt cancellation, for example.  With Sub-Saharan Africa still paying off about $33,000 every minute of every day in debt service, just think how far that kind of money could go in letting Africans themselves mount effective and accountable programs. In the process, jobs get created in the South to replace those lost through the financial insanity of those in the North. Another no-brainer.  

Let’s hope great minds think alike.



Gerry Barr is the Chair and Dennis Howlett the Co-ordinator of Make Poverty History campaign in Canada.

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