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Where Canada is heading on International Development: what we learnt from the debates, platforms and public opinion

by Aniket Bhushan

Published: October 6, 2015 

On September 28, 2015 the leaders of the three main parties in Canada – the incumbent Conservatives, the NDP and the Liberals – took part in the first ever Canadian election debate on foreign policy. Following this, on October 2, 2015 the three mentioned parties were joined by the Bloc Québécois for a general French language debate.

With all the debates behind us and the benefit of having at least 2 official party platforms (the Liberal’s released theirs on October 5th, the NDP had released theirs prior to the debate on the economy on September 17th), we can unpack positions on foreign policy.

I was one of the expert panelists providing real-time analysis during the foreign policy debate for Macleans. The analysis below builds on that and focuses on one of our key areas of interest – international development – which we can now expand on further.

Breaking down Canada’s global engagement

The election debates have brought to the fore longer-standing discussions about Canada’s place in the world, or “global engagement”.

There have been several recent attempts at ’empirically’ evaluating Canada’s global engagement. While laudable (if only mildly useful) each of these has its own weaknesses (a topic for a later post). Taken as a whole they are inconclusive (if not contradictory).

For instance:

For an analysis of Canada’s global engagement based solely on relative development and defence spending (as %GDP), which concludes Canada needs to increase spending by anywhere from 50% to over 100% to match G7 performance, see here (current spending is around $24 billion, to match the G7 average we are told spending would need to increase by $13 billion, to match G7 top performers spending would need to increase by $30 billion, annually).

For a nearly contradictory conclusion, on whether Canada’s position in the world over the last decade has been “hurt”, see here (the, albeit methodologically dubious, survey of data from trade to development to defence to diplomacy, concludes Canada’s position in the world has in fact improved).

Unpacking these is beyond the current scope. However a reasonable conclusion is that these debates provide an opportunity for the candidates to tap in to Canadians’ exaggerated sense of anxiety about how the world sees us. Indeed foreign policy is both hard and easy from a political perspective. Hard because it is the area leaders have the least control, and because it increasingly pervades domestic issues especially in Canada like never before. Easy because it is fertile ground for the candidates to appear statesmanlike. One way to assess credibility is to check whether strong positioning is backed by dollar signs.

Public opinion 

There is an odd symmetry between these discussions and analyses, and how uncertain and contradictory public opinion is on foreign policy (and especially international development).

Clearly, some of the recent high profile and critical narratives have found their way into wider public opinion. On the same day as the foreign policy debate, Angus Reid released its foreign policy survey which showed Canadians are twice as likely to say the country’s reputation has worsened over the past decade than improved. In spite of this, the incumbent is picked as the best choice to lead on foreign policy issues.

Things get worse when it comes to international development. The standout findings from a June report on Canadian perspectives on international development were that: “92% of Canadians think it’s important to improve health, education and economic opportunity for the world’s poorest people; and 62% agree Canada should be one of the leading countries in providing international aid”.

However, when asked about Canada’s top foreign policy priority, the Angus Reid analysis (which, unlike the above, places development among a set of foreign policy priorities rather than focus on it in isolation) revealed that “building better trade ties” was nearly twice as popular as “being a leader in foreign aid”.

Furthermore, while Canadian’s lament our declining global standing, a majority (57%) felt on foreign aid Canada is doing enough and not falling behind. Increasing foreign aid to the 0.7% of GNI UN target is a non-starter for the vast majority – 73% argued in favor of keeping aid at current (historically low) levels at 0.24% of GNI while only 27% were in favor of increasing aid to 0.7%.

Granted public opinion is fickle and often contradictory. That said, the data should be concerning to those advocating for large increases in Canadian aid spending, as they come at a time when these issues have garnered attention beyond the typical specialist communities.

Unpacking the debates and platforms from the perspective of international development and Canadian foreign aid 

A wide variety of foreign policy issues have been in focus – development and aid probably rank the lowest among these. They include:

  • Defence: key issues include the role and participation of Canadian forces in ongoing missions (such as against ISIS); procurement (including the controversial F35 program, ice-breakers and the like); security and privacy (both by way of Bill C51 and C24); and Canada’s declining contribution to international peacekeeping.
  • Trade and investment: the main areas in the debates included getting Canadian products to market (Keystone XL pipeline); but these have since largely been usurped by the agreement reached on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, to which Canada is party (and the host of issues such as supply-management, sector supports for the auto sector and the like that go along with the TPP).
  • Refugees and the humanitarian crisis: which largely focused on the near term situation in Syria and the adequacy or inadequacy of Canada’s response (both at home, in terms of intake of refugees, and abroad, in terms of levels of humanitarian assistance).

These are important issues (the later two will be addressed separately). Development and aid spending took a backseat to these, however it is our focus here, and rightly so, because we learnt a number of things from the debates and platforms that have hardly received any attention.

