Obama in Africa

US President Barack Obama has arrived in the Senegalese capital Dakar for the first leg of a three-country African tour. During his only other visit to the continent in July 2009, he delivered what the Guardian called a “tough speech” in which he told Africans to stop blaming others for historical wrongs and to sort out their own problems: “You can conquer disease, and end conflicts, and make change from the bottom up. You can do that. Yes you can…But these things can only be done if all of you take responsibility for your future.”
No one should doubt that Africans are capable of great things. But the president’s message might have been more compelling had he given a similar lecture to rich countries concerning contemporary wrongs. The following is an unpublished piece written in the days following Obama’s Accra speech and the G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy. It may be a little silly and the facts are four years old, but its central point remains relevant in a world where “winning the future” is deemed a noble ambition.

As a citizen of a G8 country, I am hurt. Where is our pep talk, Mr. President?

It seems unfair that Africans should get all your attention when you take on the scourge of corruption, as you did in Ghana over the weekend. Sure, they have had some legendarily corrupt leaders. When Gabon’s Omar Bongo died last month after four decades in power, he reportedly left behind 45 French homes and a fleet of expensive sports cars. And of course, there was Jean-Bedel Bokassa, Mobutu Sese Seko and Sani Abacha.

But you sell us short. We are the ones with many of the companies and financial institutions that make such personal wealth possible. If only you had chosen last week’s L’Aquila summit to treat our leaders and us to one of your edifying talks, peppered with those personalized anecdotes you use to such rhetorical effect. Like Germany’s Siemens who recently paid over a billion dollars in fines for bribing government officials in a number of countries, you would have said. Or Canada’s Acres International whom a Lesotho court convicted of paying bribes not so long ago.

America may have had some spectacular corruption scandals in recent years, but your country has something to teach the rest of us about cracking down on bribing foreign officials. You could have told us how the United States enacted legislation criminalizing such practices more than 30 years ago, when many rich countries still allowed their companies to write off foreign bribery as a tax-deductible business expense. And how your country, realizing that it was now at a competitive disadvantage, convinced the members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to sign onto an anti-bribery convention in 1997, thereby forcing them to change their own laws.

And you could have told us – softly, gently – of your disappointment that Germany is the only other G8 member doing anywhere near enough to enforce that convention, according to a Transparency International report released last month.

At that point, speaking as frankly as you did in Accra, you might have turned your attention to my country and your biggest trading partner, asking how it is that Transparency International believes there is “little or no enforcement” of the compact in Canada. Why it is that only one corporation has had to pay a fine – $25,000 for trying to corrupt an American customs official – in the 10 years since the agreement came into effect. Why it is only now that Canada is looking to extend the law’s jurisdiction to apply to bribes offered outside the country, surely where most foreign officials are bribed. And why it is the Canadian legislation does not apply to not-for-profit organizations, leaving a massive loophole for the development industry.

It could have been so beautiful. And so much more balanced. We citizens of the rich world understand you feel a special bond towards the continent where your father was born and from which your wife’s and daughters’ ancestors were forcibly removed in chains. But please do not forget about us. Our relationship with Africa did not end with the birth of all those independent nations.

I want you to tell us that my generation will be the first to understand instinctually how the countries that set the rules of the game have to accept some blame for negative outcomes. That it will one day be normal to see the contradiction in a fight against drugs that focuses on the supply side and a fight against corruption that focuses on the demand side. That when we take the baton from the current leaders, we will know development policies designed as though the roots of poverty lie exclusively in poor places make no sense.

Lay it on us, Mr. President. Let us bask in your beautiful, chiding words. Hope, change, responsibility and all the rest. Yes we can.

The Aid Distraction

The focus of Beyond Aid has, from the outset, been the ideas and actions of others. But this week is a special one, at least for high-level international talks, as both the Busan aid effectiveness summit and the Durban climate change conference kick off. So to mark these dual events (and because I am a little under the weather), here is an analysis piece I wrote for the Broker Online in early October. It was written with Busan in mind, but I believe its point regarding global democracy applies equally to Durban.

Talk is cheap. Results are what matter. That is the apparent consensus ahead of next month’s aid effectiveness summit in Busan, whose organizers promise “a clear focus on development results,”  while sceptics worry about a lot of rhetoric and little concrete follow-through.

Unfortunately, the most important and most difficult conversation has barely begun.

