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EDMONTON ♦ I don’t generally get reverse-culture shock. That’s the phenomenon where, after spending time in the developing world, some people return to their rich homelands to scream and pull their hair out while walking in long supermarket aisles filled with every pet food imaginable.
But I did feel a kind of reverse-culture poke when Jean and I recently spoke about our Third World work to folks in this rich oil town that’s also known for having one of the world’s largest malls. The West Edmonton Mall probably has more flush toilets than some of the planet’s poorest countries.
And I did feel at least a mild reverse-culture something from being in embittered Western Canada on election night when Ontario saved multimillionaire Paul Martin, a politician who has let Canada slide into an embarrassing foreign aid abyss, despite his past promise to give “substantial flows of foreign aid to the world’s poorest countries.”
I find Ottawa’s concern for the world’s poor not unlike what I just read in the Edmonton Street News, a scrappy little tabloid sold to me on the street by an aboriginal. A voice for the homeless, it hounds Alberta’s MPPs for things like feeding on steak and wine at the price of one homeless person’s rent, “after a day of snoozing in the legislature.”
It was 35 years ago when former Liberal prime minister Lester Pearson first said Canada would give 0.7 per cent of its national income to impoverished countries. Several Liberal governments have since repeated that pledge. But the best any has ever managed is 0.5 per cent, which Martin virtually halved when he was finance minister.
Interestingly, 0.7 per cent is the goal set for rich countries at the latest World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. If all donors reached it by 2005, $200 billion more would be freed for clean water, health care and basic schooling in Third World countries. Five donor countries have hit the target. Eight more probably will do so by 2010. At its current rate, Canada will get there by 2040.
The journal Foreign Policy ranks Canada way down at 18th out of the world’s 21 richest countries in how its aid, trade, immigration, investments, peacekeeping and environmental protection help poor countries. Embarrassing indeed.
Taxes aside, even everyday Canadians are not as generous as we might think. According to the Fraser Institute, of any province, Albertans give the most per capita to charities, at $1,294, slightly more than Ontarians. That’s less than the least generous U.S. state, Rhode Island, whose residents give double that amount.
How much greater is the need abroad? A Simon Fraser Public Research Group report explains that if the world population numbered 100 people, six would own half the wealth, 70 wouldn’t read, 50 would be malnourished and 80 would have substandard housing. One would have a college degree.
These things become clearer for me in the summer when, back in Canada, I give personal thanks on my wedding anniversary, on my daughter’s birthday, on Canada Day and even on my birthday, which falls on Bastille Day, France’s national holiday celebrating its revolution, which gave birth to freedoms that still shape democracies like ours.
I can slow down to reflect as well on the privilege it is to live for much of the year among some of the world’s more needy people in places like Yemen, among the impoverished, and the runts and black sheep of today’s global family. If only a few high-ranking politicos, of any Canadian party, would take similar opportunities.
Until they do, I doubt our understanding of the outside world, and foreign aid needs, will improve much. Not with a minority government. Even if they develop a conscience about their old aid promises, Liberals will still be more concerned about survival than anything. And that’s too bad.
Not because we’ll leave much of the world in want. Global poverty, to some extent, will always exist. But, because, it seems to me, Ottawa has become like the rich, young ruler: the young man who had it all, but who allowed wealth and power to define all that he was, and who, at the end of the day, lost his soul.
It really is rather sad.