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Op/ed by CUPE National President Paul Moist and Oxfam Executive Director Robert Fox, published in the Toronto Star, June 5, 2007.

PM could galvanize G-8 to solve poverty crisis

This week, at a resort on the Baltic Sea in Germany, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will have a chance to do something for people who don’t have access to running water or working toilets - let alone health care or education. He will sit, for the second time, with his G8 counterparts to discuss significant global issues, including African development, health and HIV/AIDS, and climate change. This meeting is critical. While the G8 cannot solve the world’s problems through co-ordinated action, they can make an incredible difference in the lives of millions of poor people.

Harper needs to show his government understands the urgency of the global poverty crisis. He must demonstrate that Canada is prepared to play a much larger role in ensuring millions of poor people around the world have access to health care, education, water and sanitation.

Not only are these vital public services human rights, they are key to making poverty history.

Over the past century, strong, government-led programs allowed Canada to tackle disease and create an educated workforce. Life expectancies and the quality of life rose sharply when public services were made available to all. Public services improve lives and strengthen communities. They are the foundation of our wealth and success as a nation - a fact brought into stark relief by the disgraceful levels of poverty and substandard services in many First Nations communities today.

Public services can transform lives in the global South. Inaction has profound human consequences, and women and girls are often hit hardest.

Every day more than 4,000 children die from diarrhea, a disease of dirty water. More than 80 million children, mostly girls, don’t go to school. Unequal access to treatment leaves the HIV/AIDS pandemic unchecked, particularly in sub- Saharan Africa where three-quarters of the 40 million people living with HIV/ AIDS are concentrated. And 1,400 women die needlessly every day in pregnancy and childbirth.

In 2005, the G8 promised to increase aid by $50 billion U.S. by 2010. Shockingly, instead of aid to poor countries rising, it actually fell in 2006. Canada was the only country to fulfill its promises on increased aid, but only because Canada’s pledge was so modest, not even enough to keep aid’s proportion of gross national income at today’s 0.34 per cent. We must do better.

CUPE and Oxfam are working together to demand Harper announce a binding timetable that would raise aid to 0.7 per cent of Canada’s income. Former prime minister Lester B. Pearson set the standard in 1969, calling on rich countries to spend 0.7 per cent of national income, or 70 cents of every $100, on aid to poorer countries. Twelve countries have either reached the 0.7 per cent target or have set a target date.

Aid works. Increased aid has enabled the Tanzanian government to more than double its education budget over the last four years and substantially increase its health spending. The result is an extra 3.1 million children in primary school, infant mortality rates have been reduced by a third and mortality rates of children under 5 have fallen by almost a quarter.

Along with more aid, we are calling for better aid that focuses on ending poverty and promoting human rights. More than anything else, better aid means supporting quality public services. Harper must ensure Canada’s aid does not promote privatization of public services. This last point is crucial. Countries establishing or expanding fledgling services must be encouraged to build public systems so everyone has fair access.

Privatization often excludes the poorest and most vulnerable, denying them vital services such as health and education. Privatization also lacks transparency and accountability, and costs more than public delivery and ownership. We must not export privatization’s many problems to the global South.

Equally disturbing is the burden of debt that forces the poorest countries to pay the rich world $100 million each day in debt repayments. This money could go to supporting public services and saving lives. In 2005, 24 countries benefited from debt relief, including Zambia, which used debt cancellation to introduce free health care in rural areas. More than 60 countries need their crippling debts cancelled if they are to reduce extreme poverty and provide such basic services as health and education.

Poverty and suffering can end in this lifetime if governments like ours stop breaking promises and start building solutions to global poverty by ensuring universally available water, sanitation, health care and education. Canadian leadership is needed to get our country back on track and urge other wealthy nations to do their part.

Robert Fox is the executive director of Oxfam Canada. Paul Moist is the national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.