Social economy ideas can help defeat African poverty: Martin: Former PM on board development bank

PUBLICATION: Edmonton Journal | DATE: 2006.10.18 | BYLINE: Elizabeth Thompson | SOURCE: Montreal Gazette; CanWest News Service

OTTAWA - The concept of social economy developed in Canada could help people in many African nations to climb out of poverty, says former prime minister Paul Martin.

Speaking in an interview with the Montreal Gazette, shortly after being named co-chairman of a special advisory panel to the African Development Bank, Martin said that among the solutions he would like to see the bank explore to aid the impoverished continent are things like microcredit loans to small businesses and social economy projects.

"It can work in Africa big time ... . It will work anywhere where there is poverty and people are trying to come out of poverty," said Martin.

Increasingly, Martin predicts, the private sector will also provide aid for social economy or social entrepreneurship.

Social-economy projects often tap into non-profit groups to supply services. For example, a non-profit group for people with disabilities might be hired to do cleaning for seniors and therefore allow them to stay in their homes longer and not have to go to nursing homes.

As finance minister and then as prime minister, Martin was strongly supportive of social-economy projects, earmarking millions to help that sector of the economy. However, all money for social-economy projects not already allocated was cut last month by the Conservative government as part of its review of government spending programs.

As Martin serves out his mandate as MP for the Montreal-area riding of LaSalle-Emard, he is increasingly moving away from his former role as prime minister and closer to his new goals of playing a role on the international stage and trying to improve the prospects for Canada's native peoples.

Tuesday, Martin refused repeatedly to get drawn into domestic political issues. The one exception was Prime Minister Stephen Harper's description of all Liberal leadership candidates as being anti-Israel -- a statement Martin said was inaccurate.

INFRASTRUCTURE LACKING

As he begins his work on the African Development Bank's advisory panel, Martin is the first to acknowledge that the challenge of helping a continent that houses half of the world's fragile states is considerable.

"The economic union of Africa is vital. Africa is 900 million people, but it is separated into 53 separate countries and it will never be able to achieve the kind of global scale that I think Africa is capable of, unless it brings (about) that economic union. And the single most important economic institution for it to do that is the African Development Bank," he said.

While the bank is now on a sound financial footing after several years of financial problems, Africa lacks even the infrastructure necessary to be able to promote trade between African nations, said Martin.

For example, at a recent meeting in Tunis, many African leaders had to fly via Paris because there were no direct flights from their own countries.

"Most of Africa's infrastructure was built for exports out of Africa, not to tie the internal market together. So how do you bring about the economic union when you don't have the infrastructure to get goods from one African country to another?"

While foreign investment is important, Martin said he would like to see more domestic investment in Africa to give the continent the thriving private sector it needs.

"That is what has to be built up in Africa -- the mobilization of domestic investment to support African infrastructure and the African private sector."