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Canada Burnishes Its Third World Image
By Nihal Kaneira

Gulf News | 06-03-2004

Canada's new Prime Minister Paul Martin is losing no time burnishing Canada's image as a friend of the Third World, whether the countries are in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, or Latin America.

Even as he prepared to dispatch peace keeping troops to restore peace and order in Haiti, Martin put Canada at the forefront of a major new United Nations initiative for eradicating Third World poverty.

The project, jointly prepared for the purpose by Martin himself, and former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, is designed to tap the entrepreneurial spirit that is common and local in most developing countries to make business work for the poor.

It is a unique venture, which the UN has billed as the "most ambitious anti-poverty plan", aimed at bringing destitute people in these Third World countries into the economic mainstream by 2015. It was launched by the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in New York last Tuesday.

Martin and Zedillo expect to achieve this through a series of big and small measures. They range from tiny steps such as getting the governments concerned to offer cheaper fees for registering businesses to more concrete measures such as liberalising financial and capital markets. They see these as potential ways to unlock the private sector in poorer countries.

Martin, who co-chairs the UN Commission on the Private Sector and Development with Zedillo, is passionate about the project, and, in fact, volunteered two years ago, with his expertise as a successful former finance minister of Canada and his knowledge about Third World economies, to help the UN find new ways of reaching its millennium goals.

He is convinced that millions of jobs can be created this way for people who would otherwise fall through the cracks and end up as the dregs of their societies. The plan is titled "Unleashing Entrepreneurship: Making Business Work for the Poor."

According to Martin, one of the keys to reform is to create partnerships between governments, businesses, civil society organisations and others to stimulate private enterprise.

He says entrepreneurship is on display even in the world's poorest countries, mostly at the village level, as people find ways to eke out a living despite their difficult circumstances. Martin sees this as a huge potential that could be harnessed domestically if the UN can persuade the governments of these countries to open up the economy and make the regulatory environment stable.

"There is no one solution for economic growth," he explains. "No one model fits all countries, fits all situations. Nevertheless what most developing countries do have in common is an entrepreneurial spirit that is strong and is local."

Annan seems quite impressed with the concept. While welcoming the Martin-Zedillo report and its recommendations, he said the UN had so far "only sporadically tapped the power that can be drawn from engaging the private sector" in developing countries.

He was particularly heartened that the initiative is being backed by a plan of action and a set of proposals, to be developed further as catalysts for actions on the Commission's main recommendations.

That "action plan" is being put together by an eminent panel of 18 experts, which has among them former US treasury secretary Robert Rubin, and Canada's international expert Maurice Strong.

Their report is expected to be tabled in early March, after which a desperately poor country will be picked as the pilot project. Martin-Zedillo recommendations will be put into practice there initially.

The anti-poverty initiative comes on the heel of another outreach by Martin his decision last month to help Iraqis re-build their country by forgiving $750 million that Iraq owed Canada.

"Debt reduction is critical if we want the Iraqi people to have the opportunity to build a free, stable and prosperous country," the prime minister said, while announcing the decision. Canada is erasing the debt through a programme called the Paris Club, in which a group of creditor governments from industrialised countries work with debtor nations on re-structuring the debts that Iraq owes them.

The final amount could be even more than the $750 million because the debt to be forgiven will be approved in tandem with all of Iraq's major creditors.

Canada is moving to help Iraq in other ways as well. Although, Ottawa opposed US President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq under former prime minister Jean Chretien, Martin is working to repair the damage to the relationship with its superpower neighbour by extending humanitarian aid to Iraq.

Martin has re-affirmed that Canada would provide up to $300-million in humanitarian and re-construction assistance over the next five years. "Our participation in Iraqi debt relief is one more sign of our continued efforts to ensure a brighter future for Iraqis," he says.

There's more. Canada is reportedly working with the UN Secretary-General to send Canadian experts to help Iraqis in a variety of fields including the drafting of a new constitution and revamping the judicial system and the courts structure.

The UN anti-poverty project, however, is dearer to Martin's heart, not only because he has put together the initiative with Zedillo, but also because it offers him an opportunity to be closely involved in its implementation, being a co-chair of the UN commission. He also sees opportunities for Canada to strengthen its influence as a middle power in the Third World.

As prime minister he is able to follow through, put the weight of his office to secure international co-operation and also commit Canada in measurable ways to alleviate Third World poverty.

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