Is Canada Doing “Its Part and More”?

May 24, 2009     

This week Canadian Development Minister Beverley Oda made a policy speech outlining Canada’s renewed emphasis on improving the quality of its foreign aid dollars. A focus on efficacy is commendable and important, since taxpayer dollars should of course be subject to strict scrutiny in advancing key development objectives in the poorest countries, particularly the Millennium Development Goals. But an emphasis on quality cannot be presented as a false choice against quantity, since that would distract from many urgent development challenges that need time-sensitive global leadership.

Perhaps most prominently, the rich countries as a group are roughly $35 billion behind on the support they promised for Africa by 2010. Canada is certainly not the worst performer in this regard, since it is generally adhering to its commitment to double aid to Africa, notwithstanding a downward recalculation of the baseline reference numbers. Importantly, the government outlook has been non-partisan on this issue: both Conservatives and Liberals have relied on the talking point that Canada should be praised for maintaining its commitments. As Minister Oda said this week, “Canada has certainly done its part and more” in terms of aid flows.

But what does it mean to do one’s part and more? Amidst the most profound global economic crisis in three generations, is it adequate to rely on commitments from the beginning of the decade as the reference point for the global urgencies of 2009 and 2010? The World Bank recently estimated that this year an additional 55 to 90 million people will be trapped in $1 a day extreme poverty due to the recession, and that the number of chronically hungry will surpass a billion people. At a time like this, when the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria is struggling to replenish its budgets and a large number of African countries cannot get funding to help their small farmers access fertilizer, what responsibilities do the most privileged countries like Canada have?

The real story is that Canada’s commitments are very modest compared to the size of the global problems in disease control, food production, infrastructure, and education that need to be solved. In 2008 Canada allocated 0.32 percent of its national income to foreign assistance, compared to the mean rich country effort of 0.47 percent. This is also well below the amount of support required to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in the poorest countries, which my colleagues and I in the UN Millennium Project estimated at 0.54 percent of national income after a rigorous multi-year study. Simply put, Canada is not yet doing its part even for the MDGs.

Today Canada ranks 16th out of 22 rich countries in its support levels, well behind comparable economies such as the United Kingdom (0.42 percent and rising), the Netherlands (0.80 percent) and Sweden (0.98 percent). The only countries to allocate a smaller share of their prosperity than Canada last year were Greece (0.20 percent), Italy (0.20), Japan (0.18), New Zealand (0.30), Portugal (0.27) and the United States (0.18).

Even more striking, the OECD projects that Canada will fall even further down the rankings by 2010, the year when it will be the center of global attention as host to both an Olympic Games and a G8 Summit. According to the official statisticians, Canada is projected to rank 20th out of 22 rich countries in terms of its share of income allocated to foreign assistance in 2010. The detailed table is available at In the absence of new commitments through to 2015, it is difficult to see how Canada could convene the global agenda from a position of extraordinary strength next year.

In my own read, this trajectory is out of step with the underlying preferences of the Canadian public, who overwhelmingly want to play a leadership rather than followership role for the world on global systems and support for the most disadvantaged. I suspect that most of my fellow Canadians, when considering the statistics above, would think that Canada still has much more to do.

** As a footnote, the Minister’s speech (available at included a significant error in citing an alleged failure to get anti-malaria bednets to poor people. In the past this critique was directed at malaria programs at a time when nets were typically sold rather than distributed, and before free mass distribution programs took hold as official global policy. The reality is that over the past three years foreign aid-financed global programs have helped to distributed more than 150 million nets in Africa alone, halfway to the target of universal coverage across the continent by the end of 2010.

John W McArthur is the CEO of Millennium Promise. He can be emailed at and followed on as “johnmca”.

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