There was global applause when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced: "To friends around the world … we're back!"
However, Mr. Trudeau inherited a government whose international resources lagged its rhetoric. Today, Canada's rhetoric-resource gap has reached a critical point. If we re-engage with the world without the means to make a real difference, we risk wasting much of the goodwill this government has created. Canada used to be a leader in international assistance. Today, we are a laggard. When it comes to committing real resources, Canada is not back – it is very far back.
Take international assistance. The Canadian Council for International Co-operation estimates that government support for international assistance in 2016 was a mere 26 cents for every $100 of gross national income (0.26 per cent of GNI). Canada's peer group (G7 countries plus "like-minded" countries Australia, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland) commit on average twice as much. For a quarter century, from 1970-1995, Canada committed about 46 cents per $100 of national income – 75 per cent more than we do today.
This resource gap has a massive human cost. In a recent study, we estimated the human cost of the shortfall compared with Canada's historical support. If the missing resources had been invested in health initiatives in developing countries, more than half a million lives could have been saved in 2016 alone. On a cumulative basis, the human cost of Canada's cuts to international assistance since 1995, across Liberal and Conservative governments, is estimated at more than seven million lives. This is not the cost compared with the goal of reaching 0.7 per cent of GNI, as the U.K., Sweden, Norway and others have done. This is the human cost of not doing our fair share, as we did for decades in the past and as most of our peers do today.
How did this happen? The uncomfortable truth of Canada's fiscal turnaround is that the cost was borne disproportionately by the most vulnerable of the planet. Cuts to international assistance, as a share of national income, were three times deeper than cuts to domestic programs. Twice in 20 years, Canada's books were balanced on the backs of the poorest. The first set of deep cuts took place in the mid-1990s. From 2010-2014 there was a second round of deep cuts. Whereas the first round occurred at a time of fiscal and political crisis, the second took place solely to balance the government's books before the 2015 federal election.
This situation is not the Trudeau government's fault, but is now its responsibility. By keeping most of the discretionary cuts imposed in Stephen Harper's last years, the first Liberal budget actually had lower support for development (26 cents per $100 of national income) than the average of the Harper government (30 cents). On this track, the Trudeau government will end up with the worst commitment to development of any Canadian government in the last half-century – well below the already low performance of Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin and Mr. Harper.
To be fair, the first Liberal budget was assembled in only a few months, with a strong domestic focus. It noted that Budget 2017 would be "informed" by the ongoing International Assistance Review.
International assistance accords with Canada's most important strategic interests, as well as our deepest values. Done properly, it helps create the conditions for global prosperity and security. It supports global public goods such as human rights, health systems and peace, and reduces global threats such as crime, terrorism and infectious diseases.
The Trudeau government has inspired Canadians with the notion that "better is always possible." It has taken real action to bring this notion to life on climate change, child tax credits and reconciliation with indigenous peoples. It is now time to show that "better is always possible" with international assistance.
Thoughtful parliamentarians across all parties agree. Recently, the standing committees of both Finance and of Foreign Affairs and Development recommended that the government increase international assistance to 35 cents per $100 of national income by 2020.
International assistance is a mere 2 per cent of the federal budget. Significant improvements are possible. In Budget 2017, as in every budget, tough decisions will have to be made, red lines will have to be drawn. However, this time, the red line should not be drawn across the backs of the poorest of the planet.
Budget 2017 can be the moment when the Trudeau government puts Canada, after two decades of free-riding, back on a path to being a fully paid-up member of the international community again. Then we will be truly back.