Canada’s foreign aid spending has been stagnant for over a decade, even though development assistance plays an important role in improving the lives of poor and marginalized people around the world. It also provides Canada with “soft power” tools, including a place at the table and credibility at international fora and in developing countries. At a time when the government is trying to achieve greater international influence, including being elected to the UN Security Council, Canada can champion branded aid initiatives, increase aid or do both.
- From 1972 to 2002, Canada contributed significantly more than most of its OECD peers to international development, in relation to the size of its economy. However, Canada has since become less generous than average.
- The Canadian government wants to be seen as a global player and advance some priority initiatives on the international stage, but its credibility is somewhat hampered by its relative lack of generosity with regards to foreign aid.
- Foreign aid – often referred to as international assistance or development cooperation – is a key contributor to global efforts to reduce poverty and inequality around the world, including current efforts to reach the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
- In 1970, Canada pledged to spend 0.7% of its gross national product (GNP) on official development assistance (ODA) by 1975, a commitment it reiterated numerous times in subsequent decades. Though foreign aid reached 0.54% in 1975, it has never reached that level again since then. In 2018, Canada’s ODA was 0.28% of its GNP. Though figures vary somewhat from year to year, since 1965 aid expenditures have rarely been lower than the current ratio.
- Neither the current nor previous government has given any indication that it wants to dedicate significant additional resources to foreign aid, let alone meet the 0.7% target.
- Canada has long tried to “punch above its weight” through signature initiatives and instances of global leadership, including the banning of landmines and the creation of the International Criminal Court.
- More recently, in the field of foreign aid, the Harper government promoted the Muskoka Initiative on Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, while the Trudeau government has touted its Feminist International Assistance Policy.
- While Canada has no plans to significantly increase its aid, several European countries have either reached or surpassed the 0.7% target (the international norm), or have committed to a calendar to reach that level – including Norway and Ireland, Canada’s rivals for the elections for a United Nations Security Council seat in 2021.
- A flat and relatively low level of aid spending not only generates criticism for the Canadian government among Canadian civil society organizations, the media and academics, but can also hinder Canada’s credibility internationally.
- New initiatives without any additional funds imply that they will be financed by reducing or eliminating funding to other initiatives and sectors.
- Effective, highly visible, Canadian-branded initiatives can contribute more to “soft power” than low-profile contributions, especially if the latter are pooled with other donors’ or recipient governments’ funds.
- Short-term, high-visibility projects, on the other hand, are generally considered less effective and less sustainable for poverty reduction. Moreover, the high profile can backfire if the projects do not reach their goals, like Canada’s signature projects in Afghanistan.
- Canadians are generally supportive of foreign aid, even if they do not necessarily rank it high in their list of priorities.
The Canadian government can:
Option 1: Continue to keep its aid levels relatively low and promote branded initiatives.
This option has the advantage of potentially achieving more influence without increasing spending. However, such aid programming will be criticized by some observers and practitioners for being less effective, and will attract extra negative attention if a high-profile initiative proves disappointing. Branded initiatives are also more likely to be abandoned when there is a change of government, thereby making Canada seem like a less dependable partner.
Option 2: Increase its aid levels.
Increasing Canada’s foreign aid would have a positive impact on the global fight against poverty and inequality. It would give Canada more credibility among its donor peers and the international community more generally. This would grant the Canadian government a more prominent place at the table and potentially more agenda-setting influence, including a greater chance of obtaining support in the Security Council elections, especially from vote-rich Africa. It implies, however, increasing the federal budget deficit or cutting other government expenditures.
Option 3: Combine options 1 and 2.
Greater funding levels would multiply the credibility and impact of Canadian policy initiatives. If successful, they would help justify the additional spending. However, if the extra funds are seen as being not well spent, it would undermine Canada’s credibility and support for the government, as well as for future aid spending.
Stephen Brown is a professor at the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa. His research focuses mainly on the intersection of the policies and practices of Northern countries and other international actors with politics in Southern countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.