Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Jim Flaherty's Proposed Budget and the Millennium Development Goals

Way back in 1969, Lester B. Pearson (then Minister of Foreign Affairs for Canada) proposed that if the developed nations of the world would give 0.7% of their Gross National Income (GNI) to Official Development Assistance (ODA), the global community could address the worst effects of poverty around the world. For a brief description of this initiative, see The 0.7% target was officially endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1970 (Resolution 2626). The original date set to meet this commitment was 1975. Fast forward to the year 2000. The setting is the United Nations Millennium Summit where 191 world leaders sign the Millennium Declaration (see Eight goals - now known world wide as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) - provide the framework for addressing humanity's most pressing needs. And a time line is established for completing this ambitious project - the year 2015 (see Once again the 0.7% target is endorsed as a viable means of financing the necessary steps needed to accomplish the goals. Sadly, Canada has never even come close to meeting the 0.7% target. Currently, we give about 0.34%. So, this week Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has unveiled the government's proposed budget. I've listened to the pundits and financial analysts and provincial spokespeople and political strategists and academics dissect the budget and interpret it for us. There's lots of buzz about who will benefit and how it will affect this group of tax payers and that. Reading through the text of Jim Flaherty's pre-budget speech (, I could almost believe that Canada is a great country and getting better all the time. We're good people. We look after one another. Heck - we've even started to realize that we ought to care a bit more for the environment. The future is bright. But glaringly absent is any mention of Canada's responsibility for our neighbors in other parts of the world.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Solution to the Consumerism Trap

I promised something positive this week and here it is: there is a solution to the consumerism trap! Most of us, most of the time don't need to live beyond our means and, if we want to, we can be truly generous - with our time, our stuff, our talents. How? It's simple, really. Rather than allow the media to dictate our desires, we need to think about what is really important to us and then set a budget that reflects our values. Or, if you don't like budgets, just change your heart (but believe me, it will be easier not to "cheat" if you commit to a budget!). The first step in this process is to realize that big companies pay big bucks to advertise their products and plant the idea in our minds that our lives would be better (so much better) if we could just figure out a way to own their product. Do they think we're STUPID? Well, actually - they do and not for no reason (not to be negative but remember that we are citizens of the country that is $752 billion dollars in debt for "stuff", much of which we don't need!). So, knowing this, we can begin to match cunning with cunning. We can look at advertising with a skeptical eye and gradually train ourselves to resist the lure. Really, how many times do we need to say to ourselves, "it's not really making my life better" or "it wasn't as good a buy as I thought" or "I really didn't need it but I just couldn't resist"?

I heard a story on CBC radio a few months ago about a neat elderly couple. They're multi-millionaires, but had decided that they could live comfortably on $30,000 a year. So, they kept $30,000 for themselves and gave the rest of their investment income away! Notice that they didn't start with a commitment to give 10% to charity. They evaluated their needs, kept what they needed for themselves (to live comfortably but not wastefully or extravagantly) and they just gave the rest away. They spent their days meeting with people who needed money for various projects and they donated - $1000 here, $100,000 there - all for projects that they felt would help other people.

I've thought about that couple a lot over the last few months. They're an inspiration for me and I don't even remember their names or where they live. I just know that I love what they're doing. For me, it's all about living simply, giving generously and practicing hospitality. I can't help wondering what the world would look like if this model were to catch on. It won't be easy - we need to learn how to stare down our greed, but if they can do it, maybe I can do it too. And maybe you can too!

Monday, March 12, 2007

We may be addicted to consumption, but at least we're generous, right?

