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Julian Fantino during a visit to a school in Mentao Refugee Camp in Burkina Faso run by CARE with CIDA support. (ACDI-CIDA/Germain Yaméogo)
Julian Fantino during a visit to a school in Mentao Refugee Camp in Burkina Faso run by CARE with CIDA support. (ACDI-CIDA/Germain Yaméogo)

Steven Hoffman

Foreign aid should reflect Canada’s priorities: equality, democracy, health Add to ...

As we head into the time of year people usually associate with selflessness and giving, Canadians should stop and think about whether our country is doing enough for international development.

On Friday, International Cooperation Minister Julian Fantino outlined a new vision for Canada’s foreign-aid policy, one that gives priority to our country’s own economic interests, corporate contributions and natural-resource-industry development.

Renewal in our foreign-aid policy is long overdue, so an update by the minister had much potential. But instead of looking underground to the mining industry, he should have looked to the values that Canadians hold most closely and the unique strengths we bring to global development.

This is vital: Foreign-aid policy is the way a country presents itself and its values to the world. If you ask Canadians, three natural values stand out: gender equality, democratic governance and health for all. These are Canadians’ priorities. In a poll released last week by the Trudeau Foundation, there were few national values on which all Canadians could agree except the equality of the sexes (92 per cent strongly agree), political participation (76 per cent), religious freedom (67 per cent), and publicly-funded health care (66 per cent).

These are not just lofty ideals; these priorities make for good public policy. They are strengths on which Canada can more effectively advance its interests and achieve value for our limited foreign-aid dollars. Girls and women – not metals or minerals – represent the world’s greatest untapped resource. Weak governance in many developing countries discourages foreign investment, constrains economic growth and exacerbates intractable social inequalities.

The business case for giving priority to health in our foreign-aid policy is particularly strong. Global health initiatives contribute to social well-being while also advancing human rights, trade, economic growth and security. “Health,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently argued, is “the best investment we can make.” Even the selfish Ebenezer Scrooge would agree, for Canadians’ health depends vitally on our government’s willingness to address cross-border issues like avian influenza and counterfeit medicines before they reach our soil.

Health is also our place to shine. Canada enjoys a stellar international reputation in the health field and has ever-growing domestic expertise in health-care delivery, education and research. The country has a plethora of world-class universities and civil-society organizations involved in this area, internationally-\ recognized expertise in communicable disease control, and real-world experience dealing with unexpected epidemics. Canada is the birthplace of evidence-based medicine, the world’s leader in peace-through-health concepts, and the “globalization nation” that is home to communities of people from every part of the world. Health is the third-largest sector of the Canadian economy and one of the most promising opportunities for future economic growth.

It’s true that Canada is certainly no global health Grinch. The Muskoka Initiative rallied billions for maternal, newborn and child health, and government-funded Grand Challenges Canada is creatively fostering integrated innovation for some of the most pressing global health challenges in developing countries.

Notwithstanding these great initiatives, Canada is certainly not the world leader it once was and should be on health issues. That role has been abandoned by the current federal government, which has embarrassed us on numerous occasions. For example, when then-health minister Tony Clement chastised the World Health Organization for its support of safe-injection sites at the launch of the UN agency’s evidence-based HIV/AIDS strategy in 2008; when Prime Minister Stephen Harper excluded the 70,000 women who die annually in unsafe abortions from his maternal health initiative in 2010; when Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver prevented the world from adding asbestos as a killer of 100,000 people annually to the Rotterdam Convention’s list of hazardous materials in 2011; and when Mr. Fantino took air time at this year’s UN General Assembly to announce a meagre $1-million for polio eradication immediately after global luminaries such as Bill Gates, Julia Gillard and Hamid Karzai spoke about the billions of dollars they have committed.

This is a long and ugly list. We can, and should, do better.

Mr. Fantino’s updates do nothing but continue this unfortunate recent legacy and further move us in the wrong direction. Canada must build on its strengths and the priorities of its citizens to address development needs, especially gender equality, democratic governance and global health.

This year, let’s give in a way that reflects our strengths and our core Canadian values, and helps reverse our decline on the world stage and our loss of influence over important matters that affect us all.

Steven J. Hoffman is an assistant professor at McMaster University, a fellow at the University of Toronto and an instructor at the Harvard School of Public Health.

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