Martin pushes 'social economy' to combat African poverty: Now leading advisory panel, ex-PM urges economic union for 53 nations

PUBLICATION: The Ottawa Citizen | DATE: 2006.10.18 | BYLINE: Elizabeth Thompson | SOURCE: The Montreal Gazette

The concept of a social economy, developed in Canada, could help people in many African nations to climb out of poverty, says former prime minister Paul Martin.

In an interview shortly after being named co-chairman of a special advisory panel to the African Development Bank, Mr. Martin said among the solutions he would like to see the bank explore to aid the impoverished continent are things like microcredit loans to small businesses and so-called social economy projects.

"It can work in Africa big time ... It will work anywhere where there is poverty and people are trying to come out of poverty," Mr. Martin said.

Increasingly, he predicts, the private sector will also provide aid for a social economy.

Social economy projects often tap into non-profit groups to supply services. For example, a non-profit group for people with disabilities might be hired to do cleaning for seniors and therefore allow them to stay in their homes longer and not have to go to nursing homes.

As finance minister and then as prime minister, Mr. Martin was strongly supportive of social economy projects, earmarking millions to help that sector of the economy. However, all money for social economy projects not already allocated was cut last month by the Conservative government as part of its review of government spending programs.

As he begins his work on the African Development Bank's advisory panel, Mr. Martin is the first to acknowledge the considerable challenge ahead.

"The economic union of Africa is vital.

"Africa is 900 million people, but it is separated into 53 separate countries and it will never be able to achieve the kind of global scale that I think Africa is capable of unless it brings (about) that economic union. And the single most important economic institution for it to do that is the African Development Bank," he said.

While the bank is now on a sound financial footing after several years of financial problems, Africa lacks even the infrastructure necessary to be able to promote trade between African nations, Mr. Martin said.

For example, at a recent meeting in Tunis, many African leaders had to fly via Paris because there were no direct flights from their own countries.