OK - so we Canadians are living well beyond our means. I heard a podcast this week (it was in a three-part sermon series called Traveling Light at or go to itunes and find The Meeting House - very near the top is the Traveling Light series), in which Bruxy Cavey made the point that for every $1 North Americans earn, we spend $1.22. So - we live in a society that routinely lives about 22% beyond our means and apparently feels little or no guilt about it.
But, you may be thinking, at least we're generous. We're not just indulging ourselves. When there's a crisis we respond with compassion and generosity, right?
In terms of generosity, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that about 91% of Canadians made financial or in-kind donations to charitable and nonprofit organizations in 2000 and that was up 3% compared with the figures for 1997. In total, Canadians gave $4.94 Billion dollars to charity that year. Sounds pretty impressive, eh? Of course if we compare it to the $752 billion dollars that we're in debt, the shine starts to fade. And then, when we look a little more closely the good news starts to look more like bad news.
For instance, the average annual donation - that is, the total amount of money donated to charity by individual Canadians (those 15 years of age and older) for one year - is $259. Just to be clear, that includes the total of monies donated to places of worship (44%), charitable sponsorships (14%), donations made in response to mail solicitations (5%) and door-to-door canvassing (3%). It includes all the money given to health organizations (20%), social services organizations (10%), philanthropy and voluntarism organizations (7%) and education and research organizations (3%).
And, it turns out that 5% of Canadians gave 47% of the total and 25% of Canadians gave 82% of the total. The top 5% made donations of at least $1088. So, if you gave $1088 or more to charity in 2000, CONGRATULATIONS! You are among the 5% of most generous Canadians. On the other end of the scale, 25% of Canadians gave $23 or less to charity. All these stats (and more!) are from
What does all this tell us? Personally, I think we've been hoodwinked. The proverbial wool has been pulled over our eyes. I think we've been tricked into thinking that we need to have lots of stuff - we deserve to live well and that we are very kind, compassionate and generous people. In fact, I remember when I first heard some of these stats on Canadian giving, the headline actually emphasized our generosity! Well - all I can say is that that's not my definition of generosity!
In case you might think that "at least we're more generous than other people - say the Americans" - wrong! The Fraser Forum (see notes that "while roughly the same percentage of tax filers in Canada and the US donate to charity, the depth of their charitable giving is dramatically different." The bottom line is this: In 2001, Americans gave 1.59 percent of their aggregate income to charity compared to 0.62% for Canadians.
Tune in next week to read something positive - I promise!

Monday, March 05, 2007

When is enough, enough?

Many Canadians (maybe even most Canadians) take debt for granted. We don't think about whether or not we will go in debt, but rather, how to manage debt - that is, how to keep solvent while still enjoying all of the benefits of life in an affluent society. Ever look at car ads in the local paper? You'll be hard pressed to find one that lists the price of its cars. What you'll see is the monthly payment or lease. We go in debt for all kinds of things - "essentials" like cars, houses, furniture, appliances, technological gadgets, vacations, education, clothes, even groceries. "Buy now, pay later" schemes, payday loans, easy credit - all of these entice us to buy things we can't afford.
According to a CBC News Indepth feature (, Canadians have more than 50 million Visa and Master Card credit cards and 24 million more retail credit cards. With a total population of around 31 million, that's 2.4 credit cards for every man, woman and child in Canada! And credit card debt is only a small part of our individual and collective debt load. Here's a multiple choice question for you:
How much money do Canadians owe for consumer debt?
  1. 152 billion dollars
  2. 352 billion dollars
  3. 552 billion dollars
  4. 752 billion dollars

Just so you understand the question: collective consumer debt is the total amount of money that Canadians owe for consumer products including things like mortgages, car payments, credit card debt, bank loans, student loans, etc. That is, money we owe for products and services we are already enjoying but haven't yet paid for. Put another way, it is a tangible measure of the extent to which we Canadians are living beyond our means.

The answer: 752 billion dollars ($752,000,000,000). While we're doing the math, that's a debt load for every man, woman and child in Canada of about $24,258! If you don't believe me, check out the Mclean's magazine article (Canadians' Personal Debt at Historic Levels) at

So - we live in one of the most affluent countries in the world and we're still living over $750 billion dollars beyond our means. At least that's the conclusion I draw. And, you probably know what I'm going to say next - here's the other side of the coin:

  • Half the world — nearly three billion people — live on less than two dollars a day.
  • The GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of the poorest 48 nations (i.e. a quarter of the world’s countries) is less than the wealth of the world’s three richest people combined.
  • Nearly a billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names.
  • Less than one per cent of what the world spent every year on weapons was needed to put every child into school by the year 2000 and yet it didn't happen.
  • 20% of the population in the developed nations, consume 86% of the world’s goods.

These stats are all from and there are lots more depressing stats there if you have the stomach for them!

Are we like the frog in the kettle (in case you don't know that analogy, they say you can put a frog in a pot of water and put it on the stove and bring it to a boil and the frog won't jump out because he gradually adjusts to the change in water temperature - no need to try it but you get the idea!)

How have we allowed this to happen? And, for those of us who call ourselves Christians, how are we going to explain this when we're called to give an account? When is enough, enough? When will we realize that our ever improving standard of living is NOT a good thing? At least it isn't if we're at all concerned for the plight of our neighbors in low income countries. And what about our own kids and grandchildren? I heard recently that the practice in traditional native communities is to consider the impact of any decision for seven generations down the line!

I've heard that if the whole world were to live as we do in North America, we would need four or five planet earths. From where I sit, my guess is that's not going to happen...

Conclusion: enough is enough! We need to learn to control our appetites for more of everything and become committed to sharing the world's scarce resources.

In a speech entitled "Make History: Make Poverty History" (2003), Nelson Mandela said this: "Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice."