Harper Lite? The Trudeau Government on Foreign Aid

Shifting from petty and mean to sunny ways, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has done a remarkable job of changing the tone of Canada’s international engagement. When it comes to foreign aid, however, the rhetoric has not been matched by action. In fact, even some of the rhetoric has barely changed. The Trudeau government is increasingly sounding and acting like the one it replaced.

When the Liberals defeated Stephen Harper and the Conservatives in 2015, the international development community breathed a sigh of relief. The Harper government had cut foreign aid funding for several consecutive years and treated development NGOs with disdain. In 2016, the Trudeau government held wide-ranging consultations to feed into a new aid policy, something the Harper government had never done during its decade in power. Participants hoped that the International Assistance Review would mark a new era in working with both domestic and international actors.

Even then, there were some warning signs. The structure of the consultations suggested that the government was more interesting in rebranding the aid program than rethinking what could actually improve aid more fundamentally. From the beginning, the government signalled that it was not prepared to provide the resources required to rebuild Canada’s aid program after the cuts under Harper. Even before the consultations started, it repeatedly used the word “unrealistic” to characterize the goal of reaching 0.7% of gross national income (GNI), to which Canada committed in 1970. Previous Liberal governments, including Jean Chrétien’s, carefully reiterated their commitment to this objective, even while cutting the aid budget. Under Harper, Canada officially abandoned the 0.7% target and the Trudeau government has not restored it, not even as a distant aspiration.

One of the highlights of the consultations, according to the government’s own summary, was participants’ repeated calls to “increase international assistance funding.” Instead, last month’s federal budget foresees no growth at all in aid spending, not a single dollar more for at least the next five years. As the Canadian economy continues to grow, the share dedicated to foreign aid will continue to shrink. Currently 14th in the OECD table of donor generosity, Canada could sink further. Within a few years, the aid budget could even fall below the 0.22% of GNI spent in 2001 and reach its lowest rate since 1965. So much for proclamations that “Canada is back” and “we are here to help.” The Trudeau government is on track to be even stingier than Harper.

In a dismissal reminiscent of the Harper era, Finance Minister Bill Morneau recommended that disappointed development agencies simply learn to “do more with less.” His comments also suggested that either, as recently argued by Lauren Dobson-Hughes, he does not understand the importance of aid, including in improving the lives of women and girls — supposedly a top priority of the Trudeau government — or that he simply does not care. Minister of International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau apparently did not have much influence on the budget and now has to toe the party line.

To deflect from its lack of generosity, the Liberals emphasize how they are making aid more effective and focusing on achieving “real results,” a favourite tactic of the Conservatives. Trudeau also argued that “throwing buckets of money indiscriminately at a problem isn’t necessarily the best solution.” This excuse is interchangeable with Conservative Minister of International Development Julian Fantino’s defence of aid underspending in 2013: “It isn’t about shovelling money out the door.” Both make it sound like it would be hard to find worthwhile poverty reduction programs to fund, whereas trillions of dollars are needed to reach the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Another way to cover up this lack of government generosity is to try to get the private sector to fund development instead. Last month’s federal budget announced the creation of a $300 million development finance institution, which will lend money to the Canadian private sector. It does not appear that this money will actually count as foreign aid and its impact on poverty in developing countries is uncertain. Moreover, the Harper government had already announced the same amount for the same purpose in the 2015 budget. As the old detergent commercials famously pondered, “I can’t see the difference. Can you see the difference?”

Both the Harper and Trudeau governments have placed great emphasis on women and children, the former framed paternalistically as an effort to “save” them, the latter as part of a self-proclaimed feminist approach. The Liberals have increased support for contraception and abortion, but otherwise the change in perspective is more of a repackaging than a genuine shift.

Like the Harper cabinet, Trudeau and his colleagues love to proclaim that contributing to global initiatives constitutes global leadership. Such pretensions may fool many Canadians, but Canada’s donor peers are not so gullible. As long as Canada claims credit for joint initiatives while refusing to pay its share of development efforts, it won’t be taken seriously on the world stage.

None of this bodes well for the overdue new aid policy. The government will probably adopt new flavours of the month in terms of priority sectors and countries, as well as a signature initiative or two — which is exactly how previous Conservative and Liberal governments rebranded their aid programs. Without any new resources, the new priorities will merely shift money around, leaving everyone scrambling.

The Liberals’ honeymoon is over. Canadian NGOs — which pushed hard for an increase to the aid budget — can stop playing nice with the government. Aid advocates need to ramp up their efforts and do much more to hold the Liberals to account for international development. Lacking a genuine commitment, the Trudeau government is proving by word and deed to be not much more than Harper Lite.

Stephen Brown
Stephen Brown

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