This past decade has seen a plethora of natural disasters plague many countries and continents; few regions have remained unscathed. Sustained international financial and food aid are crucial to affected countries during their recovery and rebuilding processes in the aftermath of these crises. Most recently, Hurricane Sandy serves as a reminder to Canadians of just how close to home such disasters can strike.
Canada holds a global reputation as international peacekeeper and major contributor to foreign aid, especially in the wake of natural disasters. Since 2004, the expeditious nature of international aid is mostly due to the creation of the Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force (START), governed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAIT). The work of the START initiative involves timely response to natural disasters, but also extends to peace building and stability in fragile states. START can be credited for the efficacious implementation of Canadian aid in Haiti in 2010
However, the remnants of the global economic downturn threaten to destroy our prominence and credibility in the domain of foreign aid. Back in March, the Minister of Finance tabled the 2012 Economic Action Plan, which has significantly tightened the financial belt. The affected government departments and agencies include DFAIT, the International Assistance Envelope (IAE) and Public Safety, among which both DFAIT and Public Safety are commissioned to mitigate risk in the face of national and international emergencies.
Financial reductions of funds allocated to DFAIT and the IAE raise questions about the future of Canada’s foreign policy and its global standing in terms of aid. The blow from the $170 million cut from DFAIT is supposedly counteracted by the estimated $80 million of capital revenue generated from the sale of official residences abroad. Nevertheless, a 6% decrease in departmental spending is still significant. It remains unclear how this budgetary change will specifically affect the START initiative, which is funded by DFAIT.
Moreover, Canada has long-term aid commitments from which it cannot stray. But how will Canada continue such involvement given current adjustments to the budget? In 2007, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) denoted in its peer review of Canada that Canada required more interdepartmental cooperation in order to present a more cohesive international aid response. The Government of Canada’s financial donation to the Canadian Red Cross to repair damages in Jamaica represents the first step toward achieving the objective outlined by Canada’s OECD co-members.
Perhaps what distinguishes Hurricane Sandy from other natural disasters is the fact that it affected countries on both sides of the north-south divide. Prior recent meteorological emergencies affected in large part the global South, with involvement of the global North through the provision of aid. As such, the current repercussions of Hurricane Sandy surround somewhat unchartered territory in appropriate aid response. This introduces yet another question to the situation: Would Canadian aid response have differed, ceteris paribus, if Sandy had only affected a developing nation or the United States alone?
Thus far, all signs point to “no.” Based on past experience, Canadian emergency aid response teams mobilized quickly whether developed or developing countries required aid. The lengthy list includes (but is not limited to), the United States, Haiti, China, Indonesia, and Japan. What typically differentiates relief efforts provided to developed countries, in comparison to infrastructure reconstruction and monetary aid for developing countries, is the additional provision of technical assistance in the form of specialized expertise.
The possibility of cross-border technical work after a disaster is only one of the various emergency preparedness agreements between Canada and the United States. In addition to mutual agreements specific to utility restoration, official federal responses prevail. The June 2012 compilation of the Compendium of U.S. – Canada Emergency Management Assistance Mechanisms reinforces pre-existing mutual plans and procedures within North America, in the case of an array of potential emergencies.
While expectations of Canada to sustain, and even increase, its aid efforts seem unlikely to come to fruition, national NGOs are working diligently in disaster areas. This pledge by Canadian organizations to provide aid diminishes the void left by the federal government and upholds our national profile within the realm of foreign aid.
In part to appease its OECD peers, but also to conserve the front of a united aid response, Canada’s aid policies should continue to focus on the recommendation brought forward in the OECD-DAC review. Concerted communication efforts among non-profit organizations providing emergency aid abroad and government agencies are paramount to providing a cohesive national profile in response to any catastrophe. The efforts documented thus far in current relief plans act as the starting point for future aid coordination.
Therefore, while official federal government spending in foreign affairs and international relief seem to be diminishing, it is being concurrently supplemented by an increase of bilateral governmental action and transnational agreements by agencies like HydroOne (who helped in relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Sandy). I would contend that this move away from government-provided foreign aid mirrors the acceptance of existing public-private partnership projects. Yet this change differs from prior projects as it encompasses an entire range of services; a cost-benefit analysis is necessary to thoroughly assess the value of this transference. Aid should always remain central to Canada’s foreign policy agenda, as a part of government responsibility to engage in humanitarian action, both at home and abroad.
Maybelle Szeto is a 2014 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a BA in Political Science from McGill University. Her policy interests include defence, national security