There are certainly some positive noises in the lead-up to Busan: recognition that aid is just one aspect of development, talk of mutual accountability and commitment to sustainable development. But if these promises are to become more than talking points, greater efficiency and more reliable data will not be enough. In order to create the kind of massive global change they profess to desire, the leaders of the world’s wealthy countries will have to follow their rhetoric to its logical conclusion.

To say that development is more than aid is an understatement. Donors should begin by acknowledging that aid is a potentially useful but relatively insignificant component of development. As things stand, member states of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee – the driving force behind Busan – contribute just over 0.3 percent of their combined gross national income to development assistance. Even if they all made good on their decades-old promise to increase that amount to 0.7 percent and on their more recent pledge to give recipient countries ownership of the development process, 99.3 percent of their wealth would still be devoted to economic activities that sometimes clash with the interests of the world’s poor.

The mutual accountability being promised must demand more from donor countries than ODA transparency (though that would be nice too); it has to mean a serious analysis of the impacts their self-interest has on those who do not belong to their electorate. Yale philosopher Thomas Pogge argues citizens of wealthy countries, as well as elites around the world, benefit from “a transnational scheme of social institutions under which some persons are regularly, predictably and avoidably denied secure access to the objects of their human rights.” (Thomas Pogge (2002) World Poverty and Human Rights, Polity Press, Cambridge, p. 227.) In his view, these privileged people have a negative duty not to harm the world’s poor that is greater than the positive duty to provide them with aid. Certainly, such thinking is in line with legal codes around the world that punish crimes but do not reward good deeds. Moreover, Pogge believes the time is right for a rethink of the global system, with the financial crisis providing “a great opportunity to showcase and propagate both causal and moral institutional analysis.”

Transfer pricing by OECD-based transnational corporations costing poor countries billions in lost tax revenues each year; the Canadian government refusing to investigate (or withdraw financial and diplomatic support from) Canadian mining companies accused of serious rights abuses overseas; European and American trade negotiators lobbying hard to prevent loosening of intellectual property rules that impede the fight against non-communicable diseases in poor countries… The list is long and there is a whiff of blaming the victim to the claim that poor countries are responsible for their own development. Certainly, their agency is essential; improved conditions are unlikely without sound local and national policies, which have often been lacking in the past. At the same time, poor countries neither have the jurisdiction nor the political influence to rein in transfer pricing or change the international intellectual property regime. As for the role or indifference of host-country governments regarding extractive industry abuses, factors may include asymmetrical diplomatic relations and incentives built into international rules that grant ownership of natural resources to countries, even though a better case could probably be made for local or global ownership.

The point here is not that poor countries are good and rich ones are bad. But foreign policy accountable only to the voters of the home country has extremely limited democratic legitimacy, and the current global system – one that over the last few centuries has been determined to a great extent by countries that today are OECD members – is in many ways bad for those who are poor. While micro-lending or support for institution building may help, they cannot address bigger systemic problems. And yet, the vast majority of the intellectual and practical effort expended on development over the last 60+ years has focused on changing the way people – from farmers to presidents – in poor countries behave and think.

It is time to look at the second half of the equation without losing sight of the first half. It is time for the established, wealthy countries to accept their share of responsibility for poverty in distant lands and to begin handing over their global control. Not to China, India and Brazil but to the 7 billion people of the world.

Of course, ushering in an era of global democracy would be a lengthy undertaking, far exceeding the scope of a three-day summit, however high-level it might be. But Busan does have the power to significantly change development thinking, and the recognition of negative duties would be a huge step in questioning a global order that leaves billions with virtually no voice.

Sound unrealistic? Maybe. Surely though, it is no more so than suggesting competing entities, whether they be corporations or national governments, will spontaneously prioritize cooperation over their own short-term interests. Or maintaining that by giving away a tiny fraction of their wealth, they can counteract the negative impacts of their core activities and a global system designed to further their goals.

Depressingly, sustainable development would be even tougher to achieve than global democracy, as it would also require counteracting generational selfishness. Is it possible to extend democracy in time as well as space?

Difficult, no doubt. And unless we shift the conversation, impossible.

Introducing Beyond Aid

Sustainable development. Is there such a thing in a global economic system where perpetual growth is the only way to avoid crisis? Can this planet sustain 7 billion people living like the average Dane or Canadian? Or how about the 10 billion projected by the end of the century?

Encouraging more people to live destructively seems like a questionable evolutionary tactic. But the prevailing levels of inequality suggest a profoundly unjust, and possibly dangerous, world order. If current poverty is unacceptable and current wealth is unsustainable, especially if extended to billions more, perhaps we should seek a compromise entailing upward movement from the bottom and downward movement from the top.

