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‘With all the talk of Canada being back,’ aid groups ‘alarmed,’ told to expect little from budget

By Chelsea Nash      

NGOs expecting to get something out of the months-long policy review are worried the time and money they spent will be all for naught.

International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said it's her top priority 'to ensure that Canadian aid dollars make the greatest difference on the ground.' Leaders in the sector are worried this means moving money around, rather than a budget increase. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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In a matter of months, Canadian-based foreign aid groups have gone from being optimistic to deflated about the chances the government might boost flat aid spending.

When the government launched a full review of Canada’s aid policy last spring, groups were hoping the idea that Canada was coming “back” on the world stage would translate into higher aid spending. They were willing to spend time and money participating in the review, with the expectation of a positive ending.

But months later, with the review’s results set to be soon announced, several in the sector say they’re receiving signals from government officials that they should lower their expectations for a budget increase. They’re wondering whether the resources they spent on the review were all for naught.

Julia Sanchez, president-CEO of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, said it is “very concerning” that the sector is receiving what she described as the opposite of encouraging sentiment from the government.

She said the conversations between government officials and aid groups have been informal, and nothing official has been said, but that the tone of the conversations has distinctly changed.

“We’re getting close to the crunch,” she said, and there’s a sense members of the development sector and its supporters “might not be happy with what we see” in terms of a budget increase for international development they say is needed. The next federal budget is due out likely sometime in February or March.

“In the bigger scheme of things, we’re talking about two per cent of the federal budget. We’re talking about a rounding error [of the overall budget]. For this government, we’re finding it hard to believe, with all the talk of Canada being back,” she said.

Global Canada Initiative, a non-governmental organization advocating for more Canada in the world, released a report last week that outlined just how far behind Canada is when it comes to development spending. “Canada is worse than a laggard—it is last among its global peers,” it stated. The initiative is led by Robert Greenhill, a former president of the Canadian International Development Agency. Canada in 2015 spent 0.28 per cent of its gross national income on official development assistance (ODA), according to the OECD. The goal for developed countries is 0.7 per cent.

“Canada’s commitment to international assistance is near an all-time low. Canada is not back—it is far back compared to any reasonable international or historical comparison,” said the report.

Canadian Council for International Co-operation president Julia Sanchez says the government is sending signals in informal discussions with the sector to keep expectations low for the next federal budget. The Hill Times photograph by Kristen Shane

If there is not an increase to development spending in this year’s budget, which Mr. Greenhill’s report says could be the moment “when the Trudeau government puts Canada, after two decades of free-riding, back on a path to being a fully paid-up member of the international community,” then the Trudeau government “will have the lowest commitment to international assistance of any Canadian government in the last half-century.”

Should the development sector not see any significant increase to its budget, the feelings of concern within the sector, Ms. Sanchez said, will only be exacerbated by the fact that members have spent the last year in a holding pattern awaiting the results of the aid policy review, and investing a lot of of time, energy, and money contributing to the review.

Earlier in the year while the international assistance review was in full gear, Ms. Sanchez said the tone from both political and departmental staff at Global Affairs Canada was optimistic, encouraging, and ambitious. The review helped contribute to that sense of optimism, she said, and International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau’s office made it clear it was listening to the contributors.

“There’s snickering in town sometimes about all the consultations that are going on,” she said, “but we’ve happily and fully engaged” in the review process, and the “sector has invested fully.”

Ms. Sanchez said through informal conversations she’s had with government officials, both in the minister’s office and at Global Affairs Canada, she’s heard “talk of, we might have to make hard decisions.”

She said she’s heard from a few people in the department that “even in the worst-case scenario, we’re still going to find ways to implement this new vision.”

One director of a Canada-based non-governmental organization, who spoke on the condition neither he nor his organization would be named as it receives funding from the government, said “what we’ve been hearing from the past couple of months from conversations with government, is to lower the bar for our expectations.”

“Our organization put a lot of time and a lot of money into this with the idea that here was a chance Canada was promising to reinvest,” he said.

Now, he has the impression that the outcome of the review “will really be to tell us what to cut back on,” rather than what to expand on, as hoped.

“That is [the] kind of language we weren’t hearing before. People that are close to the Global Affairs file—it’s a much more cautious tone. It’s understandable as we’re getting close to the budget,” Ms. Sanchez said.

In an emailed statement via her communications director Louis Belanger, Ms. Bibeau said her main priority “is to ensure that Canadian aid dollars make the greatest difference on the ground.”

“Over the past year, we engaged with our partners and with Canadians to build a new international assistance policy. We are in the process of changing course and we will set a clear vision,” she said.

Another source, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity as her organization receives government funding, said while there’s been nothing official from the government, and she doesn’t expect there will be until the budget is released, “it’s just been a drip, drip, drip of positioning statements, or positioning comments.”

She said what is “galling” is “we’ve been waiting a year.” “It cost members of the sector money and time to engage so deeply with the department on what the new vision is for ‘Canada is back,’” she said. “At this stage, what we’re hearing is that all of this effort is going to result in a five-page policy statement…something barely better than the mandate letter.”

She said the sector is hearing “rumblings of really no ambition,” and “that’s putting it mildly.”

“We’ve given this government really the benefit of the doubt,” she said. What is appreciated is the government’s open and willing discussions it’s engaged in with the sector. “I will give them 100 per cent credit for the fact that they do seem to be responsive to policy suggestions.”

But, “the sector is alarmed,” she said. “We are starting to have these conversations, we’re starting to mobilize. If there’s any hope at all to influence, we will be doing so before the budget.”

Jacquelyn Wright, vice-president of international programs for CARE Canada, said she’s heard the concerns, but she remains optimistic.

“It’s definitely true that the level of funding over the past several years has declined. And that, of course, is very disappointing,” she said.

“We’re just waiting to hear the outcome of the policy review. It does seem it’s going to be challenging to make the overall budget of the government, but that’s not a surprise.”

The House Foreign Affairs Committee tabled a recommendation to the government in the fall suggesting it commit to a timeline to increase its foreign aid spending with the goal of reaching the international goal of 0.7 per cent of gross national income by 2030. At the time, Ms. Bibeau said it was “ambitious.”

Ms. Wright said CARE wants to be “realistic” about what’s possible. But, “what we’re looking for is new money. Sometimes money is moved around, and looks like it’s new money, but it’s not actually new money.”

The sector needs “an actual increase,” she said.

cnash@hilltimes.com

@chels_nash

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