What did we hear in the lead-up? What came up in the debates? 

In the lead up to the debates the NDP was the only party that focused specifically on international development and foreign aid.

The NDP made explicit reference to setting out a timetable for increasing Canada’s aid budget to 0.7% of GNI.

The Liberals lamented Canada’s declining global standing, including on foreign aid, but only made vague references to ‘restoring’ the aid budget.

The Conservatives for their part have had very little to say on development spending and chose to react, rather than proactively engage Canadians on development issues.

In the debate itself, only the NDP leader made specific reference to aid spending levels and Canada’s generosity as a donor, making reference both to the steep decline in recent years, where, to paraphrase aid levels have halved from around 0.5 to less the 0.25% of GNI, and again to the 0.7% UN target. Contrary to what we expected – given the somewhat inconsistent positioning of the NDP since the release of their costed platform (more on this below) –  the NDP leader did not walk back from the 0.7% target.

Interestingly the main exchange on development spending in the foreign policy debate included praise from both the Liberals and the NDP for the Prime Minister’s leadership surrounding the maternal and newborn child health (MNCH) initiative. However both the NDP and especially the Liberal leader were quick to criticize the PM on the lack of support for reproductive services in Canada’s MNCH initiative (as we predicted). That is not the only critique of Canada’s MNCH initiative however (for an arguably more relevant critique see here).

Leadership on MNCH complicates critiques of the incumbent Conservatives. On the one hand, as we have shown elsewhere, Canada has exceeded its own financial commitment to the area under the Conservatives. While on the other, this has been achieved at a time when overall aid spending was first frozen, and then cut substantially.

Notably, only in the French language debate did we see a hard-hitting exchange and critique of the Liberals, who under Paul Martin as Finance Minister presided over the sharpest cuts in Canadian aid (mid to late 1990s) as pointed out by the leader of the Bloc.

What we did not hear in the debates is equally revealing. 

There was no mention by anyone of the Sustainable Development Goals, now called Global Goals, which coincidentally were being agreed at the UN precisely at the time of the foreign policy debate. Canada has been seen as a relatively disengaged player in the Global Goals process, and, this speaks to the resonance (or rather lack thereof) of these processes in Canada.

The Conservatives did not bring up their efforts at positioning Canada as a leader in leveraging private contributions and capital for international development (either in the form of the development finance initiative announced in the budget, or the Convergence initiative announced at the Addis Financing for Development Conference, or other private sector and philanthropic partnerships).

What made it to platforms? 

With the benefit of having costed platforms at least from two out of the three main parties we can analyze positions on international development and foreign aid. The incumbent Conservatives, for whom we do not have a similar document, can be analyzed on the basis of projection data we have compiled below.

The NDP is the only party which in lead up to the debates and the release of their fiscal framework made specific reference to aid spending levels.

Therefore it came as a surprise and a cause of concern to many (especially in Canadian civil society) that there was no mention of aid spending in the official costed platform. Moreover the NDP platform came under criticism – given it was rather thin on detail, but also because it was predicated on macroeconomic assumptions – regarding growth, fiscal balance, external factors including the exchange rate and oil prices – that are widely believed to be outdated and too optimistic.

The lack of any reference to aid spending and specifically the 0.7% GNI UN target was noteworthy. When pressed on the 0.7% commitment the party (via a high profile candidate and the former Saskatchewan finance minister) responded there was ‘not enough financial wiggle room to follow through on that’.

The NDP position seemed to change or at least got more confusing in the period between the release of the costed framework (Sept 16) and the foreign policy debate (Sept 28). Contrary to the above, the NDP leader again committed that if elected he would put Canada on a timetable to reach the 0.7% of GNI UN foreign aid target.

The Liberal platform while more specific on international development, completely sidesteps the issue of aid spending levels. For starters there is a section dedicated to development assistance (pg 66, in Chapter 5 on Security and Opportunity). In it, one claim and two distinguishing points are made that are worth examining:

  • Claim: that the Conservatives have shifted aid away from the neediest, particularly Africa.
  • Two points by which the Liberals would distinguish themselves: (a) they will not allow development spending to lapse; and (b) they will cover the “full range of reproductive health services” as part of MNCH initiatives unlike the Conservatives.

Notably, the Liberal platform and fiscal framework make no reference to aid spending levels or the 0.7% GNI UN target – much in line with what we would expect given they made no reference to these either in debates or in the lead up to the debates.

For the Conservatives, absent comparable platform, we can reflect on the recent record and forward guidance data. First, if there was any inclination to increase aid spending there was ample opportunity to do so – for e.g. in the budget (which made no reference to aid levels), or surrounding global forums like the Financing for Development conference (where for instance others, like the EU, announced aid targets), or the Global Goals and UN General Assembly (where emerging players, like China, made commitments to spend on development in low income countries).

