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.