Without such a compromise, it is difficult to imagine the level of global cooperation required of an era in which, according to Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, “our security, even our survival, will depend on the world forging a triple commitment: to end extreme poverty; to ensure human rights for all; and to protect the natural environment from human-induced crises of climate change, destruction of biodiversity, and depletion of fresh-water reserves and other vital resources.”

For all the attention it garners, aid is only a small piece of the puzzle. Even if all wealthy countries met their pledged target of 0.7 percent of GNP, 99.3 percent of their economies would still be geared toward “wining the future.”

If we want fundamentally different results, it may be time to make fundamental changes to a global system in which poor countries have little say and their people almost none. In other words, wealthy countries and their citizens may have to change as much as their less prosperous counterparts do. At the very least, we surely need to start asking more questions…

This post marks the start of Beyond Aid, a journalistic blog that will ask questions about global inequality. By “journalistic,” I mean I will be asking questions rather than offering my own solutions. I feel my credentials are insufficient to present my own thoughts as answers, but sufficient to ask questions that too rarely enter the discussion about poverty and development. I will leave it up to the experts to provide answers.

Initially, the content of Beyond Aid will consist mainly of Latest Developments, a daily summary of news and analysis relating, in my view, either to the perpetuation or reduction of global inequality. I hope these summaries will encourage readers to view the problem in a more holistic manner by examining the positions of wealthy nations in areas such as trade and immigration – whether expressed through their own foreign policy or the policies of the international institutions over which they hold so much sway – as well as the actions of transnational corporations and NGOs whose role in poor countries sometimes exceeds that of the state.

Once Beyond Aid has been up and running for a few weeks, I will supplement these daily posts with regular “Ideas” features consisting of book reviews, Q&As with individual experts, or surveys of a number of experts and thinkers on one particular idea. These posts will aim to take “beyond aid” thinking to the next level by delving into questions of global democracy, science and media discourse.

But my most ambitious objective is to provide original reporting on “beyond aid” issues, using Canada’s foreign footprint as a case study. Although I have an international audience in mind, as will be reflected in the Latest Developments and Ideas posts, I feel a case study will provide the grounding necessary to avoid excessive abstraction. As this reporting will require overseas fieldwork, it will be largely dependent on my ability to secure research grants. I will keep readers posted on what they can expect and when. In the meantime, I will produce occasional travel-free investigative pieces resulting from freedom of information requests, financial record analyses and the like.

I have chosen Canada for a number of relatively straightforward reasons. First, I live in Vancouver and due to linguistic, geographic and economic factors, the majority of my research must logically focus on Canada and the US. Second, I have spent much of the last two years researching Canadian policies, companies and development discourse. And third, I believe the sorts of tough questions I have are best asked of one’s own country.

My intention, however, is not to single out Canada as a great enemy of the world’s poor. While every country has its policy strengths and weaknesses, Canada’s Commitment to Development Index score places it ninth out of 22 wealthy donor countries. I hope this averageness will help to provide a relatable, middle-of-the-road case study from which both Canadians and non-Canadians can draw lessons. Perhaps it will even inspire others to examine their own country’s foreign footprint.

Finally, I should anticipate a couple of inevitable criticisms. By focusing attention on the role of wealthy countries in perpetuating global poverty, I open myself up to attack from at least two very different corners. The first will say that my Western-centric approach disempowers the world’s poor by denying them agency in their own lives. The second will say I am a self-hating Westerner glossing over the endemic reasons for ongoing extreme poverty. To both I would say that I believe the governments and inhabitants of poor countries bear a large share of responsibility for their current predicament and their future solutions. Nothing can improve without their will and determination. At the same time, the countries that set the rules of the game have to accept at least some of the blame for negative outcomes

Extending the argument to journalism, if Western journalists are objective in their treatment of poor countries, theirs is an asymmetrical objectivity that dispassionately presents root problems as residing in Nigeria and Bangladesh, and the solutions as coming from France and Australia. While I too strive for journalistic objectivity, my focus on rich-country policies no doubt represents another form of asymmetry, but one I hope can provide a reasoned counterweight to the often one-sided discourse on poverty and inequality.

The extent of the inequality in the world today is not an unavoidable fact of life. But I believe there is a gap in the public discourse of the countries that represent one half of the equation. I hope Beyond Aid can contribute in some way, however small, to filling that gap.