The 2021 federal election campaign has paid very little attention to Canadian foreign aid. The main parties’ platforms, however, contain some important signaling about what might lie in store after September 20.
During the last campaign, in 2019, the Conservatives grabbed the headlines with its plan to slash aid spending by 25%, backed up by very dubious justifications. This time around, under Erin O’Toole’s leadership, the Conservative Party platform commits to maintaining the aid budget at its current level, while working to improve its effectiveness.
Is the Conservative plan likely to improve Canadian aid? The short answer is no. Much of its content is reminiscent of the Harper era, especially its overarching promise to “ensure that our aid policy advances Canada’s national interests”, despite the fact that Canadian law specifies that poverty reduction is to be the central focus of aid.
Global geopolitics has a strong imprint on the Conservative aid plan. If elected, the party would legally require that “aid dollars do not support the interests of hostile regimes”, implying that Canadian aid currently does. It also promises to “place a significant focus on combating extremism, human trafficking and the use of child soldiers, and abolishing all forms of modern-day slavery”. Although these are worthy goals, such niche initiatives tend to be ministerial pet projects (like ending forced marriage was under the Harper government) that sound good but cannot anchor a $6 billion aid program. Moreover, aid is poorly suited to directly “combating extremism”, as the tragic results of the last 20 years of Western assistance to Afghanistan have starkly illustrated.
Despite language heralding a strong emphasis on international human rights, the concept is frequently downgraded to “values” and “dignity”. Through this process, internationally codified universal legal obligations morph into vague principles that the Canadian government pursues when it wants to, which can undermine the universality of such rights. Oddly, the Conservatives want a newly created Office of Religious Freedom and Conscience to “inform Canadian international development programs”. But how compatible will that be with the Conservatives’ promise to “speak clearly and confidently for the inalienable human dignity of LGBTQ people and deploy resources to help their activists”?
The Conservative platform focuses very strongly on the economic growth in developing countries and the need for Canada to increase trade with them. It barely mentions poverty reduction or the importance of social spending, especially vital in the context of the COVID-induced development crisis. The plan invokes vulnerable and marginalized populations a couple of times, but it assumes that more trade and investment will automatically benefit them, rather than the middle classes or elites. Commercial opportunities for Canadian companies are also more plentiful in middle-income countries than poor ones, so the emphasis on trade and investment could presage a shift away from countries that need aid the most.
On a more positive note, the Conservatives’ promise to increase funding and devolve decision-making power to local development NGOs. If implemented, this would mark a clear break with the Harper-era emphasis on greater control over recipient organizations. But the platform also grandly proclaims that the “Conservatives will introduce accountability to our international development assistance”, which in the past has reduced recipients’ autonomy.
Compared to the Conservatives, the Liberal platform contains relatively little significant on foreign aid. Much of its content merely highlights what the Trudeau government has already done or intends to continue to do. Like the Conservatives, the Liberals promise to focus on human rights and democracy, including in their case “expanding fast and flexible support for fragile and emerging democracies”. They also mention the creation of a Canadian Centre for Peace, Order, and Good Government, repeated from their 2019 platform. They have dropped, however, their earlier commitment to hold Canadian companies accountable for their human rights abuses abroad.
The Liberals also repeat their pledge to provide modest annual increases to the total aid budget. Among the few specific financial commitments are the doubling of funding to grassroots women’s rights organizations and the quadrupling of the amount made available to Canadian embassies to support local initiatives. Also new is a mention of “greater assistance to people living with disabilities in developing countries”. All of these initiatives sound promising, albeit rather limited in scope. Without significant additional funding, Canadian aid will remain middling.
The NDP platform makes a firm commitment to the international target of spending 0.7% of gross national income on foreign, which would entail more than doubling the current budget. Like the Conservatives and Liberals, the NDP emphasizes human rights. However, it focuses on multilateralism and highlights the importance of “alleviating poverty, ensuring decent work, protecting the rights of Indigenous communities and supporting global peace and justice”.
The Green Party platform also commits to attaining the 0.7% goal. Unsurprisingly, the Greens promise to increase international climate finance and reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Moreover, they emphasize the agricultural sector and the importance of social sectors, especially health.
The Bloc Québécois’ platform says almost nothing about international development. It merely advocates Canada playing a greater leadership role at the World Health Organization on the issue of COVID vaccines and pushing for patent waivers. A good idea, but one could expect more ambition than that, especially since less than a decade ago the Québec government wanted to set up its own development agency.
Even more disappointingly, the People’s Party platform takes an extreme anti-aid position. It promises to “save billions of dollars by phasing out development aid” and limit assistance to humanitarian emergencies. More generally, it wants Canada to abandon multilateralism and “withdraw from all UN commitments”, including the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
Generally, there is great continuity in Canadian development assistance, no matter which party is in power. If the Liberals form the next government, we should expect more of the same, with a few tweaks. However, if the Conservatives win, aid is likely to shift back to a greater emphasis on Canadian self-interest, the Canadian private sector, trade relations, and middle-income countries, garnished with a few feel-good initiatives.