Colin Robertson is a former Canadian diplomat and current vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
Canadians think of this country as having a big heart. After all, we now accept more refugees than Donald Trump’s America. But when it comes to foreign aid – which largely helps the poor, the sick and the destitute, most of whom are women and children – we are downright miserly.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) currently places Canada’s official development assistance commitment at 0.28 per cent of gross national income, representing about 25 cents for every $100. To put that in historical context, from 1970 to 1995, Canada committed about 46 cents for every $100 of national income – 75 per cent more than we do today. Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government embraced a feminist development policy, but that mostly reallocated rather than added new monies. Canadian aid is not growing in real terms.
Our UN Security Council seat competitors are outdoing us. Norway stands at 0.94 per cent and Ireland at 0.31 per cent, which is the OECD average. The organization has already told Canada that our words need to be matched by “concrete action to increase aid flows.”
And now, according to Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, a Tory government would cut even that by 25 per cent.
Fifty years ago, Lester Pearson got it right when he argued the case for aid: “The simplest answer is the moral one, that it is only right for those who have to share with those who do not."
Mr. Pearson identified aid as part of “enlightened and constructive self-interest” in an increasingly interdependent world. He recommended a goal of 0.7 per cent of GDP for foreign aid, and that remains the benchmark for the OECD, Group of Seven and United Nations. Canada has never achieved the target, although it came close under prime ministers Brian Mulroney and Pierre Trudeau.
No doubt, foreign aid can be a hard sell to domestic voters. The idea of giving away money to other countries is one that suffers from compassion fatigue, and there are certainly problems around transparency and accountability.
But foreign aid works. In the wake of a disaster, it provides immediate relief, in the form of food, medicine and relief workers such as Doctors without Borders. It also offers a hand-up – teaching how to fish, farm and, increasingly, digital skills – that feeds aid recipients for life.
There are benefits to lending a hand, too. The United States’ aid-driven Marshall Plan resurrected Western Europe after the Second World War and boosted our economy when it allowed loan money to be directed to Canadian goods. Since then, our trade and investment with the European Union only grows. The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership is just the latest dividend generated in no small measure by Canada’s historic generosity through the multinational Colombo Plan, which took aim at poverty in Asia.
When the UN set out its millennium goals in 1990, there was lots of talk about whether its grasp exceeded reach. But by 2015, it turned out that those living in extreme poverty had declined by half. So, too, had the mortality rate for kids under 5. The working middle class – living on more than US$4 a day – nearly tripled.
Now, we have a new set of sustainable development goals for 2030 that includes ending poverty and hunger, as well as establishing gender equality. They’re ambitious aims, but they’re doable – as long as countries such as Canada continue to give.
Whichever party forms our next government needs a passionate advocate as Canada’s next international development minister. That person needs to clearly tell the public why Canadian foreign aid is vital. Every speech should answer three questions: Does aid work? Where can Canadian aid make the greatest difference? And what results should Canadians expect over the next decade?
With democracy under threat, good governance matters again. The Liberals have promised a new centre for peace, order and good government, but rather than create anew, why not make better use of existing institutions such as the Parliamentary Centre? And beyond money, we can share our competence and capability in harnessing energy, growing food and water stewardship.
Other OECD members are also reforming aid delivery by working with the private sector. We could learn from Australia’s Innovation Xchange experience.
Working with various organizations, the Canadian Council for International Co-operation will co-host a conference this November to look at development assistance. Their recommendations should serve as reference points for our next government.
Meanwhile, Andrew Scheer should talk to fellow conservatives Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper. They understood the value of foreign aid in advancing Canadian interests. They understood that foreign aid is not yesterday’s cause.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.