The federal government has launched a consultation of ordinary Canadians to solicit ideas on where development aid should be focused. Photo by Michael Swan

Canadians are invited to advise Ottawa on aid spending

  • June 18, 2016

With the amount of money Canada spends on foreign aid in decline, Canadians have been given a rare opportunity to let the federal government know what they think about its belt tightening.

Until July 31, Canadians are invited to advise Ottawa on what it should be doing to forge a new solidarity with the developing world and help end the kind of poverty that results in one billion people being undernourished.

The government is conducting consultations on how to realign Canada’s international aid policy and, as part of the process, has opened a web portal to solicit public opinion. The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, with more than 10,000 members, is expected to be heard, though its members have not been instructed to submit opinions, nor are they being given a party line to highlight priorities. 

“They are independent actors,” said Development and Peace executive director David Leduc. “It’s a membership-driven organization. They will be very vocal in and of themselves about where and how they think this government and D&P should be moving forward.”

The money Canada spends on aid has been falling since 2009-10, when it touched $5 billion. Last year it was $4.29 billion. 

Under the Liberals, the plan is to just about reach that $5-billion level again over the next two years, but that increase won’t bring Canada anywhere near its own standard for helping poor countries.

In 1970, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations proposed that developed nations should each contribute 0.7 per cent of gross national income to bringing poor countries into the circle of developed nations. In 2015 Canada gave 0.28 per cent — not even half the amount we committed to 36 years ago. A G-7 nation, Canada has the world’s 10th largest economy but is ranked 14th on the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development list of donor countries.

The United Kingdom, Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Sweden have all met the 0.7-per-cent target.

“The gap between the wealthiest and the poorest continues to grow,” Leduc said. “The ecological crisis continues to get worse.”

The federal government’s policy review isn’t going to suddenly double Canada’s aid spending. But it might get the ship turned around and heading in the right direction.

“One has to look at this through a realistic lens as well,” Leduc said.

Before International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau can make the case for significant new funding she has to demonstrate to cabinet and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that her department has a realistic, coherent and effective plan for spending new money.

“Without this work and a good review being done, there’s no chance the minister would be able to go in and ask for more money,” said Canadian Foodgrains Bank executive director Jim Cornelius. Development and Peace is represented on the board of Foodgrains and works with it on a number of projects.

The policy review is the first truly open consultative process for revamping development policy in 20 years. Over the last decade the policy has been tweaked and refocused as  the Canadian International Development Agency folded into what is now Global Affairs Canada (formerly the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development). But independent aid organizations have often complained their opinions were not sought or, if sought, ignored. 

This time groups like Development and Peace and Canadian Foodgrains Bank have already had meetings with the minister and her senior officials.

“It makes perfect sense to me that those who are most integrally connected to the issues on the ground with local partners be present at the table to discuss the obstacles that they face and suggest avenues to pursue in improving the overall approach,” said Leduc.

Leduc’s message to the minister is to keep the focus on poverty reduction and the ways in which poverty is perpetuated generation to generation.

“Are we appropriately or effectively tackling the root causes of the issues that for the last 30 or 40 years we’ve been trying to tackle on an individual scale?” he asked.

One development priority is already written in stone for this government. Among the six themes that will shape the consultations, the first is “health and rights of women and children.”

“A special emphasis will be placed on women and girls and on consulting on how to apply a feminist lens throughout all of Canada’s international assistance activities,” said the press release announcing the consultation.

For those who equate feminism with the abortion rights agenda, that language might ring Catholic alarm bells — especially coming less than a month after Bibeau unblocked funding to abortion services within the “Maternal, Newborn and Child Health” initiatives of Canadian aid funding.

Development and Peace, however, has had a policy on gender and “full recognition of women’s rights as human rights” since 1995. Women and children first has been a principle of the Catholic agency dating right back to its 1967 founding. It just doesn’t think abortions solve real women’s problems, which start with nutrition, income, family violence, education, access to the courts and government services and basic health.

Leduc’s strategy is to ensure Development and Peace is delivering aid and solidarity within a Catholic framework.

“Development and Peace will continue to work in the areas it knows best, that it supports and that are in line with the social teaching of the Catholic Church and the values within it,” he said. “That’s at least been made very clear by the minister in the consultations thus far.”

The Sustainable Development Goals — 169 specific commitments Canada signed onto last September at the United Nations which aim to end deep poverty around the globe by 2030 — support Leduc’s broader interpretation of what it means to raise up women and children within an effective aid policy. 

Whatever else the policy rethink does, it must create a plan for Bibeau’s department to make meaningful contributions on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals and the 169 targets that support them.

Canadian Foodgrains Bank also believes it has a role to play in strategies that prioritize women. The organization has just issued a report called “Equal Harvests” pointing out women make up 43 per cent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries. If women farmers got equal land, training, tools and inputs as male farmers they could increase their yields 20 to 30 per cent. That adds up to higher family incomes, healthier children, more economic opportunity and fewer people trading rural poverty for life in the slums of huge metropolises.

“Eliminating gender discrimination would reduce the number of food insecure people in the world by 12-17 per cent,” claims the report.

Cornelius says Canada needs to reclaim its former role as a leader in agricultural development by bringing its investment in farming and food systems back up to $450 million a year.

“Growth in the agricultural sector gives you a huge bang for your buck, because it has such an employment creating effect,” he said, reducing poverty “at a much faster rate than growth in any other sector of the economy.”

Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change and the environment, is the key for Development and Peace, which has never been satisfied to leave foreign aid up to the experts. Its mandate has always called for it to educate ordinary Canadians about the rest of the world and how poverty has come to dominate the lives of the global majority. In Leduc’s eyes a Canadian policy for development aid has to involve Canadians and all of their most cherished beliefs, values, hopes and ideals.

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