Promises to Keep <n a

Aid donors need to return to the basics of health, education, water and sanitation to address the most dangerous threat of our time - poverty.


N 2000, ALL 191 UNITED NATIONS member states agreed to eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to be achieved by 2015. The goals aim to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, to achieve universal primary education, to promote gender equality, to reduce child mortality and to improve maternal health. They aim to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases and to ensure environmental sustainability, and they aim to do all this through a "global partnership for

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development" which includes fair trade, dehl relief and more generous foreign aid. The MDGs are the most comprehensive set of development targets ever set down on paper. Time-bound and measurable, they received unprecedented political support. Although many criticized them for not going far enough, they were at least believed to be achievable. Progress during the first five years, however, was not good. "If current trends persist," says UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, "there is a risk that many of the poorest countries will not be able to meet many of them." Given the bleak findings in two recent UN reports, this is something of an understatement.' The Secretary General goes on to say, "Let us be clear about the costs of missing this opportunity: millions ot lives that could have been saved will be lost; many freedoms that could have been secured will be denied; and we shall inhabit a more dangerous and unstable world." In fact, it was all the assembled United Nations could do at their World Summit in September 2003 to avoid having the United States throw the MDGs right out of the window. Hama Amadou, the Prime Minister of Niger, told the BBC afterwards, "A few years ago, developed countries made some promises; but since then, very few concrete actions were implemented." Bob Geldof said (less diplomatically) that the tepid result of the meeting was "bloody outrageous".'

There is no guarantee that the effects of poverty, state collapse and conflict will confine themselves, as they once did, to the increasingly artificial borders of what used to be called the "Third World".
Consider the formidable challenges ahead of Ellen lohnson-Sirleaf, who took office as the President of Liberia in lanuary 2006 with three major distinctions. First, she is the first truly democratically elected leader in the country's history. Second, she is the first woman head of state in Africa. And third, she inherits one ofthe worst debt loads on the continent. Liberia's external debt is in the neighbourhood of $3.8 billion. All of it was negotiated by one tyrant after anotbcr, more than half of it with "aid" agencies like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the African Development Bank and others. Liberia's debt-to-export ratio was more than 2700 percent at the end of 2004, about 18 times higher than what is thought to be "sustainable".' This is a bit like saying that Liberia is in 18 times worse financial trouble than other countries currently on the verge of bankruptcy.

A legacy of debt
Aid critics say that aid does not work, and judging from the hundreds of millions of people living in absolute poverty, it is not difficult to see why they might reach that conclusion. The criticism is usually unfau*, however. Aid that is properly targeted and properly monitored does work. The most vociferous critics seldom diiferentiate between aid that vaccinates or educates children, and aid that subsidizes locomotive sales, or pays for the installation of high-end rich-country technology in settings where it is almost guaranteed to fail. And they ignore or forget that huge volumes ot foreign aid over the past 50 years have been used to support and sustain corrupt dictators like Mobutu Sese Seko in the Congo, Siad Barre in Somalia and Samuel Doe in Liberia. Tbis was done not because donors approve of corruption and dictatorship (although it might sometimes seem that way), but to protect and advance Western interests during the Cold War. To say that aid given to such regimes was squandered is an understatement, but it was squandered knowingly - and it was squandered in the first instance by the givers, not the receivers. The Cold War may be over, but the debt racked up by many of these client regimes remains on the books.

Strategic giving
The Cold War may be over, but Western strategic interests do continue, if not in Liberia. And otber wars persist in skewing foreign aid. Iraq and Afghanistan certainly receive disproportionate attention. So do oil producers like Chad and Fquatorial Guinea, not to mention countries like China, Pakistan and Indonesia, where donor countries have trade and security interests. Meanwhile, donors, academics and critics pore restlessly through the ruins of past aid programs, searching for ever more sophisticated ways of dealing with seemingly intractable development problems. New fads roll regularly over the aid business like waves on a beach: population control, integrated rural development, the basic human needs approach, growth-with-equity, structural adjustment, appropriate technology, gender and development, microfinance, civil society, good governance, security sector reform and a dozen others, many of which will be consigned in due course to the development dumpster. After 40 or 50 years of foreign aid, it seems almost naive to return to the basic aid objective as taxpayers understand it - poverty reduction. Much of the aid

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Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf taok office as the Prcsiilcn! of Liberia in January 2006. She is the first truly ilanoiratiailly elected leader ill the eounlry'!! history: she is the first wonutii head of stute in Africa; and she inherits one ofthe worst tiehi loads on the continent. This debt is connected to huge volumes of foreign aid that supported corrupt dictatorships during the Cold War.

establishment seems to have lost sight of this idea, or to have confused means and ends.

