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Self-Interest Rules in Canadian Foreign Aid

In the mid-twentieth century, Lester B. Pearson revolutionized Canada’s international reputation. Considered the father of peacekeeping, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in defusing the Suez Crisis and creating the United Nations Emergency Force. As a result of these accomplishments, in 1968 the United Nations asked him to serve as chairman of the Commission on International Development. The Pearson Commission, as it came to be called, then spearheaded the campaign for a world-wide increased commitment to development. In 1970, Resolution 2626 was passed by the UN General Assembly, mandating that 0.7% of donor GNP should be allocated for official development assistance (ODA).

It was this particular moment in history that drastically changed Canada’s international reputation. With Resolution 2626, Canada established itself on the international scene, leading the way in diplomatic relations and humanitarianism. Most Canadians, including myself, are incredibly proud of our reputation for peacekeeping and humanitarianism. Yet our initial triumph in the 1970s has not proved to be the solid foundation we expected. In fact, we should be more ashamed, than proud, of our international efforts.

In 1970, Canada accepted this goal of committing 0.7% of our GNP towards ODA. By 1986, however, only a meager 0.46% was donated. Between 1991 and 2003, Canada’s international aid budget was halved and reached its lowest rate since 1965. In the early 2000s, we had obviously downgraded from a major to a minor contributor of development assistance. Canada’s aid accounted for less than 3% of total bilateral aid from OECD countries.

In 2003, we saw an about-face as the Chrétien government promised to double aid by 2010. Yet, Canada did, in fact, reach this goal. Due to the global economic crisis, the Harper government announced plans to cut 24% of the aid budget over the next five years. Currently, only 0.33% of our GDP is committed to foreign aid. We trail far behind all leading western and northern European countries.

The most astounding part of this downward trend in Canadian foreign aid assistance is that popular rhetoric is still stuck in the 1970s. Most Canadians believe we are a moral authority in international relations. Core Canadian values appear to be based on our legacy of peacekeeping and humanitarianism. It is obvious that this is no longer the case. In order to mitigate the woes of economic recession, the Canadian government decided to salvage our financial straights on the backs of the poorest countries, cutting aid to those most in need.

Even though I personally believe that such action is morally abhorrent, it is still reasonable to value Canadian interests above foreign interests. However, the hypocrisy of the Canadian populace is repugnant. We continue to take pride in our humanitarian efforts even as we are desperately falling behind the rest of the world.

If our political culture has indeed shifted from a humanitarian-centered one, to an entirely self-interested, amoral culture, then we can no longer cloak ourselves in yesteryear’s reputation. We must collectively recognize that our politicians have benched sympathy and pity in favor of getting ahead in the international game.

If, however, Canadians want to retain some sense of conscience, we must take appropriate measures to reestablish our commitment to development assistance.

In 2005, there was such an attempt. The International Policy Statement (IPS) was released, a policy document for reforming the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). It stated that the objective and motivation for development assistance was to combat poverty abroad as well as to serve Canadian interests. With these competing motivations for foreign aid, clearly apparent in the IPS, new issues arose. Should foreign aid be a tool for achieving Canadian foreign policy objectives? Or is aid an expression of international solidarity? It appears as though international realism has replaced humane internationalism. Even in our few current attempts at humanitarianism, Canadian aid is inundated with self-interest.

Considering this recent legacy, it is no wonder than Canada did not win a seat on the Security Council in October of 2010. Frankly, we did not deserve it. If Canadians wish to reinstate our reputation as global leaders in humanitarian efforts, we must make a greater effort at reforming CIDA and our policy toward foreign aid.

–  Joey Shea

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