The cost of helping others
By John Gray, CBC.ca Reality Check Team | January 18, 2006 | More Reality Check
In 1969, not long after he stepped down as Canada's prime minister, Lester Pearson and seven eminent international colleagues produced a report that was supposed to change the world. It was a report that in its own way has come to haunt Canadian politics.
Pearson and his partners took a long hard look at the developing nations of the world and what could be done to help. They concluded that the developed nations of the world must begin a massive transfer of assistance.
The target they set was that each western country would contribute the equivalent of 0.7 per cent of its gross national product by 1975. The United Nations adopted 0.7 per cent as its goal for all developed nations.
At the time the target seemed reasonable. Pearson and his colleagues were roundly applauded, but since then not everyone has applauded.
The evidence is that in 1969-1970, the year the Pearson report was published, Canada's overseas assistance amounted to 0.34 per cent of the country's gross national product. Only twice since then has the level of aid reached even 0.5 per cent of GNP.
When Paul Martin became finance minister of the new Liberal government in 1993, Canada's overseas aid was 0.44 per cent. Since then it has never been so high, and last year the level had sunk to 0.26 per cent.
Canada's consolation is that only five countries reached the 0.7 per cent target last year: Norway, 0.87; Luxembourg, 0.85; Denmark, 0.84; Netherlands, 0.74; and Sweden, 0.77.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Canada's political parties are tiptoeing carefully around the question of overseas assistance. Only the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Québécois firmly committed themselves to the 0.7 per cent target.
Neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives are going anywhere close to such a commitment.
For the current year, the Liberals are spending $3.6 billion on overseas assistance, with a commitment to increase their annual aid spending by at least eight per cent. By 2010 the total annual aid package will be more than $5 billion.
Last year's aid spending represented 0.26 per cent of GDP but Liberal officials said there is no way to predict the share of GDP in 2010 because nobody can predict the growth of the economy between now and then.
The Conservatives are equally unsure of future spending on overseas assistance except to say that over the next five years a Conservative government would spend $425 million more than the Liberals plan to spend.
Neither party appears destined to come even close to the 0.7 per cent goal, and neither party makes any mention of any such target.
For his refusal to increase overseas aid more dramatically Liberal Leader Martin is under attack from his old friend, Irish rock star Bono, who announced two years ago that "the world needs more Paul Martins."
Bono told an Ottawa press conference two months ago that he still very much likes Martin but is mystified by his refusal to further increase aid.
"I just think that it's a huge opportunity that he's missing out on. This is important to the Canadian people. I think the prime minister will find out if he walks away from the opportunity to (boost foreign aid) he will hear about it in the election. I am absolutely sure of that."