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CANADA 2002 Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

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Hostage to the events of the week

It's a matter of interpretation

G8 a virtual affair

Silly season at the G8

A bizarre ambassador for African aid

The Irish in U.S. altruism

The wonderful world of globo-wonkery: It's all in the acronyms

It's the money, dummy

And this guy's on our side

Silly season at the G8

By PAUL KNOX, Globe and Mail Update

Calgary — The most notable achievement of the Kananaskis G8 summit so far has been to make RCMP a mounted police force once again.

There they were Sunday on the fringes of an anti-summit demonstration at the downtown Olympic Plaza — about three dozen or so, decked out in yellow rain jackets and black plastic helmets. One by one they climbed on their bicycles and wobbled off down the street, looking only slightly more dignified than the protesters pushing a giant blue-and-green Planet Earth around the square.

In the news business we call the summer the silly season, and according to the astronomers it's now summer. Maybe that's why there was a woman at the demo carrying a picket sign that read 'Soccer Moms for Global Justice.' Maybe that's why you could tune in to the Gospel Road radio show and hear a fellow named John explain the theory behind the prayer sessions that will take place in Calgary as the G8 leaders deliberate in their mountain retreat. "God wants to download his decisions into their minds," quoth he, adding that the prayers of common folk would assist in this task.

In the plaza, a different kind of incantation filled the air. "Our task," said Teresa from Victoria, "is to get rid of all those toxic viruses and their spawn until there is no place on earth where they can meet." She spoke not of smallpox or anthrax, but of the world leaders who have taken to celebrating their rituals in deserts and mountain fastnesses, ringed by tanks and camouflaged bunkers, as bike-riding Mounties keep the Earth-pushers at bay.

Jean Chretien, doggedly seeking to keep Africa's problems at the forefront of this summit, is also in the incantation business. "Private investment must be the engine of African growth, and freer trade is the fuel," he said earlier this month. ".... My hope is that we will continue to see growth, not just in our economies, but also in the rights of our citizens — their rights to enjoy freedom and democracy, to pursue their own dreams, to contribute to their societies, their world and to the prosperity of future generations."

Duelling shamans conduct the spiritual life of the global village, seeking to out-hex each other with the magic of the market or international development theory. Myths are the comfort food of the mind, so the shamans find bigger audiences than people who come to tell complex stories rooted in actual experience.

Schooling is one such story. It is a tenet of the global development business that basic education — particularly of young girls — is the most basic building block of human development in poor countries. Yet the foreign-aid budgets of rich countries contain very little assistance for schools. Around the world, at least 125 million children who should be in some form of primary school are not. The great majority of them live in the countryside, and the great majority are girls.

"If you don't even get to primary school, what are your chances in life — for the person or for the country as a whole?" asks Frema Osei Opare, country director in Ghana for the aid agency Action Aid and a former student at the University of Guelph. She and many others note the extensive "spillover effects" of investing in education — better attention to family health, the ability to pass skills on to future generations, and so on.

But primary-school education doesn't make for a showy aid project. It's just a teacher, desks and chairs. It doesn't involve procuring fancy equipment from suppliers in aid-giving countries. There's no need for expensive reports from consultants. There's no private-investment spinoff. Donors and their auditors don't like funding continuing expenses such as teachers' salaries; it sounds too much like a blank cheque.

Ms. Opare's agency does considerable work with rural schooling in Ghana — considered to have one of Africa's more enlightened governments. She mistrusts statistics on education, saying that too often children who are formally enrolled don't attend school because they have to attend to chores or help their parents earn a living. She says too little effort has gone into designing flexible schooling programs that would see children study when the can instead of requiring them to be in class at awkward times.

As far as Ms. Opare is concerned, there's too much about trade and too little about basic education in the New Partnership for Africa's Development — the African recovery strategy that G-8 leaders have embraced. "It should have been a strong bottom line," she says. "You can't depend on trade for knowledge, and the capacity to build up your country. Investment in people is the bedrock of any development strategy." A separate report to the G8 calls for significantly increased education spending; a group of aid agencies called the Global Campaign for Education says this week's summit should pledge at least an additional $4-billion (U.S.)

Ms. Opare took part in a panel discussion on education Sunday at the Group of Six Billion alternative summit, but no more than 40 people showed up. She'll return home after Kananaskis is over — back to a place where despite all the high-class witchcraft that passes for public debate on globalization and such like, it is still an enormous challenge to put girls in school and keep them there.

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