What could Canada's Conservatives mean for foreign aid?

Leader of Canada's Conservatives Andrew Scheer campaigns for the upcoming election in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. Photo by: REUTERS / Carlos Osorio

MONTREAL, Canada — The outcome of this month’s Canadian elections could bring dramatic change to the country’s international assistance.

In the midst of a race for the country’s leadership, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has pledged to gut Canada’s foreign budget by 25%, by cutting $2.2 billion Canadian dollars ($1.65 billion) to middle- and upper-income countries as well as “hostile regimes” such as Iran, North Korea, and Russia. Some CA$700 million would be redirected to least developed countries such as Haiti and Afghanistan. The remaining CA$1.5 billion would be reinvested into tax credits.

“Based on relative ODA contributions, Canada is not ‘back.’ Compared to its peers in the OECD, it’s at the back of the pack.”

— Nicolas Moyer, CEO, CCIC

“[Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau is using their [Canadians’] hard-earned tax dollars to support anti-Semitic organizations and prop up foreign dictatorships,” Scheer said during a press conference on Oct. 1. “Our plan will take Canadian tax dollars away from corrupt dictators and wealthy countries and return it to Canadians so they can get ahead.”

The announcement has caught Canada’s international development community by surprise. There were no indications that the Conservative Party was planning on slashing the aid budget. According to the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, Scheer wrote a letter to the organization in 2018 stating: “I believe in the inherent benefits of development assistance to Canadians and the world. Conservatives are committed to strengthening Canada’s record on foreign aid.”

Current polls are placing Trudeau’s Liberal party neck-and-neck with the Conservatives. Both run the risk of not having enough seats to form a majority government, which would restrict their ability to enact policy.

False claims

Scheer’s plan relies on the U.N.’s human development index to define “middle- and upper-income countries,” using the 0.600 level as a limit for eligibility. Aid is typically allocated based on income definitions from the World Bank, rather than the HDI. When fact-checking the plan, analysts from the Canadian International Development Platform found the proposed cuts would amount to CA$1.1 billion. It’s unclear how the plan reached the CA$2.2 billion figure.

Most of the cuts would impact lower-middle-income countries, while the rest would impact upper-middle-income countries. Key development partners such as Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Ghana, and Vietnam would see their funding cut to zero.

“Our analysis shows there's no way you get to that without harming national security interests,” said Aniket Bhushan, adjunct research professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, who co-authored the analysis. “In many of these cases, Canadian assistance … impacts our ability to vet refugees, or have more of a presence on the ground, or to understand what is going on on the ground, and has a national security bearing.”

Scheer also said he would end funding to UNRWA, the U.N. agency that supports Palestinian refugees in the Middle East.

In the meantime, development actors have felt the need to defend some of the basic tenets of Canada’s foreign assistance.

“I had to respond on camera to media about, ‘What is this assistance? Are we really supporting the regime in Iran? Are we really supporting the regime in North Korea?’ I mean, it's ludicrous to think that these are even things that one has to answer,” Bhushan said.

It’s difficult to explain how aid works because its mechanisms are so complex, said Julia Anderson, chief operating officer at the Canadian Partnership for Women and Children’s Health. “[International development] is easy to attack because people don’t get it,” she said. “We need to think as a sector how we respond to that in the long game, not just in this election, but in the long run.”

Civil society organizations have been nervous to speak out on election topics during the campaign because of new rules on advertising spending set by Elections Canada, Anderson said. The rules refer to advertising that takes a position on an election issue, even if it doesn’t refer to a specific candidate or party. This has led environmental groups to wonder whether advocacy campaigns on climate change could be deemed a partisan issue.

While Elections Canada issued several clarifications to assuage fears, civil society organizations are erring on the side of caution. “The third party election rules have changed, and we don't know exactly how they're going to play out. But everyone's operating cautiously in this first round,” Anderson said.

Campaign promises

Foreign aid — and foreign policy at large — typically doesn’t feature prominently in the candidates’ platforms. A debate on foreign policy, customarily held prior to an election, was recently canceled after Trudeau declined to attend, according to debate organizers.

Trudeau’s own promises include a continued increase of Canada’s international development assistance, without citing numbers. This means aid could increase in absolute terms, but not relatively to gross national income. In 2017, Canada’s official development assistance stood at 0.264% of the GNI. Trudeau has never committed to reaching the 0.7% U.N. spending target.

Other promises include “improving the way that we manage and deliver international development assistance, to ensure greater effectiveness, transparency, and accountability” and “spending no less than 10% of our international development assistance budget on education.”

Several other political parties, including the New Democratic Party and the Green Party, have committed to reaching the 0.7% target. The NDP also pledged to increase Canada’s contribution to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and to “hold Canadian companies to a high standard of corporate social responsibility at home and abroad — and ensure they meet it.”

After four years at the helm of Canada’s foreign policy, and despite bold claims about Canada’s renewed leadership role on the global stage, Justin Trudeau’s record in regards to development is mixed.

A joint study by the Canadian International Development Platform and Engineers Without Borders Canada dissected Canada’s international assistance under Trudeau. It found the Feminist International Assistance Policy, which outlines the country’s vision for a gender- and human rights-based international assistance had a “significant impact” on the country’s efforts toward gender equality, on which the country focused 40% of its assistance, above the OECD average of 21%.

By contrast, and contrary to Trudeau’s claims back in 2015, Canada didn’t double its support for climate action. The country is the 11th largest climate donor, with CA$531 million spent. The report identified missed opportunities in working with the private sector and civil society, and an over-reliance on multilateral institutions, as other factors that hindered Canada’s progress in fighting climate change.

“This is more about positioning and branding, than about a substantive change, which people in the space would actually feel,” Bhushan said, who also co-authored the study.

Overall, Canada is increasingly lagging behind in comparison with other OECD countries.

“Canada’s international development assistance is well below the country’s historical performance. In fact, the current government will have the lowest average of any government in 50 years; since record-keeping began,” wrote Nicolas Moyer, CEO of the CCIC, in a statement to the press.

“Based on relative ODA contributions, Canada is not ‘back.’ Compared to its peers in the OECD, it’s at the back of the pack.”

About the author

  • Flavie Halais

    Flavie Halais is a contributor based in Montreal who covers cities and international social issues. In 2013-2014, Flavie was an Aga Khan Foundation Canada International Fellow, reporting for Nation Media Group in Nairobi, Kenya. She’s also reported from Rwanda, Brazil and Colombia.