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Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon, right, greets Norwegian counterpart Jonas Gahr Store in Ottawa yesterday. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon, right, greets Norwegian counterpart Jonas Gahr Store in Ottawa yesterday. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Jeffrey Simpson

Solving our problems on the backs of the poor Add to ...

The Canadian government, once again, is going to attack its deficit problem on the backs of poor countries.

Briefly noticed, but then forgotten by the media in the last budget, was the big whack the Harper government is taking to foreign aid. No mention was made of the cut by Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff in his weekend speech, during which he promised to restore Canada's "global leadership."

As part of $17.6-billion in anticipated savings over the next five years, the last budget anticipates that fully 24 per cent, $4.4-billion, will be taken from the aid budget. Just which parts of the aid budget will suffer remains unknown, but the overall budget will be chopped, just after Canada finally fulfilled this year its commitment in 2002 to double aid.

Despite the improvement over the past eight years, Canada remains an aid laggard.

Yesterday, Norway's outstanding foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Store, was in Ottawa for the Arctic Council meeting. Although he spoke almost exclusively about the challenges of international management of the Arctic, he did make passing reference to Norway's commitment to foreign aid.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Norway will give 1 per cent of its GNP to aid in 2010, compared with .33 per cent for Canada. Ottawa's share exceeds that of Washington (.2 per cent) and Tokyo (.2 per cent) but lags behind all the leading western and northern European countries. (A fair reflection of U.S. aid must add to the country's total the large private-sector donations.)

We have seen this sad movie before in Canada. In the mid-1990s, when the Liberal government was wrestling with the deficit, it, too, slashed foreign aid. Canada's share of GNP had climbed as high as .46 per cent by 1993, but then fell to .32 per cent by 1998 and slid further to .27 by 2004, when the share started inching up again.

Now, courtesy of the Conservatives' budget, the share will fall again. Announcement that the aid budget will drop comes about six months before Canada's campaign for a seat on the United Nations Security Council comes to a vote in New York. The cuts won't be decisive in that election, but they won't help, either.

Who cares about less foreign aid? Obviously, not the media, which forgot the story seconds after reporting it. Polls suggest the budget was widely popular, or at least acceptable, so the coming cuts did not apparently roil the general public. But then aid cuts never do.

Aid advocates obviously care. Public opinion polls, however, have consistently shown that Canadians, when asked about government spending priorities, put foreign aid at or near the bottom, down with the CBC and cultural funding. Canadians, as always, think of their country as a moral superpower, spreading goodness and light around the world - except that more often than not the rhetoric exceeds the reality, as it does in foreign aid.

Both the Conservatives and Liberals have read the polls, which explains in part why the Liberals acted as they did in the budget-cutting of the mid-1990s and why the Conservatives are slashing again in the next five years.

If Canadian politicians, facing both the deficit and serious public spending needs, won't stand up for higher taxes to deal with domestic requirements, it's inconceivable they would defend higher taxes for aid-recipient countries, most of which remain out of sight and out of mind until they're struck by natural disasters that are easily televised.

Even at the Copenhagen climate-change summit, when developing countries demanded massive help to cope with the impact of climate change, they got pledges far below what they'd demanded, or what the United Nations had insisted was required.

Foreign aid, per se, has been attacked in recent years as ineffectual, misdirected and even counterproductive in a slew of books (see Paul Collier's The Bottom Billion, among others). Not even the most ardent advocates believe that foreign aid has fulfilled all its promise.

But aid, either of the direct bilateral sort or through multilateral agencies, has done, and continues to do, much good for countries (and people) that need it. Faced with challenges at home, and unwilling to pay for additional taxes even for domestic purposes, Canadians once again will solve their problems partly on the backs of the world's poor.

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