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House Foreign Affairs Committee recommends government boost aid spending

By Chelsea Nash      

The minister for international development called the recommended goal 'ambitious.'

International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said she is pushing as hard as she can for a bigger development budget. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia
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The House Foreign Affairs Committee has recommended that the federal government plan to boost foreign aid spending to meet an international target Canada has been persistently criticized for failing to meet.

“The government of Canada should aspire to a plan that would see Canada spending 0.70 per cent of its gross national income (GNI) on official development assistance (ODA) by 2030. The first stage of that plan should see the government spending 0.35 per cent of GNI on ODA in 2020,” read one of seven recommendations by the committee in a report its chair tabled in the House of Commons on Nov. 3.

The opposition NDP went even further, noting in a supplementary report, “We must achieve 0.7 per cent.”

The 0.7 target dates back to an international commission headed by Canada’s former prime minister, Lester B. Pearson, which in 1969 proposed that aid donors should reach the goal “by 1975 and in no case later than 1980.” A United Nations resolution took up the suggestion in 1970, and aid agencies have long pressed donor countries to meet it.

Canada, through successive federal Liberal and Conservative governments, has never met the goal, though other traditional donor countries including Sweden, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and the United Kingdom have. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and U2 frontman and humanitarian Bono have both urged Canada to reach the target.

But International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau (Compton-Stanstead, Que.) in the past has said it’s not achievable in the short term. Last year, Canada spent US$4.3 billion in net ODA, representing 0.28 per cent of gross national income, according to preliminary OECD data.

Speaking to The Hill Times in the foyer of the House of Commons on Nov. 4, Ms. Bibeau said the goal to spend 0.7 per cent of the GNI on development assistance is “ambitious.” She said it is too soon to comment on spending any percentage of GNI going forward, because it still has to be discussed in cabinet, with Finance Minister Bill Morneau (Toronto Centre, Ont.) and with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.).

Fraser Reilly-King, a senior policy adviser at the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, an association of aid groups, said in an interview that it is “incredibly significant” that the committee, whose members include representatives of all three major federal political parties, has agreed on a target of 0.7 per cent of spending on development by 2030. He said for the government to reach this goal, it would require a 12 per cent increase in development spending each year until 2030, something he said is ambitious, but “it wasn’t too ambitious for the United Kingdom when they committed to it during one of the worst economic crises the world has seen.” The U.K. reached the goal in 2013, according to the OECD.

“Whether the government likes it or not, a big element of how Canada is perceived by its peers comes from how much money it is putting on the table,” he said, adding that this report is particularly timely given the government’s ongoing foreign aid policy review, the recent ratification of the Paris climate change accord, and the proximity to the release of the 2017 budget. The aid review has involved public consultations throughout the spring and summer, with the results expected to inform the 2017 budget.

Ms. Bibeau said she is “pushing as hard as I can to get a significant increase” to the aid budget. The next step is releasing a policy review as a result of the consultations, which she said will occur “early next year,” and will be accompanied by a five-year financial framework.

Along with her five-year plan, she said she will also be presenting a “vision” for 2030.

Ms. Bibeau said the recommendations of the committee fall in line with what she’s been hearing throughout her consultations, “specifically concerning the increase in the budget.”

The committee was studying the government’s countries of focus for development assistance. It heard from dozens of witnesses since it began hearings on the study in May. It didn’t offer an opinion one way or another about whether the government should continue to use the structure of focus countries to guide its development spending, though it did recommend the government’s “policy should reflect a transparent evaluation of the countries of focus approach and whether it has enhanced the impact and effectiveness of Canada’s development assistance.”

Under the former Conservative government, Canada picked 25 focus countries to which it devoted 90 per cent of bilateral aid spending.

Peter Kent, the Conservative critic for foreign affairs and a member on the committee, said the challenge for this study was the lack of “accurate measurements as to whether intended results were actually achieved.”

“The committee agreed that development aid over the short and longer term should be increased, but I think we also questioned the effectiveness, the efficiencies of some of the countries, and some of the programs, which really we have no way of evaluating of being successful or not,” Mr. Kent said.  

Mr. Kent said he and his Conservative colleagues on the Liberal-dominated committee agreed with the report, which is why they did not submit any dissenting report of their own. That said, he said the goal of spending 0.7 per cent of GNI on official development assistance is “a long shot,” and “aspirational,” if only because the timing is “so far over the horizon.”

Other recommendations in the report included favouring “long-term, and predictable funding arrangements,” and ensuring that a branch within the foreign ministry is “dedicated solely to development policy research, analysis, and evaluation.”

cnash@hilltimes.com

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