Concluding assessment

We can conclude by assessing party positions based on the information at hand.

Taking the NDP 0.7% commitment at face value

While it is difficult to take the NDP commitment at face value given the changing positions, if we leave that aside, how realistic is it for Canada to reach 0.7% of GNI? How long can we estimate the ‘long term timetable’ may need to be, which the NDP have referenced?

The main example of a donor reaching the 0.7 target in recent years that is most often cited is the UK. The UK not only committed to but attained the target in a difficult fiscal environment.

We can unpack this further by asking how long did it take for the UK to get to this level, relative to when they were at levels where Canada is today?

The last time UK aid spending was near levels where Canadian aid spending is now i.e. around 0.23 – 0.24% of GNI, was back in 1999. Since then the two ratios have trended in the opposite direction. While Canada’s ratio has been stagnant to declining (especially in recent years), the UK’s ratio has been increasing steadily.

The important point is that from levels close to where Canada is now it took the UK about 15 years to reach 0.7% of GNI, i.e. it required steady uptrend in effort, year after year, for 15 years.

So a reasonable long-term timetable would be about that duration. Anything short of that would require out-sized fiscal effort on foreign aid of the kind we have not seen in Canada at least as far as we have data (back to 1975).

15 years is also the time frame the EU has recently committed to reaching 0.7%.

What is odd is that if donors like the EU, and for that matter Canada under the NDP, attain this, they would be achieving it precisely in the year the Global Goals would achieve the ‘end of poverty’.

Analyzing the Liberal claim of shifting aid away from the neediest and Africa 

Lets take a look at the data for the period in question from 2006 to 2014. Consider figure 1 and 2 below that breakdown Canadian foreign aid by income level and region.

In 2006 aid to the neediest – i.e. least developed and low income countries – was around 33% of total Canadian aid. By 2010 it reached a high of around 42%. In 2014 it stood at around 37%. Least developed and low income countries have been and remain the main recipients of Canadian aid. It is difficult to argue that aid has been shifted away from the neediest.

Similarly, in 2006 aid to Africa accounted for about 40% of Canadian aid. In 2013, Africa accounted for 45% of Canadian aid. In 2014 Africa accounted for about 41% (the relative increase in Asia is attributable almost entirely to crises – both in the Middle East, as well as natural disasters such as the Philippines typhoon and floods in Pakistan). During the entire period, Africa remained by far the most important region for Canadian aid. It is difficult to argue aid has been shifted away from Africa.

However, as our analysis elsewhere has shown, the Liberals do have a point regarding the level of aid lapses, which in recent years have reached historical highs.

Figure 1. Canadian aid by income level (click to enlarge; or see data here)

by income aid

Figure 2. Canadian aid by region (click to enlarge; or see data here)

region aid


Likely trajectory for Canadian aid in the coming years 

The amalgamation of former CIDA and former DFAIT continues to create challenges from a data perspective – specifically in this case lining up and normalizing development related spending that pre-amalgamation was mostly part of CIDA’s budget, but some of it also carried out by DFAIT.

In figure 3 we attempt to lay out the most likely trajectory of Canadian aid spending in the coming years. Absent an official platform or pronouncement on aid spending, this is in a sense the incumbents position.

Below we focus only on that part of development spending which can be attributed to and compared with what is now the merged department DFATD. We do this by syncing data from various sources – in this case the 2013-14 Statistical Report, the 2014-15 DFATD Report on Plans and Priorities (RPPs), and the 2015-16 DFATD RPP.

Actual and planned spending levels are in dark blue, projected levels are in light blue.

Combined DFATD development spending has declined steadily from 2011-12 to 2013-14, and is expected to dip again in the current cycle. Thereafter spending is expected to be nearly stagnant out to 2017-18.

On this trajectory, if we assume Canadian GNI will continue to grow in the coming years, Canada’s aid to GNI ratio will decline further from the current historical low.

What complicates matters further is that given the recent expansion of the development priority country focus list from 20 to 25 and the addition of a new development partner countries list (another 12), there is a risk that a smaller overall budget will be spread thin across a wider set of countries and priorities.

Figure 3. Canadian development spending in the coming years: Actual, Planned and Projected spending 2011-12 to 2017-18 (click to enlarge)

Dev budget and projection

Reversing this, while not impossible, would require a radical break from recent trends. But strategically, the way to do this is probably not targets so far out of reach that they are hard to take seriously – such as adding $14 billion a year to the aid budget, as would be suggested by the NDP’s ambition; or doubling spending on Canada’s global engagement to match the performance of G7 peers, as suggested by others.

A better approach would be to first ask:

(a) Can we spend more effectively to reach our existing development objectives within given constraints?

(b) Are there new or different objectives we need to target and if so do they require additional resources?

(c) Can we spend differently for instance to leverage or crowd-in other development investment (from private and other non-official sources) that may not require additional fiscal effort?


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