Four questions for Craig

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

On June 13th, 2007, University of Guelph President Alastair Summerlee held the President's Dialogue. The event focused on Canada's role as a global citizen. The panel included:

Sally Armstrong, journalist, filmmaker, author, teacher and human rights activist
Lloyd Axworthy, instigator of the Ottawa treaty
Louise Fréchette, from the UN
Craig Kielburger, from Free the Children and Leaders Today
Peter Hannam, a pivotal leader in Canadian agriculture
Paul Rusesabagina, the former hotel manager who saved more than 1,200 people from slaughter and inspired the film Hotel Rwanda
Pamela Wallin, Guelph's new Chancellor.

After the Dialogue I had a moment to speak with Craig Kielburger and set up the interview that is detailed below. The President's Dialogue focused on Canada as a global citizen but there are many on this campus that choose to step up and take that role personally. For many, Guelph is the place where people take their first step towards that role.

During the President's Dialogue Craig noted that Sub-Saharan Africa is lagging behind in quality of life improvement and development. From that point, our discussion stemmed. There have been some discussion about the state of Africa around the time of the 2007 G8 summit including the resurfacing of statements that the best hope for Africa was to stop financial aid. The hope is that this discussion with Craig will help to clear the way for new students to make a strong first step towards being a global citizen.

1) You said during the President’s Dialogue at the University of Guelph that progress is not really being made in Africa, what do you believe are the greatest hurdles to true progress being made?

(If corruption is on your list of hurdles)
1a) By sending aid through corrupt governments are we propping them up so as that conditions do not get bad enough to create some sort of revolution?

If you look at many key indicators of human development around the world in the last 50 years—such as infant mortality rates, life expectancy, literacy, the spread of fatal diseases such as malaria—we have generally experienced positive trends almost across the board in the developing world. In sub-Saharan Africa, the situation has been more complex and varied. Overall indicators have generally increased, but the people of Africa have not felt nearly the same improvements in living standards as the rest of the world. So, on one hand progress is being made in measurable increments, but on the other hand the solutions to life-threatening problems that have worked elsewhere are clearly not working in these struggling regions.

The hurdles to improving people’s lives in Africa are many. Corruption—at many levels—is a significant factor, but not the only one. The HIV/AIDS epidemic affects the region in rates wildly disproportionate to world numbers (according to UNAIDS, average HIV infection estimates range in the area of 6.1%; in countries such as Botswana, prevalence is as high as 24%). The effects of the Green Revolution, which made positive improvements in agricultural production in countries such as Mexico and India, failed to have the same impact in Africa. Global climate change has left Africa, positioned close to the equator, geographically vulnerable to environmental catastrophe—despite the fact that its carbon emission rates are a fraction of the industrialized world’s emissions.

On top of these challenges, the region has indeed been a hotbed of instability and civil conflict for decades. Corruption and bribery, standing in the way of reaching those in Africa who are most in need, are a common source of frustration for organizations such as ours.

Are we “propping up” these corrupt regimes by maintaining foreign aid to these areas? The answer depends on how this aid is distributed, and in what form it takes. The level of corruption varies among regions, and it is wrong to draw broad conclusions based on generalizations.

Our experience has shown that large outpourings of cash aid are less effective than grassroots development efforts. Education, sustainable income, health care treatment and training at the community level—these go much farther toward resolving poverty issues.

2) Long term development and security from poverty is dependent upon a stable economy and fair working conditions. Aid seems to be an emergency measure that is being used in all cases as a cure all. What is your opinion of this?

The reality is that there are different types of aid. The most inefficient form of aid is tied aid, which links development assistance or loans to the donor country’s domestic financial interests. Contracts are given to corporations from the donor nation or its partners, with explicit provisions that aid be spent on employees, consultancy services and goods produced externally.

The result is profits for the donor country, but misdirected expenditures within the host country. OECD estimates place tied aid at more than half of all international foreign aid. China, for example, has made dramatic moves in recent years in its African investments—however, as much as 70% of this is in tied aid. Canada is just as guilty, with about 43% of its aid being tied.

We need to clean up our act in the West. Free and fair trade must become the norm, not the exception. Debt forgiveness can also have a huge impact—Africa’s export earnings are a fraction of its debt, which forces countries to continue to borrow just to meet debt repayments, only furthering this downward spiral. We need to focus on multilateral aid solutions that don’t support private corporations and grassroots efforts that directly bring help to where its most needed. Helping Africa means making our assistance efforts more effective and focused toward projects that really benefit communities, not reducing our already inadequate contributions.

