Rethinking 0.7%

11/21/2011 03:44 EST | Updated 01/21/2012 05:12 EST

Remember the 0.7 per cent of their gross national product (GNP) that the world's richest nations committed to international development? Whatever became of it? It was first pledged almost 40 years ago when it became a resolution of the UN General Assembly. It was reaffirmed again in numerous international agreements year after year. The commitment was so important that it became one of the primary Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). It was one of the main topics of conversation (and debate) at the 2005 Gleneagles Summit but has barely been heard of since.

It's clear what has happened -- the worldwide economic crisis has resulted in a declining commitment to international development. Canada froze its aid levels over a year ago, moving the country ever farther away from its 0.7 per cent promise of only a few years earlier. It's now believed that the 0.7 per cent target is just too unrealistic in light of modern pressures.

Perhaps not. Despite repeated claims that foreign aid has shown limited success in past decades, data reveals that long-term development coupled with effective trade partnerships has lifted a significant amount of the world's population out of poverty.

Take a look at the two charts, based on UN data and revealing displayed at The first chart shows what economic life was like globally in 1800. China is the large red bubble and India is significant in light blue. This was just prior to the Industrial Revolution and most countries were in the same position. The scale going up on the left represents life expectancy. Along the bottom you have the average income per person in those nations. There were no "developed" and "developing" nations then, and African nations (dark blue) were similarly positioned.

Visualization from Gapminder World, powered by Trendalyzer from

Fast-forward to the 2010 chart and you find an entirely new world. The Western nations as well as India, China and places like Brazil have risen dramatically in both financial capacity and in life expectancy. Smaller Asian and Latin American countries show attainment as well.

Visualization from Gapminder World, powered by Trendalyzer from

But look at the dark blue bubbles on the left of the graph -- African nations left behind over two centuries of economic development. Clearly the gap between the developing and developed nations has shrunk considerably, with many in the formerly poorest countries now able to afford similar goods, health care and education that were once the possession of only the wealthy lands. Furthermore, many of what once were developing nations are now establishing their own foreign aid programs.

Which brings us back to the 0.7 per cent target. With advanced economies clearly in a season of restraint, why not look at this particular Millennium Development Goal in another light. Let's have a 0.7 per cent for a new generation, only this time with the concentration on that one part of the world that has lagged behind -- Africa. Given that the original target was set in another era (1960s), do both its rationale and economic formulae still apply? Perhaps the time has come for advanced countries that are short on cash to change their development focus to applying the 0.7 per cent target to Africa only. There will always be worldwide development needs, but the African continent is clearly the one part of the world most in requirement of assistance.

In other words, have all the developed nations figure out how much of a worldwide 0.7 per cent figure would go to Africa and then set that as the new target. At least to that one region the 0.7 per cent figure could still apply and the struggling nations of sub-Saharan Africa, with their obvious needs but staggering natural resources, could acquire the focused assistance required to bring them into the mainstream of global development.

All developed nations comprehend that the MDGs can never be achieved unless an economic focus on the African continent becomes paramount. The 0.7 per cent goal has endured for half a century and we are no closer to fulfilling it than we were 20 years ago. It's time to think of that commitment in a new light.