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Why Canada should help developing countries

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Why Canada should help developing countries

If strategic infrastructure investment is so vital to Canada’s development, why aren’t we helping developing countries with theirs?

ACEC Corner

By Chris Newcomb

P. Eng., Chair, International Committee,

Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada

If strategic infrastructure investment is so vital to Canada’s development, why aren’t we helping developing countries with theirs?

Canada prides itself on its international reputation. With an honourable history of international aid and peacekeeping, we have a reason to be proud. In the past few years, however, Canada has concentrated its aid more on “soft” social programs, neglecting the physical infrastructure that developing countries require as they try to pave the way for their people’s prosperity.

Although the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has achieved much throughout its history, it is no longer providing support for what developing countries have clearly stated they need and want the most: support for physical infrastructure. In fact, over the past 30 years, Canada has donated only 11 per cent of its aid to infrastructure —the lowest of the eight OECD donors assessed. Japan’s comparable ratio was 52 per cent. It is time for CIDA to re-establish balance between the physical infrastructure and social programs it supports.

Backbone of thriving economy

Infrastructure is the backbone of any thriving economy. Without safe drinking water, dependable sanitation, reliable power and effective transport systems, it is impossible for a country to succeed.

African leaders know that they require a strong physical base upon which to build better-educated, more equitable societies. Through their New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), they have clearly stated that “unless the issue of infrastructure development is addressed on a planned basis, the renewal process of the continent will not take off. Therefore, the international community is urged to support Africa in accelerating the development of infrastructure.”

Further, international financing institutions have concluded that developing countries need well-planned investments in sustainable infrastructure for their advancement. In 2003, the World Bank Group’s Board of Executive Directors approved an Infrastructure Action Plan. World Bank President James Wolfensohn was enthusiastic about the contribution infrastructure makes to developing societies, explaining: “There is now strong recognition in the development community of the key role that infrastructure plays. . . . It can play either a direct role, as it does through the provision of safe water and its impact on reducing child mortality, or an indirect role, as with the contribution of transport to increasing children’s access to education.”

Aid makes difference

In fact, studies show that what little Canadian aid there is for infrastructure development has been making a difference. A 2001 CIDA Performance Review provided evidence of the effectiveness of infrastructure projects over the previous three decades, concluding that these projects had been sustainable over the long term, and had contributed to poverty reduction and to the welfare of women. Yet today, CIDA allocates less than three per cent of its budget to the only CIDA program that shares risk with the Canadian private sector in developing sustainable infrastructure.

With its dynamic construction industry, and especially its world-renowned engineering capacity, Canada can and should help developing countries rehabilitate and modernize their infrastructure. Over the years, Canadian engineers have well demonstrated their ability to design and build high-quality facilities in different regions of the world, at times under the most difficult conditions.

If CIDA, as it claims, does not have the necessary funding to support sustainable infrastructure development on its own, it should at least make effective use of Canada’s proven engineering resources by co-financing projects with international financial institutions like the World Bank.

Under such co-financing arrangements, Canada would support the engineering components of projects that include needs assessment, feasibility studies, strategic planning, technical design, project management and maintenance. Promoting Canada’s international engineering niche would not only help the world’s poor, but would also, through future business links and trade, enhance economic returns for both Canada and its developing country partners.

The World Bank has declared that: “Providing these basic infrastructure services will help cut extreme poverty in half by 2015 by bolstering the number of children in primary schools, reducing child mortality, improving the living conditions of slum dwellers, and enabling local businesses opportunities.”

Canada should be leading the charge to increase infrastructure funding to improve conditions in developing nations. Instead, we have allowed other countries to surpass us.

Canada needs to assume its leadership role as an enlightened and responsive provider of international assistance by rebalancing CIDA’s portfolio so it can fund physical infrastructure projects as well as social programs in the countries that need them so desperately. All it takes is the political will to do so.

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