3) Projects like the Masai Project (u of g) make poverty history are working to get aid to Africa, are we doing harm, are our good intentions damaging that continent?

The Masai for Africa project is an example of the type of grassroots effort of direct investment that can make a difference. These projects are crucial in the fight against AIDS, an epidemic that truly is the Holocaust of the twenty-first century. The devastation the disease has had in Africa is almost unfathomable. Not only are precious lives being lost—in the range of 2.5-3.5 million just last year—but the very future of the continent has been placed in peril. The disease most prevalently strikes young men and women, the age group most vital in those development projects that might lead to economic recovery. More than a million children have lost teachers to AIDS, leaving those children who hope for an education unable to do so.

It is important to understand how the many challenges Africa faces are a part of a larger, interconnected system. Our belief is that breaking the cycle of poverty begins with education. Our Adopt a Village projects provide holistic solutions to get communities started on achieving self-sustainability. With simple efforts that help families generate income, such as providing small machinery and farming tools, animals, skills training and resources such as women’s cooperatives, we help communities to achieve stable income bases, freeing children to attend school rather than work. These alternative income programs aren’t handouts or even loans, but the recipients of this support “pay it forward” by re-investing in their communities, supporting schools and helping medical and sanitation programs.

With healthy bodies and stimulated minds, children and their families are empowered to make choices. They are able to read, learn skills and manage their money. Our administrators exercise transparency about how the schools and income programs are funded and operated, keeping the community involved in the decisions that affect them. Citizens learn to hold government officials and other leaders accountable for their actions and their neglect of pressing issues. The overall aim is to encourage communities to take control of their own destinies, so they are not held at the mercy of external organizations forcing their own agendas.

4) There are many people that do have good intentions. They see the suffering in Africa and want to change something. How do they have confidence that their actions are indeed helping when the continent seems to be accelerating towards greater poverty as more is done to stop poverty?

The reality, as I have seen first-hand, is that Africa is literally littered with well-intentioned projects that have failed to make lasting change. Meanwhile, there are also many having a positive impact—it is a mistake to draw broad generalized conclusions that cast the entire continent in one particular light.

Arguing that “the more we do, the worse the situation gets” is both logically unsound and factually inaccurate. The fact is that we have not done enough. Our governments have not met their obligations established by the United Nations Millennium Goals, which included dedicating an eventual 0.7% of each country’s gross national income to development assistance. Canada currently only allots about 0.26% of its GNI. The United States, the world’s richest country, only provides about 0.17% of its GNI.

Maintaining and re-focusing the aid we provide to developing nations is only one component of a larger strategy of enriching lives and improving this world for all people. It is crucial that we take responsibility for our actions and decisions, both as individuals and collectively as nations. Again, the forces driving these problems are all complexly interconnected. Exercising our power in how we vote, the organizations we support, how we shop, the environmental impact we make—these are ways we can actively work to fight global poverty.

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  1. Posted by: Bob Przybyla on Sep 4, 2007 @ 7:59pm

    You have tied aid down, it does refer to aid that requires some percent of the aid credit or loan be spent in the country delivering the aid. In a quick search I did not find a specific Canadian example.

    However, you can find examples on the Wikipedia entry for "tied aid."

  2. Posted by: Alastair Summerlee on Sep 7, 2007 @ 9:05pm

    Thank you for an insightful interview! Having recently returned from Africa, I can attest to the magnitude of difficult issues this country and its people are facing and it's easy to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of it. But I agree with Craig that it's important that we continue to support grassroots efforts that are truly making a difference and improving living conditions and giving people hope for
    the future.

    During my journeys to Africa, for example, I saw first-hand how vital it is that Guelphites continue to raise money to help fight AIDS in Africa through the Masai Project. AIDS has ravaged the African continent, and seeing the extent of the destruction, especially the effect on children, is heartbreaking. (cont'd.)

  3. Posted by: Alastair Summerlee on Sep 7, 2007 @ 9:06pm

    But I was reassured time and time again that local efforts such as Guelph's Masai Project, headed by the wonderful Anne-Marie Zajdlik, are helping. Anne-Marie is working to have Guelph raise $1 million for an AIDS clinic in Lesotho, the epicentre of the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

    The University came on board launching its own Masai project with a goal of raising $100,000, partly by selling the red and white “Bracelets of Hope” for $5. We are about halfway there. I hope soon to see a bracelet on the wrist of every person in this community. They are symbols of our efforts to help and a reminder of how much desperately needs to be done in Africa.

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