International Assistance in the 2017 Federal BudgetDarren Schemmer, CESO Board member April 20, 2017
While waiting for the federal government’s new international assistance policy, we can see some clues in the recent federal budget.
What most disappointed Canadians interested in reducing global poverty were the numbers. There was no increase for international assistance nor was a plan announced for future increases. Canada’s official development assistance as a percentage of the wealth we produce is just over a quarter of one per cent, a near record low and half of its record highs in the 1970s and ’80s.
The lack of new funds may be understandable given the context. The federal government has an unexpectedly high deficit to contain. It also has not yet settled on a number of new policies. In addition to a new international assistance policy, related policies such as defence and innovation are pending. It could be considered prudent not to commit more funds amid such uncertainty.
The budget refers to “international assistance” rather than “official development assistance”. Some worry that this leaves the assistance budget open to purposes other than the “central focus on poverty reduction” in the Official Development Assistance Accountability Act of 2008. However, the budget states that the new international assistance policy “will outline how Canada can best refocus its international assistance on the poorest and most vulnerable…”
More positively, it’s clear that our federal government knows that international assistance is only one way to reduce poverty. The commitments to promote free trade, to accept refugees, to join the International Arms Treaty, to ease restrictions on apparel imports from least-developed countries and to deploy up to 600 military personnel to a United Nations peace operation all demonstrate that the stated “whole-of-government approach…upholding Canadian values” is action as well as words.
As well, the budget repeatedly connects global stability and prosperity to Canadian stability and prosperity. International assistance is not a gift, it is in our self-interest as well. The new international assistance policy may emphasize interdependence further as the budget states it will “help realize tangible progress on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” The goals of the 2030 Agenda apply to all countries, including Canada. Goal 10, for example, calls on us all to “reduce inequality within and among countries.” Goal 13 calls on us all to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.”
Thematically, the budget is explicit that “International assistance (will be) focused on women and girls to strengthen their empowerment and protect their rights.” This is backed up by recent spending announcements of $20 million to five international organizations who lost their official American funding and a $650 million envelope to address gaps in sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Geographically, fragile states and regions continue to draw attention. There is a $1.6 billion whole-of-government commitment (i.e. more than aid) to Iraq, Syria and impacted neighbours. A new Canadian military deployment to a United Nations peace operation is widely expected to be in a francophone country in Africa. Ukraine and Haiti are also specifically mentioned in the budget.
A number of decisions highlighted a trend to funding multilateral institutions. Canada will be joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank by depositing $256 million over five years for a one per cent voting share. Canada will amend legislation to “facilitate Canada’s ongoing effective membership” in the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Canada will contribute $804 million to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Some evidence shows that multilateral institutions are less influenced by short-term political considerations, so their programs lead to more effective poverty reduction that national programs do. However, multilateral institutions consume additional administration costs as they supervise other organizations that do the actual fieldwork. They also carry no flag, so many people do not recognize that they are funded by taxpayers of supporting countries like Canada.
If a greater share of the existing budget is channeled through multilateral institutions, fewer funds will be available for bilateral programs designed by the Canadian government. At a time when Canada is seeking a seat on the United National Security Council and when many countries are specifically seeking Canadian models and advice, it will be important for our government to leave sufficient budget room to respond directly to requests for assistance.
In a restricted budget context, it is also important to mobilize Canadian civil society if we really want to demonstrate that “Canada is back”. Without a new international assistance policy the budget may not be very inspiring on its own. Over ten thousand Canadians participated in consultations. Millions more Canadians voluntarily donate to international development. There is pent-up interest across the country to know how our federal government will support the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. Hopefully, we won’t wait much longer for the full picture.