In an exclusive interview with the Star just hours after he pledged a new unbudgeted $785 million boost to Canada’s contribution to the global fight against HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, Trudeau acknowledged Ottawa has no intention of meeting the international goal to spend .70 per cent of gross domestic product on foreign aid anytime soon.
“I think it’s too ambitious for this year and probably for next year as well,” Trudeau said. “But it’s the kind of thing that keeps us very, very mindful that engaging with the world isn’t just pure altruism or generosity.”
The target was set by the United Nations in 1970 as a way to ensure the world was on track to meet global development goals to end extreme poverty and improve public health in developing countries. Canada isn’t even close, spending .28 per cent of the country’s GDP in 2015, up slightly from .24 per cent the previous year, but below the average spending of .30 per cent of GDP by 28 countries counted in the OECD’s most recent ranking.
Last year, Britain became the first G7 country to meet the target and a handful of other nations — Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg, Denmark, Netherlands have met or exceeded it.
University of Ottawa political scientist Stephen Brown, in an analysis of Trudeau’s foreign policy, in March wrote it will “be very hard to achieve the budget plan’s goal of ‘strengthening Canada’s place in the world’ if we refuse to contribute even an average share of development assistance, let alone lead by example.”
“Canada’s weak fiscal situation is a lousy excuse for such stinginess. Some countries are far more generous than Canada, despite much worse deficits, notably the United Kingdom. Money may be short, but political will is shorter still,” wrote Brown.
However, in some of his clearest statements to date on the topic of foreign aid, Trudeau flagged the same concern his predecessor Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper often expressed: that what matters is results.
“I think that what people are looking at now is what kind of leverage you’re getting out of the money spent, what kind of impact are you having, are you making the best possible difference,” Trudeau said in an interview, seated next to billionaire philanthropist Melinda Gates, wife of Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
“We look towards increasing the benefits and outcomes around the world, creating opportunities for everyone,” said Trudeau. “But we just know that throwing buckets of money indiscriminately at a problem isn’t necessarily the best solution.”
Gates said she understood, and that the UN target is just that.
The Gates foundation — a big contributor to the Global Fund to Fight HIV, Tuberculosis and Malaria — looks to see whether governments are “on a path” towards the .7 per cent of GDP spending target and whether they are spending aid dollars wisely. Many countries are looking to ensure they meet the .7 per cent goal “within a realistic budget and on a timeline that makes sense for their own country, and so that I think the way Canada is thinking about it is a very smart approach,” she said.
Asked if Canada should spend more, Gates said: “I would always like to see us do more,” adding “I want to make sure, though, that the aid is smart aid.”
Dubbed by Forbes magazine as the world’s most powerful advocate for women and girls, Gates gave Trudeau high-profile backing — just as she did with Stephen Harper’s approach to spending on maternal and child health initiatives — a key project of the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation. They shared the spotlight at the event, with Trudeau promising to fire up his government’s social media engine to spread the Global Fund’s message.
Gates flew in from California to hear Trudeau announce his government will spend $785 million over the next three years on the Global Fund’s fight to end HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, three of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases, by 2030. She said it was “a huge sign of commitment.”
It’s a 20-per-cent hike to Canada’s previous three-year pledge of $650 million. International aid minister Marie-Claude Bibeau told the Star the increase is new money that will show up in next year’s federal budget for the following three years; it will not come from this year’s small $256-million two-year increase to the foreign aid budget.
Trudeau said he would retain spending on the Harper government’s project to fund vital statistics registration under the umbrella of the maternal and child health initiative — a signature policy of Harper’s last years in government. Trudeau said he agreed with Harper that data collection is an important marker of success. He has, however, reversed Harper’s policy on not funding for abortion services abroad, and restored Canadian funds for such services.
But the Gates Foundation will not go down that road because it is too divisive, said Gates, adding, “We want to drive consensus — and the best way I can do that is to be for contraceptives” so women are not put in the situation of having an abortion.
“The best way we can serve the most women is by going down the middle line, and that’s why our foundation chooses to just do contraceptives,” she said.
Trudeau casts humanitarian assistance and international aid in the Middle East region as a global security effort, saying it is “creating security writ large for the world, while you’re creating economic opportunity and social opportunity.”
Asked whether Canada might have to be a more generous donor to secure a sought-after seat on the UN Security Council, Trudeau said it might but “the important thing around the Security Council isn’t just dollars offered . . . . It’s demonstrating a capacity to work together . . . to convene partners, and have a positive impact . . . . Does it involve stepping up in money? Absolutely. It involves investing smartly and responsibly in global issues.”
Author: Tonda MacCharles