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Foreign aid is something politicians always support doing more of in theory, but putting theory into practice has one big, real-world constraint: The money has to come from somewhere.

Canada currently spends about $6-billion a year on foreign aid. The Liberals have promised to increase aid over the next decade – but they don’t say by how much. The Conservatives propose the opposite: They want to cut Canada’s giving by 25 per cent, or $1.5-billion. They would use the money to fund their priorities at home, with tax cuts at the top of the list.

Right now, Canada spends less on foreign assistance than it did in the 1970s and 80s. In recent decades, a slow drift to lower levels of aid have been a policy of both Liberal and Conservative governments.

The international benchmark for giving is 0.7 per cent of a country’s gross national income, or GNI. The figure was set by the United Nations in 1970 after a commission helmed by Lester Pearson.

Canada has never hit the 0.7-per-cent target – and these days, only a handful of countries do, such as Norway and Sweden. From 1970 through 1995, Canada’s foreign aid was roughly 0.5 per cent of GNI. Canada’s current level is 0.28 per cent – below the 0.31 per cent average of the rest of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Last year, the OECD said Canada’s low level of foreign aid, at 0.31 per cent in 2012, slid a bit further during the Trudeau government.

Getting Canada to the 0.7-per-cent target would mean spending around $9-billion more each year. That’s higher than the cost of the tax cuts in Liberal or Conservative platforms – the most costly electoral pledges from either party.

Andrew Scheer, however, is not talking about raising foreign assistance, but instead scaling it back, to about 0.21 per cent of GNI. The Conservatives say $2.2-billion of foreign aid is going to “high- and middle-income countries.” They say this is where the $1.5-billion in cuts would be made, with the remaining $700-million used to up aid for the poorest countries.

Leaving aside the question of how much Canada should spend, focusing on the poorest countries is not an unreasonable idea. The line the Conservatives use to divide between “poor” and “not poor enough” is a score of 0.6 on the UN human development index. About 50 countries fall below the mark. However, the arbitrary nature of that dividing line becomes clear when one realizes that Bangladesh, with a UN development index score of 0.608, would be excluded under the Tory plan. The country currently ranks in the top 10 for Canadian aid.

There may also be logic in targeting aid at a small list of countries, where Canada has connections and can make a difference. Such a policy could start close to home, in the Americas – but every country in the Americas, except Haiti, is above the Conservatives’ poverty line.

As a result, the Tory plan means no aid for troubled countries such as El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, whose state of violence and poverty is spurring a refugee crisis. As a matter of enlightened self-interest, Canada should be doing more in Central America, not throttling aid to zero.

The Conservatives argue Canada should focus on the least-developed places, such as Afghanistan, Haiti and sub-Saharan Africa. Fair enough. But least-developed already fits the bill for half of Canada’s top 10 aid recipients – with Afghanistan topping the list.

The Conservatives also tried to stoke controversy by saying they would end aid to Russia, North Korea and Iran. Why would Canada support such regimes? But the truth is Canadian aid to those three countries is tiny and it doesn’t go to their corrupt governments, but to independent organizations and programs.

Mr. Scheer also said this week that foreign aid should not be spent with an eye to lobbying foreign governments to vote Canada onto one of the UN Security Council’s rotating seats, in 2021. He’s absolutely right. Putting a maple leaf on one of those pull-up chairs matters to a few egos in Ottawa; it should be of little interest to anyone else.

When it comes to foreign aid, the Liberals are not proposing anything new or bold. The Conservatives, in contrast, are calling for something that can at least be called new. And it’s a big change from the status quo. However, cutting 25 per cent from the aid budget would only yield $1.5-billion in savings. That’s enough to finance about $40 worth of tax cuts, for every Canadian.

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