Rising numbers
Historically, when not diverted by political and commercial interests, official development assistance has focused its main efforts on economic growth. Growth is not in itself a bad thing, but alone it is insufficient. Herman llaly, once a World Bank economist, pointed out that when something grows, it gets bigger. When something develops, it gets different.' As a synonym lor development, growth assumes that the trickle-down approach really does work in alleviating poverty. John Kenneth Gaibraith, another economist, said many years ago that the trickle down theory is like feeding oats to a horse. If you feed the horse enough, a few grains will pass through to the road for the sparrows. Nevertheless, some things «re growing. Foreign aid.

for example, is growing. In 2004, it reached an all-time high of $79 billion, the reversal of a 15-year downward trend, and in 2005, it grew again. Much of this recent growth in official development assistance, however, has been used for debt relief and emergency assistance. Neither of these is a bad thing, but they do not create much in the way of new money for development, especially in the poorest countries like Liberia, where most debt repayment has stopped anyway. In addition to thefivecountries that currently spend more than 0.7 percent of national income on official development assistance (Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden), six more bavc promised to do so by 2015. Canada, the only OECD member country that has run a consistent budget surplus, is not among them. Targets and pledges have been useful in the official development assistance business, not so much as goals that governments have any intention of reaching, but as ex post facto demonstrations that donor promises have a consistently hollow ring to them. The famous aid target of 0.7 percent of gross national income for donor countries - established by the 1969 Pearson Commission on international development - has proven impossible for a dozen rich countries over the 37 years it has been out there, even though rich countries have enjoyed some ot the most accelerated growth in a century during that time. As a percentage ofthe overall gross national income of rich countries, official development assistance - at one-third of one percent - remains significantly below 1990 levels, and significantly short of 0.7 percent. In Canada in 2005, we were seventh from the bottom, at something like 0.34 percent. That number was, in fact, a significant jump over 2004 because of huge infusions of aid to Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a very large contribution for tsunami relief. Other things are growing too, and not in a good way. The number of people in Africa living on a dollar a day (or less) increased from 227 million in 1990, to 313 million in 2004. And an estimated 2.7 billion people, more tban halt ot those living in developing ct>untries, survive on less than two dollars a day. Aid watchers take heart from positive changes in Asia, where absolute poverty (the dollar a day calculation) has declined from 936 million in 1990, to 703 miMion in 2004, a remarkable achievement resulting mainly from sustained growth in China and India. But Branko Milanovic, a lead economist with the World Bank, puts a different spin on the numbers. In what he calls a "downwardly mobile world", Milanovic shows


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In African countriesj a ratio of one doctor for every 10^000 people is not uncommon. This compares to one doctor per 500 people in the United States.
- Uiiiteil Naiians I'opiitutioH Fund, State of World Population 2005

that globally, tbe gap between rich countries and poor countries is growing. For example in 1960, there were 41 rich countries, 19 of them non-Western. By 2000, there were 31 rich countries, only nine of them nonWestern. And almost all of the non-Western middleincome countries had dropped to the ranks of the poor. In India and China, widely quoted average growth rates conceal huge levels of inequality between urban and rural populations.'

Broken promises
In 1978, senior government delegates meeting at a World Health Organization summit in Alma-Ata pledged "health for all by the year 2000." It was not an idle or ill-considered target; the goal, relating almost exclusively to primary health care, was more achievable in that 22-year time frame than the current healthrelated targets ofthe 15-year Millennium Development Goals. Needless to say, the "health for all" slogan was

forgotten by most, not long after donor representatives returned home. The development business, in fact, is littered with the empty promises of donor governments. Meeting at a 1990 UNFSCO conference in Thailand, governments solemnly pledged to provide "education for all" at some unspecified future date. At the time there were 100 million children with no access to primary education. Today, the number has risen to 115 million. The 1990 United Nations World Summit for Children was a repeat performance. Led by 71 heads of government and other senior officials, the Summit adopted a "Declaration on the Survival, Protection and Development of Children" and a "Plan of Action" for implementing the declaration in the 1990s. Since then, some progress has been made, but it falls far short ofthe 1990 goals. Today, an estimated 30,000 children under the age of five die every day from preventable diseases, a noteworthy 25 percent decline (if the numbers are to be

