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Flood victims stand in a queue to get food handouts by a welfare organization in a relief camp for flood victims in Sukkur, in Pakistan's Sindh province August 31, 2010. The United Nations has warned of imminent waterborne diseases, including typhoid fever, shigellosis and hepatitis A and E and vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever.Athar Hussain / Reuters

In announcing a three-week extension of the offer to match individual donations in support of Pakistan flood relief, Government House Leader John Baird referred to the "legendary" generosity of Canadians. With world leaders meeting this week in New York to assess progress on the Millennium Development Goals - the United Nations anti-poverty initiative - it is an opportune time to put Mr. Baird's assumption to the test. How generous are we when it comes to the world's poor?

The Canadian government will spend about $5-billion this year on international assistance. While it is a significant expenditure of taxpayers' dollars, the amount needs to be placed in context. How does Canada's foreign-aid spending compare with that of other wealthy countries?

Canada is an active member of a committee of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development that convenes most of the major aid donors. Those 23 OECD countries assess and compare foreign-aid spending relative to each country's gross national income, probably as good a proxy for international generosity as we are likely to find. How does Canada stack up? In 2009, its foreign-aid spending amounted to 0.3 per cent of GNI, placing it in 14th place, or the bottom half of the 23 OECD donors. By comparison, 13 European countries were more generous foreign-aid donors than Canada.

Figures for a single year can be misleading, but a look at the past 25 years is revealing.

In the mid-eighties, Canada's foreign-aid spending amounted to 0.5 per cent of GNI, but within a decade it had fallen to 0.4 per cent. By 2004-05, aid spending was roughly where it is now - about 0.3 per cent of GNI. With the 2010 federal budget cap on foreign-aid spending, the downward trend seems likely to continue. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Canada is a far less generous global donor today than it was 25 years ago.

There is a valid argument, however, that spending isn't the right measure of a country's foreign-aid program. Who cares how much a country spends on foreign aid, if it doesn't actually improve the lives of poor people? In other words, the quality of aid is more important than the quantity. How does Canada fare if we look at the quality of its aid?

In a report in May, 2010, the World Bank assessed the quality of aid delivered by 38 major donors. Most of those evaluated, like Canada, are OECD members, but multilateral donors such as the United Nations were also included. Using 2007 data to compare the quality of foreign aid provided by the 38 donors, the report ranked Canada in 29th place.

Given these external assessments of Canada's aid efforts as being mediocre at best, Mr. Baird's invocation of our legendary generosity might be considered political spin. Yet hundreds of thousands of Canadians care deeply about the poor and are actively engaged in trying to redress global poverty and injustice. This includes the long-suffering staff of Canada's aid agency, the Canadian International Development Agency, who have been the targets of criticism, much of which is better directed at their political masters. And it includes numerous staff, volunteers and donors to Canadian non-governmental organizations, many of which are making a real difference in the lives of the world's poor.

How do we explain this disconnect between how Canadians exercise their global responsibilities as individuals and how they do it collectively through government?

Part of the answer may be found in the decline of public discourse about foreign aid. The federal government devotes few resources to public education. With some exceptions, foreign aid doesn't get the attention from the media or parliamentary committees that it did 25 years ago. And it is rarely mentioned during federal election campaigns.

In fact, the next election may provide the best opportunity for Canadians who want to reverse the country's declining support for foreign aid. They should demand that each party include in its platform a commitment to foreign-aid reform so that Canada no longer settles for 29th place. If Canadians begin to demand that of our political leaders, we might even come to deserve the label of legendary.

Patrick Johnston is a senior fellow with the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation.

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