Why Canadian Aid Matters

  • National Newswatch

In the post-war era, Canada, a founding member of the United Nations (UN), became a leading force in peacekeeping and helped create key global institutions, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. Multilateralism mattered to Canada, and Canada mattered to the world.Canada's leadership was symbolized by the 1969 report of a global commission, “Partners in Development”, chaired by Lester Pearson. In fact, his recommendation of an aid target of 0.7% of national income still remains the UN goal.In the following decades, our country continued to lead and champion other major development initiatives, including: creating a UN treaty to ban land mines, opposing apartheid, and promoting and supporting Africa.However, the world changed dramatically under Stephen Harper's Conservatives. They abandoned Africa; allowed donor aid to fall to 29th position out of 38 aid-providing countries; lost the bid for a seat on the UN Security Council; and pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol and the Convention to Combat Desertification (will the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change be next?).Other donors, the UN and recipients, alike, now see Canada as a poor partner.But we can imagine a different future, a government that sets a new tone, that responds to its moral obligation to the billion people who live on less than a dollar a day, that lives up to its international commitments, and that does not simply use international relations for political gain at home.Such a government would understand that poverty breeds global insecurity, and that the power of the emerging economies will determine our own economic future.Today, Canadians should ask tough questions of a government who -- without consultation -- merged Canada's aid agency, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT). Their excuse was better policy coherence.But a key concern is that the government will divert aid programs to support Canada's business and commercial efforts abroad, rather than enhance the effectiveness of aid.A second concern is that the government will not apply best practices from similarly merged programs, notably, the Nordic donors, all of whom have exceeded the 0.7% aid target; even Conservative Britain pushed for and met the 0.7% target this year in the midst of the financial crisis.  They succeeded because their political leadership “ring-fenced” development objectives and ODA budgets, and insisted trade and other international policies support international development.During the lengthy merger of CIDA and DFAIT, how will the government improve its dismal record on the predictability, timeliness and effectiveness of Canadian aid? The recent past has seen a virtual standstill on request for proposals and new approvals. In the future, will even less aid reach those who need it on the ground?There is already widespread concern about the Harper Conservatives' commitment to helping the world's poor -- as the last few years have seen the emphasis shift from low-income countries in Africa to middle-income trading partners in Latin America -- and the future of Canada's foreign aid. Over $400 million set aside to help the world's poor was deliberately allowed to lapse in the last fiscal year. This is on top of the $377 million already formally cut in the 2012 budget.If these hundreds of millions had been spent, what difference could the money have made, for example, to the lives of children by reducing disease and hunger, and increasing education?As the government grapples with the minutiae of the merger to create the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada (DFATD), the world is moving ahead fast on the so-called, “Post-2015” Agenda. The latter will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the UN's set of global targets for development and poverty reduction, which were to be reached by 2015.The new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be applicable to developing and developed countries alike, with the centerpiece being the targeted elimination of extreme poverty.Key thinking regarding the SDGs came from an international, High-Level Panel, co-chaired by the United Kingdom's Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, based upon inputs from a very comprehensive UN process.Drawing upon these elements, the UN Secretary-General prepared a report, which was discussed in September 2013 at the UN General Assembly.An outcome document was adopted by Member States, including Canada. It outlined an agreed-upon work-plan for negotiations and the presentation of a new Agenda for formal approval at a high-level Summit in September 2015.The new Agenda will include goals that balance the three elements of sustainable development --“providing economic transformation and opportunity to lift people out of poverty, advancing social justice and protecting the environment”.For Canadians this will become a crucial test of our government's willingness to go beyond existing geo-political and political divisions, and be part of a movement to put the planet on a course for sustainable development, including addressing climate change, despite Harper's bottom-of-the-barrel rankings in environmental performance.A key question is what, and where, Canadian ODA should be, going forward? We are a long way from our past peak (0.53%) in 1975.What matters to Canadians? How do they want to see their aid spent through 2015 and beyond, and in what countries? Are they supportive of the substantial decrease in bilateral assistance? How can we best recover the lost ground of recent years?With grant aid scarcer, many, including the DAC Secretariat (the “think-tank” of OECD donors), are now arguing that grant aid should go almost exclusively to where the numbers of people living in extreme poverty are concentrated, notably the group of “fragile” states. Perhaps the government should therefore focus on countries they dropped in Africa?Canadians hail from all parts of the globe. Our society acutely understands those parts of the world that suffer, and where our contributions can make the greatest impact. The Harper Conservatives have failed to live up to decades of Canadian leadership and commitment in international development, and have failed to engage the Canadian public on the fundamental importance of advancing the Post-2015 Agenda.Canada and the world are waiting.Kirsty Duncan, M.P., is the Liberal party critic for CIDA, consular affairs, and status of women.