Unfair Trade
DONOR COUNTRIES GIVE, but they also take. Key exports from developing countries - clothing, agricultural products, textiles - remain subject to high tariffs in rich countries. And agricultural subsidies in rich countries give them an unfair trading advantage, undercutting the productivity of farmers in developing countries. It is estimated that free trade in farm products alone would be worth $20 billion to developing countries. The Doha Round of World Trade Organization negotiations that began in 2001 was aimed at fixing this problem. At first, the talks looked promising. But the rich countries that initially promised to reduce agricultural subsidies have actually done the opposite. Rich countries provide one billion dollars a year in agricultural assistance to poor countries, but they spend one billion dollars a day subsidizing over-production at home. The indifferent effort to keep the Doha Round alive at the WTO Conference in Hong Kong in December 2005 managed little more than a half-hearted promise by rich countries to stop subsidizing their agricultural exports by 2013. Other subsidies and high tariffs against imports from developing countries remained untouched. The Doha Round collapsed altogether in July 2006 when negotiators at the Geneva talks failed to reach agreement, leaving many in the international community counting the setback not in months, but in years. Some blamed the US for the failure; others breathed a sigh of relief that the WTO agenda, which was expected to leave some of the poorest countries worse off than before, would not be expanded. V - Ian Smillie

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Between 1994 and 2003, an estimated 13 million people died in large scale conflicts, 12 million of them in Africa, Western Asia and Southern Asia. In 2003, there were an estimated 37 million refugees and internally displaced people.
mill Agrtciiliiire of iliL- Uiiilcil Notio (2005) /IS m

trusted) over 15 years. The current figure still represents, however, eleven million child deaths each year - the equivalent ofthe combined populations of all children and all adults in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Ireland. Part of the prohlem is that donors do not actually spend very much on basic health, basic education, water .supply and sanitation - areas with good track records in reducing poverty and child mortality. The good news is that between 1999 and 2003, World Bank and donor government spending on these sectors almost doubled - from 11.1 percent of total official development assistance to 19.4 percent. The had news is that the increase over a ten-year period is only slightly more than one percent.

Recalling aid's purpose
Poverty was ignored with considerahle impunity during the Cold War, when the great powers could he relied upon hy badly governed, poverty-ridden states for assistance with money, advice, weapons and even troops to put down rebellion. Donors could be counted on to turn a selective if not a blind eye to repression and human rights abuse. Poverty could be more easily ignored when the only real form of international communication for the poor was the transistor radio, when there were no cell phones, no television, no internet, no apparent allies for those living in isolated pockets of discontent. But the idea of a better life can no longer be hidden so easily from the poor. Poverty, even where it is on the decline, is the most dangerous social problem of our time, and it is also the greatest threat to peace and the long-term well being of all. There is no guarantee that the effects of poverty, state collapse, conflict and discontent will confine themselves, as they once did, to the increasingly artificial borders of what used to be called the "Third World". These eftects have leeched dramatically into the wider world in the form of pollution, illegal refugees, terrorism and disease. It is almost a miracle that the 2004

SARS outbreak was contained to a few centres in Asia and North America. Had it reached Africa, where health care tor simple things like childbirth and diarrhoea is appalling, and where seven out of every iOO adults are already living with HIV/AIDS, the results would have heen catastrophic. None of these are new lessons, but the need to do something ahout them is becoming much more urgent. Aid programs, when well-targeted and well-monitored, have demonstrated time and again that they can prevent disease. They can give people the numeracy and the literacy they need to improve their lives. They can create jobs and reduce discrimination. After four decades of mangled aid, wasted more by givers than receivers, the time has come tor a rededication ol the aid purpose to end poverty-and for a gathering of the political will and the money that will he required to do it. 4^ Ian Smillie is an Ottawa-based development consultant and writer who works part-time on Partnership Africa Canada's campaign to halt the traffic in blood diantonds. His most recent hook is The Charity of Nations: Huittaiiitarian Action in a Calculating World.
' The Milleiinitiin Davlopnient Goals Report 2005 (New York: Uiiiicd Nuiioiis. 2(KJ5): mill Human Development Report 2005 (New York: UNIH'. 2(103). ' UBC. "UN Reforms Receive Mixed Response". •^]/Ui/worhi/a!nericasl4255](iti.ilm> (September 17, 2(m, accesicd laiiuary 2(X)(,). - IMF. "Liberia: Seleited hnia ami Suiiisticii! Appendix" ••• iM.iy 21)05. accessed lanuary 2006). ^ Duly km med this line ui ;^ood cffcci seivral times. See. for example. Valuing the Earth: Economics. Ecology and Ethics (with Kenneth N. Townsend). (Cambridge Massachusells: MIT Presi. 19931, pg. 267. Brunko Milanovic, Worlds Apart: Measuring Internal iotial ami Gtobal Princeton: Princeton University /'rcji, 2005).

Find out more about the UN Millennium Development Goals:


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