Lessons from the Pearson report on aid, 50 years later

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0909 oped smillie w - Lessons from the Pearson report on aid, 50 years later


Former prime minister Lester Pearson, at right, with Ian Smillie on the far left.


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The Pearson Report, published 50 years ago this month, is not much remembered among practitioners, academics and policy wonks who toil in the fields of international development. Too bad. I knew I would remember if it because, as an impressionable young CUSO field staff officer home briefly from Nigeria, I had the privilege of meeting the former prime minister just after his report was published.

There are better reasons to remember it than that, not least because it was aimed at ending extreme poverty in developing countries. Since then there has been progress, but five decades later half the world’s population lives on less than $6 U.S. a day, and nearly one billion still live on less than $2.

Partners in Development: Report of the Commission on International Development remains important for many reasons, most notably because it identified almost all of failings of the development enterprise and proposed remedies that remain valid today. It spoke of the necessity of universal primary education, of vast needs in health and nutrition, the importance of food production and research in agriculture — all part of today’s UN Sustainable Development Goals, and all as elusive as ever.  It identified the debt burden of developing countries as an issue needing urgent attention — at a time when it was five per cent of what it became. It spoke at length of the need to develop the private sector in the developing world for local investment and manufacturing.

Five decades later, half the world’s population lives on less than $6 U.S. a day, and nearly one billion still live on less than $2.

The Pearson Report saw trade liberalization as a major solution to long-term development, and it may have been the first major development publication to use the term “structural adjustment”:

“The growth of world trade must be accompanied by liberalization. This in turn implies a willingness on the part of industrialized countries to make the structural adjustments which will enable them to absorb an increasing range of manufactures and semi-manufactures from developing countries.”

What actually occurred was the polar opposite: a prescription requiring developing countries to open their economies to the manufacturers of the world, while swallowing medicine that weakened their abilities to invest in the education, health, infrastructure and research required for competition in the global economy.

Pearson talked about a “crisis in aid”: the damage caused by tied aid (requiring procurement in the donor country), the wastefulness of “technical assistance” (sending expensive international experts), aid skewed in favour of some countries while others — often the neediest — were ignored, and low overall volumes of official development assistance (ODA). The report said that “international support for development is now flagging. In some of the rich countries its feasibility, even its very purpose is in question. The climate surrounding foreign aid is heavy with disillusion and distrust” — a cry that rings down the decades as an excuse for rich countries to seek advantage, cut back, do less, do nothing.

Pearson set a target: “Each developed country should increase its commitments of ODA … to reach 0.7% of its gross national product by 1975 or shortly thereafter, but in no case later than 1980.” Rhetorically embraced but resisted in deed by most donor countries, including Canada (currently at 0.28%), the clarion cry today is for “blended finance,” a nostrum that will somehow bring the private sector galloping to the rescue of the Sustainable Development Goals.

One wonders what the world might have looked like today had the Pearson recommendations been implemented — even by halves: had trade from developing countries been advanced rather than blocked; had investment in local capacities not been constricted; had debt fallen instead of skyrocketed; had aid been used more intelligently and reached anything like the targets that were set. How many maternal and child deaths might have been prevented? How many famines, pandemics, conflicts and refugees avoided?

If you’re interested, you can find a used copy of The Pearson Report online for a dollar, considerably less than the $2.95 it cost in 1969. Its importance today lies in its dramatic demonstration that very few modern ideas about development are new. And it is a sobering and tragic reminder — if one is needed — of 50 years of lost opportunity and broken promises in the world of international development.

Ian Smillie, a long-time international development practitioner, is the author of several books including The Alms Bazaar, The Charity of Nations and Freedom From Want.


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