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OECD calls on Canada to spend more on aid to increase its global "weight"

Last Updated Sep 14, 2018 at 4:40 pm EDT

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses a town hall meeting in Saskatoon, Sask. Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS Jonathan Hayward

OTTAWA – A major international report has concluded that the Trudeau government’s lofty rhetoric about being “back” on the world stage needs the added heft of more foreign aid spending.

The Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development reached that conclusion in an assessment released Friday by its Development Assistance Committee.

The report is part of the OECD’s rotating five-year review of member countries, and its findings could temper the government’s attempts to lobby for a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council in the coming years.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland are both bound for the UN General Assembly later this month, where they will ramp up their campaigning for the two-year seat that would start in 2021.

Government officials say Canada will be pushing the notion of promoting public-private sector partnerships as a tool for financing foreign aid.

The OECD says Canada deserves credit for its renewed engagement on the world stage, including its global advocacy for the rights of women and girls in developing countries, but it needs to spend more on overseas development assistance.

The report says that Canada’s foreign aid spending fell in 2017 to 0.26 per cent of gross national income from 0.31 per cent in 2012, far below the UN target of 0.7 per cent. The average for DAC members countries was 0.32.

It says that the government’s recent new spending of $2 billion over five years on foreign aid simply isn’t enough to restore the spending ratio to 2012 levels — the last time the OECD reviewed Canada’s aid budget and found it lacking.

In dollar terms, the OECD pegs Canada’s foreign aid at US$4.27 billion in 2017, compared to approximately $4.5 billion in 2012. While the dollar amounts are essentially flat over the five years, a growing economy means Canada’s foreign aid as a share of the economy has declined.

Canada has become a “central actor” in supporting the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to eradicate poverty, hunger, gender imbalance and inequality by 2030, said Charlotte Petri Gornitzka, the DAC chair.

“It is important to now set out a path to increase aid volumes to add weight to Canada’s global advocacy role,” she added in a statement accompanying Friday’s report.

Canada’s aid spending has fallen “despite robust economic growth,” the DAC said in a statement on Friday.

The Trudeau government has said that it has no plans to reach the UN’s target of 0.7 per cent — a benchmark that was set in the 1960s by an international commission headed by Canada’s former Liberal prime minister Lester Pearson.

Trudeau and International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau have said that reaching the 0.7 per cent target would simply cost too much.

“We have put forward a progressive new feminist policy and our approach is being recognized in the OECD report for putting gender equality at the heart of our fight to eradicate poverty,” Bibeau said in a written statement to The Canadian Press on Friday.

She also highlighted Canada’s leadership at the June G7 summit in Quebec, where the government was able to raise more than Cdn$3.8 billion in pledges to help send the world’s poorest girls to school.

“Our leadership on gender equality and girls’ education is already making a difference for millions of young women,” said Bibeau.

The government is also relying on leveraging more money from the private sector to fund development projects. It recently created a development finance institution called FinDev Canada, which is a subsidiary of Export Development Canada.

Ian Smillie, a veteran Canadian development worker and author, says the government is “grasping at straws” if it plans to use its push for public-private partnerships as a vote getter at the UN.

“We’re robbing Peter to pay Paul regardless of what our new thing is,” he said.

“We are scraping the bottom of the barrel with our aid budget. This is historically almost at an all-time low. We talk a good game, but we’re at half the level we were when Pierre Trudeau was prime minister.”

Liam Swiss, a development expert at Memorial University in St. John’s, N.L. said the report gives Canada its due on being an advocate for women and for amalgamating its aid program into Global Affairs Canada.

But he says given that the government has been able to find the money for big increases to the defence budget, its insistence that it can’t do more to fund development rings hollow.

“Canada can afford to do more and should do more,” he said. “It’s a bit cynical to say we’re investing as much as we can afford.”

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