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Budget misses the mark on international development

By Prateek Awasthi      

Poll results tell us there is widespread public support for foreign aid. But this budget doesn’t reflect that priority.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau talks about the 2019 budget at an Economic Club of Canada event at the Chateau Laurier on March 20, the day after he tabled it in the House. The budget offers very little in terms of foreign aid, despite Canadians’ concerns about the issue, argues Prateek Awasthi. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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On March 19, Finance Minister Bill Morneau released his government’s fourth federal budget. In an election year, it sought to reach potential voters on what matters to them: millennials with support for home ownership, parents with child-care subsidies, seniors with pensions, and workers with skills training. It also used spending and incentives to signal a commitment to key issues like reconciliation and fighting climate change.

While much has been said on the budget, one important perspective has gone largely unheard. In a McLeod Group blog post titled Peanuts for International Development, Stephen Brown, a professor of international studies at the University of Ottawa, wrote, “From the international development perspective, Budget 2019 is the most disappointing federal budget since the current Liberal government was elected.” He’s got a point.

A recent poll conducted by Nanos Research for EWB Canada uncovered an insight that is a potential game-changer. It found that more than 50 per cent of Canadians say a federal party’s stance on international aid and development will be important (16 per cent) or somewhat important (39 per cent) to how they will cast their vote in the federal election in October.

The conventional wisdom is that international development is not an important election issue. Issues related to the economy, the environment, housing, and health care are higher priorities. Indeed, priorities for the budget seemed to be identified based on this calculus.

While not as immediate, international aid is an important issue for Canadians, and what parties say and do in support of international development matters. By this measure, the Trudeau government has not delivered on its promises.

In terms of ambition, the government set its sights high but tends to fall short in directing enough resources to meet this ambition. When the Feminist International Assistance Policy was announced amidst much fanfare in 2017, then-international development minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said it was “a first step in a longer journey to achieving the best international assistance results.” It looks like a lack of imagination, ambition, or inspiration has stopped us in our tracks.

Despite the announcement of $2-billion in new aid spending over a five-year period in last year’s budget, this funding will not keep up with the rate of inflation and economic growth. Official development assistance (ODA) today is at about 0.26 per cent of gross national income (GNI). This is devastating for the hundreds of millions of people living in the world’s least developed countries who have seen their incomes stagnate for decades and the millions of women whose lot the Feminist International Assistance Policy seeks to improve.

The average donor country spends 0.31 per cent of GNI on ODA and several countries have reached the international target of 0.7 per cent. There is a historic irony in that this global target was set by none other than Lester B. Pearson, a former prime minister of Canada. The latest country to commit to reaching this target was Ireland, which set a timetable last year and announced a major increase in its aid budget. Ireland is a competitor to Canada for a United Nations Security Council seat in 2021. Our other competitor, Norway, met the 0.7 per cent target years ago, and its ODA has been nearly or above one per cent of GNI since 2009.

According to EWB Canada’s poll results, those who support increasing Canada’s international aid most often say that Canada has the resources to help (34 per cent), aid has positive effects for the world economy and stability, which in turn is good for Canada (26 per cent), and that providing aid is the right thing to do (17 per cent). More women than men support an increase and say that a party’s stance on international development is important to how they will cast their vote.

Regardless of political leanings, what political parties say and do in support of international development tells Canadians whether their leaders embody their values. This budget tried to appeal to what matters to Canadians and signal the commitment of this government on key issues in the run-up to the federal election, but it missed the mark.

In Prof. Brown’s blog post, he concludes with a scathing indictment: “Justin Trudeau’s government is the least generous toward impoverished peoples in developing countries in over 50 years.” Is this the legacy Prime Minister Trudeau wishes to leave?

With the federal election fast approaching, I hope every party takes the interest of Canadians coast to coast to coast into serious consideration. EWB Canada’s polling results tell us there is widespread public support for international aid. What we need now are champions who will take action.

Prateek Awasthi is the director of policy and advocacy at EWB Canada. EWB Canada has advocated for more and better international aid for the past 10 years. Follow Prateek on Twitter at @prateekawasthi.

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