International assistance has suddenly become a hot election topic with the announcement that the Conservative party would cut Canada’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) if elected. Other parties have expressed their positions as well – including in response to a questionnaire the Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC) sent to all registered parties early in the campaign.

While it is indeed time politicians elevate debate on Canada’s global leadership, it should be about more than sound bites. Public debate on Canadian aid seems to have all but ignored the reasons why that aid is so important. Canadian aid is not simply a question of charity. It is a matter of national interest. Helping other countries is also about looking out for Canadians.

It is true that the foundational argument for providing international assistance is a moral one.  Canadians have a moral responsibility to assist disaster survivors wherever they are, help overcome extreme poverty, support communities wrestling with livelihood-destroying climate change and fight global diseases like tuberculosis and malaria, which affect the most vulnerable most of all.

Solidarity, compassion and respect for human dignity are the main reasons why millions of Canadians give to international charities. These values are a monument to human progress enshrined in our legal frameworks through the likes of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the UN Declaration of Human Rights. They also help explain why national polls consistently show overwhelming Canadian support for Canadian aid to people in less fortunate countries.

Evidence supports the moral argument. Aid works. It has helped reduce the mortality rate of children under five, by funding immunization programs and health and nutrition initiatives – increasing life expectancy in low-income countries from 50 years in 1990 to 61 years in 2014. The most extreme forms of poverty were halved around the globe between 1990 and 2010. These are remarkable achievements.

Yet, morality isn’t the only argument for increasing aid for less developed countries. When allocating funds to needs in Canada and beyond our borders, other factors hold sway. Since as far back as the 1969 Pearson report on aid, the federal government has drawn on the arguments of “enlightened and constructive self-interest” to make decisions on how much ODA to provide and where to send it.  Canadian aid to developing countries is also about supporting Canada’s interests in security, trade, migration, health and economic stability.

Infectious diseases know no boundaries, conflicts and climate change impact migration and economic prosperity. Canada cannot avoid the cost of dealing with these issues at home.

Infectious diseases know no boundaries, conflicts and climate change impact migration and economic prosperity. Canada cannot avoid the cost of dealing with these issues at home. Think of precautions taken in airports and hospitals for SARS (2003) and Ebola (2014) or refugee numbers to Canada after international conflicts in Vietnam (’70s), Somalia (’90s) and Syria. Canada directly serves its interests and limits risks within its borders by addressing these issues abroad.

The same is true with extremism, terrorism, drugs and crime, which grow out of the world’s must vulnerable and unstable places. And while there are important roles the military and security services must play internationally to address these challenges, their interventions are expensive and cannot generate stability on their own. They must be accompanied by significant social and economic investments if they are to succeed in the long run. Even better, early and impactful development assistance can often prevent insecurity in the first place. Stabilization through development yields long-term and far-reaching benefits. The largest contributors of UN peacekeepers today – Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Rwanda – are countries that themselves received Canadian aid.

Canadian prosperity, too, is supported through ODA. In the long game of developing new trading markets, there is wisdom in investing in countries before their economies have fully matured. Obvious examples include South Korea and Vietnam, where aid helped them to transition after their wars to become significant economies and Canadian trading partners. Bangladesh offers a more recent example of aid success in supporting improved governance and economic progress.

Recent upheavals in trading relationships with the US and China have raised the stakes of market diversification for Canadian businesses. In addition to supporting future trading potential, ties to emerging countries can provide Canada with support when it needs it.

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Canada thrives most in a peaceful world order. With its limited size and global influence, we depend on reliable multilateral institutions and international rules to protect our national interest. As these are challenged by rising authoritarianism and nationalism, Canada needs positive partners with whom to work to build a modern global rules-based order and to reduce risks of global economic or institutional collapse.

Canada has built up a reserve of international goodwill capital thanks to its support of multilateral institutions, peacekeeping and assistance to developing countries. But we are drawing down on it when we should instead be shoring up our investments.

There are dozens of reasons why Canada needs to invest internationally. But few Canadians realize how little we have been spending. When asked, Canadians systematically overestimate our country’s generosity, thinking we spend 17 cents for every dollar in development aid, when in fact we spend 2 cents for every dollar in the federal budget. This is barely pocket change to support the poorest and the most vulnerable countries in the world. Canada has built up a reserve of international goodwill capital thanks to its support of multilateral institutions, peacekeeping and assistance to developing countries across nearly eight decades since the Second World War. But we are drawing down on it when we should instead be shoring up our investments.

When we compare Canada to other countries, our vision doesn’t match our commitments. We are no longer doing our fair share. For the first time since 1970, Canadian international development assistance currently sits at 0.28 percent of Gross National Income (GNI) and lags the average commitment to development of OECD members (0.31 percent of GNI).

Aid is not partisan. The 14 OECD countries outperforming Canada’s commitments to ODA are led by governments situated throughout the political spectrum. This includes the centre-right governments in Canada’s two competitor countries for a UN Security Council seat in 2021: Ireland and Norway. Both have either surpassed or committed to reaching the globally agreed ODA target of 0.7 percent of GNI.

Later this autumn, alongside other partners, CCIC will convene Canada’s international affairs community for further discussions of Canada’s role in the world and opportunities for enhancing our collective contributions. The Summit on Canada’s Global Leadership will mark a key chance to take stock of how Canada’s international policy – including aid – helps build a better world and how to make the case for a robust federal commitment.

A moral and principled argument should be enough to justify increasing Canadian aid. But the strategic arguments are equally compelling. In a rapidly changing world where Canadian values are under siege and the international institutions we rely on to support our interests are increasingly undermined, our country should invest more in our global interests, not less. Aid is one of the best ways to do this.

Photo: Shutterstock by Denys Yelmanov

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Nicolas Moyer
Nicolas Moyer is CEO of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, the national association of Canadian international development and humanitarian organizations.

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