Backstage

Ottawa, sewers and sorghum

John Hay November 24 1980
Backstage

Ottawa, sewers and sorghum

John Hay November 24 1980

Ottawa, sewers and sorghum

Backstage: Ottawa

John Hay

Let it be said at the start: it's a good thing for Prime Minister Trudeau to make an issue (and his next job?) out of the compelling need for a new deal between rich and poor countries. Whatever sluggish momentum has been already achieved toward new North-South negotiations needs all the diplomatic shoving Trudeau can bring to bear. This is especially true now that Washington’s foreign policy has stalled in the Carter-Reagan transition. The more leaders Trudeau can remind of these matters the better, in Saudi Arabia this week or anywhere else. And if, on the road to one summit or other, he finds work in some international organization—so much the better.

But diplomacy is not development. True, there may be a global moral in the numbing immensity of the numbers: the 12 million children under 5 dying of hunger in a single year; the 34 countries where at least 80 per cent of the people cannot read; the 800 million people in the world who are destitute, hungry and diseased. But there are no lessons in all this, much less action. In fact, the miasma formed of diplomatic hot air and unimaginable statistics often conceals the real questions that governments in poor countries must try to answer every day. Case in point: an estimated one-third of all the children under 5 who die in poor countries are killed by diarrhea. One answer, obviously, is to separate water from sewage. Bangkok, for instance, has a population of 4.5 million and no sewer system at all. But are sewers and treatment plants the answer when they cost, per household, far more to provide than color television sets? Would privies work as well? In Ottawa, almost utterly unknown to Canadians, there is a government agency that has become a world leader in attacking such hard choices—the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

The IDRC is financed by Parliament (with $42.6 million this year), but it is run independently and draws half its board of governors from outside Canada. Its budget is trifling next to the $1.2 billion passing through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) this year. But its mandate is different: to support research in the problems of development. The IDRC pays people to find ways to improve life in underdeveloped countries; it doesn’t provide dams or railways or nuclear power plants. The people it pays almost all come from the poor countries themselves, and they come with their own research ideas.

Joe Hulse, who has headed the IDRC’s agriculture division since the centre opened in 1970, speaks the philosophy that dominates the place. “Our research must be for somebody’s benefit, not just to amaze other scientists.” Example: Hulse isn’t interested in finding new strains of coffee or cotton— the sort of export crop promoted by the old colonial regimes. Instead, he concentrates on food crops: cassava, millet, sorghum, rice and the other indigenous subsistence crops long neglected by Western-trained experts in the underdeveloped world. Nor does Hulse buy the cliché about transplanting Western know-how—“I’m not a great believer in the transfer of technology.” African researchers, for example, adopted the principle of a small village-scale flour mill designed in Saskatchewan, but redesigned its innards to match local customs and grains.

Then there’s Michael McGarry, associate director of the health division, who argues that education counts for as much as fresh wells and sewers in eradicating water-borne disease. Only when families learn basic hygiene will the new village pump wash away cholera or dysentery with a flow of clean water. It is McGarry who asks whether sewers are right for poor countries today. As part of Tanzania’s nationwide latrine-building program, the IDRC is testing a new Composting toilet that turns waste into fertilizer.

David Steedman, head of the social science division, makes another point about IDRC projects: they aim as much to build up local research skills as to produce specific results. “The process we’re funding,” he says, “is as important or more important than the product.” To illustrate: a project in Nigeria to compare the productivity of large farms, which get the bulk of government support, to that of small farms, which produce 90 per cent of the country’s food. Similarly, the IDRC’s information sciences group helps such countries plug into the expanding world networks of data banks to cross-pollinate ideas and prevent duplication of research effort.

Establishment of the IDRC was a pet project of Lester Pearson’s after he stepped down in 1968, and the centre has been managed by a series of heavyweight mandarins from the beginning. The newly named board chairman is Donald Macdonald, the former finance minister. Its president is Ivan Head, former foreign affairs adviser to Trudeau and still an influential voice whispering in the prime minister’s ear. It seems likely, in fact, that Head’s influence and the IDRC’s view of the world will acquire unprecedented importance in Ottawa in the coming year. Trudeau has indicated he wants to make development a central theme at the seven-nation Western summit to be held in Ottawa next summer. He is also in the throes of promoting a summit meeting of selected leaders from rich and poor countries next spring. And then there is the Commonwealth summit scheduled to take place next summer in Melbourne. If such unglamorous issues as sewers and sorghum can displace any of the usual pinstripe posturing, all to the good.

John Hay is a Maclean ’s staff writer in Ottawa.