Canada’s Aid Failure is One of Politics and Punditry

Pundits are not policymakers and they should not be held to the same standard of public responsibility. But opinion leaders do need to take responsibility for their role in shaping public debate and, at times, contributing to policy failure. I was reminded of this last week when reading one of Jeffrey Simpson’s Globe and Mail columns, in which he lamented Canadian foreign aid cuts and asserted that the country’s “once-sterling reputation for caring about Africa is over.”

Rewind the clock to June 2005, when Canada had a brief, once-in-a-generation public discussion on its foreign assistance strategy, especially for Africa. It was the eve of the historic Gleneagles G8 Summit, hosted by then-U.K. prime minister Tony Blair. The Martin government was riding a knife edge in deliberating whether to join other advanced economies, such as the U.K. and the rest of Europe, in committing a fair share of the global financing required to tackle global problems such as AIDS, malaria, and food insecurity.

Fair share was defined as a timetable to achieve the international aid target of 0.7 per cent of gross national income by 2015, the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals. After missing multiple natural policy moments to commit to 0.7 over the previous year, the government was in a last-minute scramble finally to decide before Gleneagles. Many Ottawa decision-makers were new to foreign aid issues and eager to be perceived as hard-headed. At the time I was managing the UN Millennium Project and tracked the situation closely.

During the final critical days of deliberations, Simpson wrote an influential column that helped tip the scales when it accused aid advocates of fiscal naivety. “By all means,” he wrote, “let Canada raise its foreign aid to 0.7. … Remember, however, that such a commitment would eat up just about all available federal money for the next decade. … Forget, therefore, more federal money for provinces, daycare, the homeless, tax cuts, postsecondary education, research, aboriginals or anything else. … There wouldn’t be anything left.”

Thus one of Canada’s most trusted voices misleadingly framed 0.7 as a choice between global disease control and Canadian day care. Absent was a discussion of Canada’s responsibilities toward the Millennium Development Goals. Nor was there mention of the cost of hypocrisy, since Martin had already endorsed 0.7 as finance minister at a landmark 2002 UN conference and his successor minister Ralph Goodale had endorsed the target in March 2005 as a member of the Blair-led Commission for Africa.

Days later, at the G8 summit, Canada said a final no to 0.7. The faux hard-headedness struck a two-fold blow to the country’s international political capital. First, many in the global policy community had believed Martin could be trusted to provide leadership on this issue and felt let down when he did not. Second, Canada is generally considered the “home of 0.7” since the target first took hold globally following an international commission chaired by Lester Pearson in 1969. It is extra costly when a national progenitor is seen as failing to follow through.

In fairness, Simpson had changed tune by a December 2005 column, where he probed, “When the world asked for commitments to deliver 0.7 per cent of GDP for foreign aid, where was Canada?” In March 2010 he later bemoaned Canada’s global aid laggard status as part of the country’s ability to tackle its problems partly on the back of the world’s poor. But where was that Jeffrey Simpson in early 2005?

Fast-forward to 2012 and the U.K. continues to lead by example on 0.7, despite a much worse fiscal situation than Canada’s. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron realizes that 0.7 is not just a good investment in humanity, it is also good politics. The UN Secretary General recently announced a high-level panel to propose global development goals and strategy for a post-2015 world. Cameron is one of three co-chairs, along with the Nobel laureate President of Liberia and the President of Indonesia. The U.K. has earned its oar in the water.

Canada’s politicians should be held responsible for the country’s multi-partisan failure to lead on international development, but ultimately they follow the evolution of public discussions much more than they create them. At a deeper level, Canada has suffered a failure of public deliberation. This can only be solved through active long-term leadership from public voices of all types. Leaders from media, academia, and the private sector need to step up alongside the traditional voices of non-governmental organizations.

It typically takes years for public discourses to take shape around specific issues and serious facts. They need to advance in step with technical debates. What, for example, should Canada’s role be in protecting the remarkable achievements of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria? How should Canada engage on international efforts for girls’ secondary education, or for smallholder farm productivity? How can Canadian businesses and researchers best contribute to post-2015 global development goals if the country’s climate policy is out of sync with global norms?

It will likely be some time before Canada is ready for another high-profile discussion of major aid increases. That does not diminish the importance of proactive and rigorous debate on underlying global issues in the meantime. To avoid long-term echoes of “where was Canada when the world came calling?” opinion leaders should take more responsibility for tackling the substance today.