Systemic issues that pandemic recovery efforts fail to address

“Always drink treated water” (Haiti, 2011)

In September 2015, without so much as a look over their shoulders at past development successes and failures, 193 world leaders committed themselves to 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) that were intended to achieve three great things over the next 15 years:

  • End extreme poverty
  • Fight inequality and injustice
  • Fix climate change

I support the goals. Who but the most reactionary would not? And I believe that the United Nations is vital for nation-states to work out common approaches to global problems. 

But my experience tells me that governments usually fail to cough up the money required for effective Official Development Assistance (ODA). It also seems to me that extreme poverty, inequality and injustice cannot be eliminated, or climate change fixed, without significant systemic changes to the global economy: the power of transnational corporations and their investors must be curbed.

A bit more than five years later—and a year into the global Covid-19 pandemic—the SDGs are in peril. Worse: good will is evaporating as the wealth gap spreads wider and rich countries grab the vaccines.

By Feb. 10, more than three-quarters of vaccinations had occurred in 10 of the world’s richest countries, while nearly 130 countries had yet to administer a single dose. In January, Oxfam reported the world’s 10 richest men had seen their wealth increase by US$540 billion during the pandemic, “while billions of people are struggling amid the worst job crisis in over 90 years”—a situation, Oxfam said, that seems poised to get worse. “Unless rising inequality is tackled, half a billion more people could be living in poverty on less than $5.50 a day in 2030, than at the start of the pandemic.”

In this context—even while critics like me might argue over details of the SDGs—it was heartening this International Development Week (ending today) to see that Cooperation Canada and its members (development and humanitarian relief agencies) are calling on Canada to increase ODA commitments to ensure a global recovery from the pandemic.

“This is an absolutely critical time. It’s not a time for Canada to be withdrawing from the world. It’s quite the opposite,” said Nicolas Moyer, CEO of Cooperation Canada. Speaking to Radio Canada International, he added: “There are huge pressures not only on global progress but our own values. Democratic values are under threat, human rights are under threat as they haven’t been before.”

Canada should invest at least one per cent of its domestic Covid-19 response in additional international assistance funds in its upcoming 2021 federal budget and years to come, Moyer said. Cooperation Canada’s recent report, In This Together: A Case for Canada’s Global Engagement, details the impact of Covid-19 on vulnerable people around the world.

Canada’s contribution to international assistance of $6.2 billion in 2018-19 is equivalent to just 0.27 per cent of the gross national income (GNI), well below international commitment of 0.7 per cent—and below the contributions of peer countries.

Last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $865 million for vaccine purchases and Covid-19 treatments in low- and middle-income countries. He also gave International Development Minister Karina Gould a renewed mandate to do more to support developing countries “on their economic recoveries and resilience.”

In December, Gould announced a $485-million increase in Canada’s $5.9-billion overseas development assistance budget. The money was earmarked for new international efforts to ensure the equitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccines to poor countries.

She added that Canada “would absolutely be donating any excess capacity” of vaccines to poorer countries. But vaccines alone won’t heal the damages of the pandemic which, in less than a year, erased a decade of progress in improving the livelihoods of the world’s most impoverished people, especially children.

“What we’re talking about in international development is a decade of lost gains,” Gould said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

Canada is also one of the top donors to the COVAX Advance Market Commitment (AMC) Facility. The COVAX program is aiming to provide 1.3 billion vaccine doses to 92 lower-income countries by the end of this year. But it remains underfunded and is still seeking billions of dollars to meet its goals, the Globe and Mail reported Feb. 3.

Canada is also supporting the Global Fund work to overcome Covid-19 with testing kits and reinforced health systems, while sustaining gains made against HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

But here’s where we come to those tough, systemic issues that SDGs and current pandemic efforts fail to address. Patent rules need to be relaxed. Most of the new vaccines were developed and produced after heavy infusions of public subsidies, and those big companies are holding tight to their patents.

This happened too in the struggle to provide HIV and AIDS treatments globally. After years of pressure (including the Beads of Hope advocacy campaign of The United Church of Canada in the early 2000s), less-costly generics and the Global Fund eventually helped save lives.

Dr. Anthony Fauci is among those who are calling for “cooperation from the pharmaceutical companies” to allow “relaxation” of their patents. 

About 100 countries are supporting a proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO), led by South Africa and India, to allow a temporary waiver of intellectual property rules for vaccines and other COVID-19 products during the pandemic. The African Union has joined the calls.

But Canada and other wealthy countries have so far refused to support the plan, the Globe and Mail reported on Feb. 12. Canadian officials say they “will continue to engage” with supporters of the waiver plan ahead of a Feb. 23 meeting of the WTO.

Meanwhile, vaccines from China, Russia and Cuba are gaining credibility and will become more broadly available in developing countries. In a time when the United States wants to recover influence lost during the relatively-isolationist years of Donald Trump’s administration, it would seem some opportunities are being missed here—for the sake of globalized corporate capitalism. The Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Cecil Makgoba, argues that President Joe Biden should use the wealth and power of the United States to see that South Africa and other countries that desperately need an effective coronavirus vaccine have access to it.

Another approach—The People’s Vaccine—is proposed by  a coalition of organisations including Amnesty International, Oxfam, Public Citizen and UNAIDS, among others.

Migration and the development prescription: Let’s do better

A new president is in office in Washington. For the sake of immigrants, LGBTIQ people, women, and racialized and religious minorities, one cannot help but be glad of this change, and of the opportunities that are re-opened for people who were excluded or attacked during his predecessor’s term. 

But once again, the notion of development is again prescribed as a remedy for whatever it is that drives migrants—notably and urgently, those from Central America—towards the southern border of the United States. 

On his first day in office, President Joseph Biden’s administration promised to invest $4 billion in the region to address issues of security and employment. A new immigration reform bill, the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, was introduced. Aid and investment from the United States, it is hoped, will encourage people to stay home.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (Jim Hodgson photo)

Two days later, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, spoke with Mr. Biden and concurred. “We believe that the causes of the migration phenomenon must receive attention. People do not abandon their families, their towns, their cultures, out of pleasure. They do it because of need. We want migration to be optional, not forced, that all the people of the Central American nations and our own have options, that they be able to get ahead where they were born, where their families are, where their cultures are. And for that, development cooperation is very important.”

With history as a guide, however, we can see some problems with the prescription. Two decades ago, another new president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, launched the Plan Puebla Panamá for regional economic development. The name has changed several times since then, depending on which countries were in and which were excluded because their citizens had made electoral choices that were unacceptable to donors. Airports were expanded, highways widened, mines dug and hydro-electric dams built, but still, people left by the thousands, tens of thousands, especially from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. 

Those large-scale projects enable the rich, expanding the divide between rich and poor within the region and indeed, everywhere. And no one is acknowledging that among the root causes are wounds left from US-sponsored coups and civil wars, along with deportations of alleged criminals into unstable systems—or rather, into systems whose only sector capable of their social integration is the criminal one.

We know what to do differently. Development assistance should always be focused on building “economies of solidarity”—innovative agriculture that respects ecology, local markets, cooperatives and credit unions, leadership by women, full consultation with communities and civil society organizations. Indigenous people and farmers should never be driven from their land by transnational corporations—a key consequence of a generation of free trade agreements in Mexico, Central America and Colombia and driver of migration—but rather trade and investment should benefit all people.

With this post (during International Development Week), I am reviving a blog I that I used while I worked with The United Church of Canada as its Latin America/Caribbean program coordinator. Please look here for more information about me.