Election 2019: Foreign aid cuts would be even deeper than first thought

Robert Greenhill lays out 10 facts to better understand what’s at stake this election and beyond.

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October 16, 2019
Trudeau and Scheer
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative leader Andrew Scheer take part in the federal leaders' French language debate in Gatineau, Quebec, October 10, 2019. Adrian Wyld/Pool via REUTERS

As we come back from a Thanksgiving weekend with family and friends, I wanted to share, as a private citizen, a few facts and observations about Canada’s future as an engaged, caring country.

This is not a partisan rant. I have served Liberal and Conservative prime ministers. As someone who has been researching Canada’s international contributions over the last several years, I believe that Canada’s international assistance, like Canada’s foreign policy overall, works best when it reflects enduring Canadian values and interests more than particular partisan differences. I am also deeply concerned with the lack of discussion around Canada’s foreign aid in the lead up to the federal election on October 21. As such debate has been lacking, here are 10 facts that should be known in order to better understand the context.

Fact 1: After four years of a Trudeau government, Canada’s commitment to international development as a share of national income has been the lowest in 50 years.

ODA chart 1
Source: ODA as a percent of GNI calculated from OECD DAC 1 ODA. Statistics: Fund flows: Net disbursements, Amount type: Current prices, Unit: US dollars, millions. (*Trudeau (1980-1984) includes John Turner; Mulroney (1985-1993) includes Kim Campbell; prime ministers are counted based on when they first took office.)

Fact 2: Under Justin Trudeau, Canada’s commitment to international development has been lower than it was under Brian Mulroney or Stephen Harper — much lower than many other Conservative governments around the world.

Fact 3: In Budget 2018, modest increases to international assistance were announced. However, planned future increases are still below the rate of inflation.

ODA chart 2
Source: ODA spending calculated from OECD DAC 1 ODA. Statistics: Fund flows: Net disbursements, Amount type: Current prices, Unit: US dollars, millions. (2018 figures except Brian Mulroney [1984-1993] and Stephen Harper [2006-2014]; 0.27% for Justin Trudeau is both Canada’s performance in 2018, and the average 2015-2018.)

Fact 4: Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer announced recently he would cut Canada’s commitment to international assistance (already the lowest in 50 years) by $1.5 billion, or 25 percent.

Fact 5: Released October 11 in full, Scheer’s platform actually cuts aid by 32 percent ($1.9 billion) next year, not 25 percent. A new line cancels “increases to international agenda” of $400 million: $300 million of this is not cancelling future increases, it claws back increases from past two years. Then the additional $1.5 billion in cuts are imposed.

Fact 6: By 2024-2025, Andrew Scheer’s platform cuts over $2.2 billion (or 36 percent) from international assistance: $726 million in claw backs and cancellation of below-inflation increases, plus $1.5 billion in additional cuts.

Platform image
Conservative Party policy platform 2019 (p. 94). Courtesy AndrewScheer.ca

Fact 7: Canada’s international aid today is a mere 0.27 percent of national income, less than two percent of the federal budget. Yet, cuts to aid represent a full third of all cuts in Year 1 of Scheer’s platform, 20 percent of all cuts over five years — 10 times its share of federal budget.

Fact 8: The cuts proposed would reduce international assistance to 0.19 percent of our national economy (or gross national income). This would be the lowest level since 1965, before the moon landing.

Fact 9: The world today is increasingly like the 1930s. As in the 1930s, the danger is not just in the rise in authoritarian regimes. It also lies in increasingly inward-looking democracies, including Canada, stepping back from what is often called international burden sharing. International assistance is a critical part of Canada’s international burden sharing. In many countries and regions, effective development assistance is our best way of helping millions in need while supporting Canadian values and interests.

Fact 10: The choice given to Canadians by Trudeau and Scheer to help the world’s neediest is: worst commitment in 50 years; or cutting by a further one third. In other words, this Thanksgiving we had much to be thankful for, but much less to be proud of, compared to other years.

At a critical time in the world, a debate on Canada’s foreign policy slated for earlier this month was cancelled. There was no meaningful discussion on foreign policy in the three leaders’ debates that did take place.

Whoever wins the election, we must debate what kind of world we want, where we can make the greatest difference, what we are prepared to do to help achieve it. We must strive for a cross-partisan consensus to go forward, rather than falling further backwards.

Let me end with two quotes. The first is from former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, after his time as a politician in the late 60s, when he led a commission on international development for the World Bank: “Who can now ask where his country will be in a few decades without asking where the world will be? If we wish that world to be secure and prosperous, we must show a common concern for the common problems of all peoples.”

The second is most often attributed to Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

The views expressed in this article are of the author's alone and not representative of organizations associated with the author.