Increasing official development assistance: a first step to paying our debt

Development and Peace — Caritas Canada and 75 other civil society organizations have signed a statement calling for increased official development assistance (ODA) contributions from the countries comprising the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The DAC describes itself as “a unique international forum of many of the largest providers of aid, including 30 members.”

ODA contributions in 2020 amounted to only 0.32 per cent of gross national income (GNI), falling far short of the long-standing commitment of 0.7 per cent. The statement avers, “Such low ODA levels are both economically unwise and morally flawed, given the current pandemic and interconnected crises, including climate change, conflict, fragility, and rising poverty and inequalities.”

The Canadian situation

In 2020, Canada’s ODA budget (i.e., our total investment in overseas aid through direct projects, grants and loans, and through multilateral development mechanisms) stood at 0.275 per cent of GNI.

To be sure, the pandemic has made times difficult for Canadians. However, while many have struggled with unemployment and underemployment, others have amassed significant savings from reduced expenditure on travel, restaurants and recreation. As of fall 2020, Canadians had accumulated $170 billion in household and business cash1, four times greater than the normal.

Most of us do not consider ourselves wealthy, perhaps because we compare ourselves with media imaging, or perhaps because we choose to incur debt for comfort or convenience. From a more global perspective, however, the picture looks quite different.

The grim global picture

It is estimated that 150 million people have been pushed into extreme poverty (defined by the World Bank as living on less that US$1.90 per day) during the pandemic, making about 9.5 per cent of the global population extremely poor. By a higher measure of living on less than US$5.50 per day, over 40 per cent of the world’s people are poor. Moreover, an additional 137 million people are now on the brink of starvation2.

The world has lost more than a decade of international development in this crisis, and the longer the pandemic continues, the more ground will be lost. The pandemic is not the only impoverishing factor. While some peasants lost access to their fields or markets because of public health restrictions, others have faced drought, pestilence and severe weather events ascribable to climate change. Foreign debt, too, hampers development and the pandemic response in some countries that have to pay more to foreign debtors than they can spend on public health at this critical time.

An ethical crisis, a moral debt

Such global inequality, which was increasing even before the pandemic, is simply unethical. To make real progress in redressing it, we need to change our hearts and minds. We have to realise that anything we share is not giving from our wealth but rather repaying our debt.

Canada owes an ecological debt to societies that are bearing the brunt of climate change. Much of our wealth and stability come from the extractive industrial activities in Canada and abroad. We Canadians have some of the world’s highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions. The heaviest burden of the resultant climate change falls on vulnerable communities that neither contribute to the emissions nor prosper from the economic activities that cause them.

Pope Francis has therefore said, “The developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programmes of sustainable development.” (Laudato Si’, 52).

On the COVID-19 vaccination front, too, Canada needs to do more. Our national wealth allowed us to pre-purchase more than 350 million vaccine doses, about nine per citizen. Thirteen per cent of the world’s population has cornered more than half of the global vaccine supply3, despite having reliable access to the soap, clean water, healthcare facilities, social safety nets and space and technology for distancing that much of the world lacks. While all willing adult Canadians will likely be vaccinated within months, even doctors in many countries will not see a vaccine until next year and many others may end up waiting until 2023 to be vaccinated. Indeed, as Pope Francis laments, “Some parts of our human family, it appears, can be readily sacrificed for the sake of others considered worthy of a carefree existence.” (Fratelli Tutti, 18).

This is the unfair, inequitable context in which Development and Peace and its Cooperation Canada partners are calling for Canada to not only meet but exceed is ODA target so that it amounts to not 0.7 per cent but reaches 1 per cent of our GNI. We owe more than the crumbs from our table to those to whom we are indebted!

1) https://globalnews.ca/news/7685042/coronavirus-canadian-economy-one-year-later/

2) https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2020/10/07/covid-19-to-add-as-many-as-150-million-extreme-poor-by-2021

3) https://www.vaticannews.va/en/world/news/2021-01/misereor-alarm-13-percent-world-population-half-covid-vaccine.html