International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau says the government has no immediate plans to increase international aid spending, suggesting Canada has to help poor people within its borders, too.
Ms. Bibeau's comments come after a report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development revealed that Canada's foreign-aid spending dropped to 0.26 per cent of its gross national income (GNI) in 2016 from 0.28 per cent the previous year – a far cry from the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail on Tuesday, Ms. Bibeau refused to say what, if any, aid-spending goal the government is working toward, adding that Ottawa has difficult budget decisions to make.
"Canada is really committed to improve the lives of the poorest, and we have poor people in Canada, too, so these are very difficult decisions to make," she said.
Last November, the House of Commons foreign affairs committee called on the government to set out a plan that would see Canada spend 0.7 per cent of its GNI on development assistance by 2030, with a shorter-term plan to reach 0.35 per cent by 2020. Ms. Bibeau said she was not ready to commit to the committee's recommendation.
"We are not in a position right now to fix an objective in this manner," she said. "I cannot say for the time being that this is something we are committed to."
Stephen Brown, a professor at the University of Ottawa who studies foreign aid, said Ms. Bibeau's comments make him question the minister's agenda-setting power within cabinet.
"I think she's being fed talking points," Prof. Brown said. "Those arguments don't hold water … Do we have to wait until there are no more people in Canada who are poor before we spend more money on foreign aid abroad?"
Civil-society groups have expressed concern about the government's recent direction on foreign aid. After a long consultation process, the development sector was disappointed to see no new international aid spending in the federal budget last month.
Tuesday's OECD report deepened those worries. While it found that global development aid reached a new peak in 2016, Canadian aid spending fell to $3.96-billion (U.S.) in 2016 from $4.27-billion in 2015, making it one of seven OECD member countries to post a decrease. Norway, Luxembourg, Sweden, Denmark, Britain and Germany led the ranking, all reaching the UN target to keep aid at or above 0.7 per cent of GNI.
Fraser Reilly-King, senior-policy analyst at the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, said Canada will only continue to slide in the global ranks if it doesn't commit to increase foreign-aid spending. For a government that campaigned on restoring Canada's leadership role in the world, Mr. Reilly-King said Ottawa is not living up to that commitment on the development front.
"Given the current trajectory that the Liberal government is on … as a percentage of ODA to GNI, this government will have the worst track record in Canadian history," he said. "In response to the [government] rhetoric that 'Canada is back,' I would say that based on today's figures, we're still far back."
Ms. Bibeau said the OECD numbers are skewed due to a number of factors, including the Canada-U.S. exchange rate (the report's numbers are in U.S. dollars) and the fact that the OECD data are calculated on a calendar-year basis, differing from fiscal-year data in Canada.
NDP international-development critic Robert Aubin said the government needs to stop making excuses and implement a plan to reach the 0.7-per-cent target.
"We have no plan to achieve the international goal to have 0.7 per cent of GNI," Mr. Aubin said. "No plan, no goal. It's totally unacceptable."
Previous Liberal governments, including those of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, reiterated their commitment to the 0.7-per-cent target – even while cutting the foreign-aid budget. It was Stephen Harper's Conservative government that eventually abandoned the goal of reaching the UN target, Prof. Brown said.
Conservative international-development critic Dean Allison said his party continues to be more focused on the effectiveness of Canada's foreign-aid spending rather than the amount.