With words like recession and middle-class growth being thrown around, it’s clear that the current election campaign is focused on inward-facing issues as opposed to global ones. Canadians are concerned about jobs, housing, and childcare here at home.
But the party leaders will often invoke the image of Canada as a champion on the world stage in terms of helping the less fortunate; for example, they often trumpet our accomplishments in multiculturalism, immigration, and government-funded healthcare. And these politicians aren’t alone. It’s a national pastime for many Canadians to brag about peacekeeping missions as they backpack through Thailand with a maple leaf stitched to their luggage.
So where do the interests of Canadians lie? In bolstering our reputation internationally, or in the domestic realm? With these two perspectives seemingly at odds with each other, let’s look at foreign aid in the party platforms for the coming election. By pandering to our keenest desires, perhaps these platforms will reveal what Canadians really care about.
The most recent budget released earlier this year is the best representation of what the Conservatives would do if they are re-elected. Budget 2015 puts a five year freeze on all foreign aid spending but also vows to open a development finance institution which would give loans to low and middle income countries to further develop their private industries.
This budget is in line with Mr. Harper’s consistent refrain that development aid is not about how much money is being spent, but rather about how it is being spent. That being said, the OECD estimates that Canada currently spends only 0.24 per cent of GDP on foreign aid, far below the 0.7 per cent target set out by the UN. Canada sits below the OECD average which is 0.24%. However, not all countries have struggled to meet the commitment. The UK has met the target of 0.7% while Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Luxembourg all spend well over that benchmark.
In February 2015, the Liberals put out a statement admonishing the current state of foreign aid spending in Canada and committed to re-establishing Canada’s role as a leader on the world stage. Since then, Mr. Trudeau has continued to promise to reverse the decline in foreign aid spending that has occurred under Mr. Harper (while conveniently ignoring similar cuts Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin made in the early 2000’s).
In the recent Munk Debate on foreign policy, Mr. Trudeau did not state any Liberal commitments to foreign aid spending following the trend in this election campaign and instead chose to attack Mr. Harper on safe access to abortions in the global south. In a similar vein, the Liberal Party platform promises to help the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. It does not commit to increasing foreign aid spending to 0.7% nor does it include any hard numbers on how the Liberals would provide additional financial support to developing countries.
In May 2015, Mr. Mulcair committed to return Canada’s foreign aid spending to the UN goal of 0.7 per cent of GDP. It was also clearly stated in the NDP platform on their website that the party would work to return foreign aid spending to 0.7 per cent of GDP. Mr. Mulcair has reiterated this goal throughout the election campaign as recently as September 28.
However, after the writ dropped the NDP released a balanced fiscal plan in September that revealed no details on foreign aid contributions. In fact, party members stated that the goal to achieve 0.7 per cent was an aspirational goal that, while consistent with NDP values, will not be practical in the current fiscal environment. The NDP party platform details how spending will increase by 50 million dollars a year. However, over a four year mandate, this would not return spending to 0.7% of GDP.
Much like the NDP, the Greens have stated they would increase foreign aid spending to 0.7 per cent of GDP if elected in the past. And while the Greens are still committed to increasing spending to 0.% per cent, they do not provide further details on how that promise would be enacted. It is a single sentence in their most recent party platform that is not accounted for in their budget.
The Green website does include a party resolution which would introduce the Tobin Tax (a tax on immediate transactions from one currency to another) to fund the 0.7% foreign aid spending but given that Ms. May has not had many comments on the issues, it does not appear to be an electoral priority (although her exclusion from the recent Munk debate may have contributed to her silence on the issue).
Does it matter anyway?
Given that none of the four major parties have placed significant emphasis on returning foreign aid spending to 0.7 per cent of GDP, it is apparent that foreign aid is not a priority. So why then bother to bring up vague promises to improve foreign aid spending or increase Canada’s international presence if the costs don’t fit into a fiscal plan and concrete implementation plans don’t exist?
It appears as though party leaders are using rhetoric about foreign aid to appeal to voters in the same way the Canadian backpacker talks about peacekeeping: it makes us feel good about ourselves without actually engaging with the issue. Canadians are concerned with domestic issues and rightly so, times are tough right now. But the idea that the next Prime Minister will vaguely do something to help people elsewhere is also comforting.
It’s an unfortunate reality that concrete promises on foreign aid spending probably don’t matter to the average voter in this election, and that’s why it isn’t prioritized in this election–despite the fact that it does matter to people across the globe who are still living in abject poverty today.
Katie Bowers is a 2017 MPP candidate at the University of Toronto. For her undergraduate, she studied political science focusing on development studies at the University of British Columbia. Her policy interests are health policy, foreign policy, and international development.