Viewing ourselves as a Third World economy


There’s a cool map on the Natural Resources Canada website. It’s a Quality of Life map that lets you to zoom in on economic, social and environmental indicators—right down to the local level. And if you live in pretty (and affluent) St. Andrews or Chamcook, New Brunswick, the map could make you feel a bit complacent, life here is good.

And complacent we are. Flipping to Page 2 of the local weekend paper, I read about some guy who boosted a couple of drill batteries so he could get some work. He has a history of petty theft, already done time in the pen, is in methadone treatment and is now headed back to jail. Another guy, banned for life from driving, was sentenced for stealing a car and drinking and driving. Another chose to go to jail for five days rather than pay a $350 fine for marijuana possession. And then there was a guy who got slapped with a year-long court order to keep him away from his wife. Just another week in small-town-Canada-by-the-sea I thought.

Surely petty crime doesn’t make us a Third World county. But unemployment might. And one of the biggest challenges for many unemployed workers in the region is simply getting a ride to work. This kind of frustration fosters a general malaise among the disaffected workers, and contributes to family violence, petty crime and substance abuse—which is arguably just self-medication to keep the user relatively sane. Longer term, this turns into a social pattern, which then reappears on Page 2 with the same family names showing up over again and again. The pattern becomes multi-generational.

According a regional labour force study conducted here in 2007, the number of our young people without a high school education is almost 30 percent higher than the provincial average—and more than a quarter of our young men between the ages of 20 and 34 haven’t completed high school. Now, connect that to unemployment, petty crime and substance abuse and you’re starting to get the bigger picture.

Coincidentally, I started re-reading Jeffrey Sachs’ excellent book, The End of Poverty, this week. Toward the back of the book he has a chapter on making the investments needed to end poverty, and lists six specific resources that require attention:

1. Human capital
2. Business capital
3. Infrastructure
4. Natural capital
5. Public institutional capital
6. Knowledge capital.

To these I would add another:

7. Production capital.

Sachs makes a very compelling case for wise public investment in these resources, because, he notes, once the resources of an economy are properly primed, collective momentum will lift both the individual worker and the general economy above the threshold of collapse. I've added production capital to his list, because we seem to be losing our grip on the ability to produce real goods, which most Third World countries have not.

Sachs shows that by lessening the disparity between the “haves” and the “have-nots” and creating a more equal society, we all gain.

Canada, as a whole, is doing pretty well in the equity department. For example, our Canadian educational system was recently rated #2 in the world, just after Finland. A CBC Radio interview pointed out that one of the main reasons for this success is the equal opportunity provided to the student by the Canadian system. To quote the Conference Board of Canada, “Canada has one of the highest rates of high-school and college completion in the world. While Canadians are at school, they become well educated, for the most part, in core subjects like mathematics, reading, and science.”

If that’s the case, our local backwater has some catching up to do. And in terms of adult literacy, so does Canada as it turns out, which is lagging behind in that department.

Basic skills affect economic success. Here in our county, as of 2007 when the economy was still strong, there were twice as many unemployed women as in the rest of the province, with nearly 20 percent out of work. Almost 15 percent of males were unemployed and the combined unemployment rate was just over 17 percent. And at the same time we’re importing workers. How can this be possible?

It’s possible because we don’t seem to have an economic development framework in place that actually changes the status quo in our work environment. In fact, our county is a stagnant culture—and is slowly losing population, dropping 1.7% between 2001 and 2006. And this is a trend that could happen anywhere in the country where an investment in key resources declines over time—or where natural resources become exhausted.

So what’s the answer? As Sachs says, there isn’t a single answer. Clearly it’s a matter of investing in our resources first. To my mind his Third World framework is excellent—and can be applied anywhere. By enhancing shared resources, developing new skills and creating educational equity, we can empower our local people to begin innovating for themselves.

But first we’d have to abandon the ideas that a) change is a threat, b) we’re the best place in the world and c) only the privileged few get to direct the show. And, in fact, if you check out the Quality of Life map, you may find that not everything is quite so rosy where you live, either.

Simply put, we need to challenge the status quo. It’s time to adopt a progressive Third World strategy and ditch the “keep everyone in line” Third World attitude.

Message to Prime Minister Stephen Harper? What we need is a lot more hope and a little less punishment.

So. Who’s going to lead the next parade?


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