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ISID Open Letter: A New Policy Direction for Canadian International Development?

Published: 17 October 2019




A New Policy Direction for Canadian International Development?

An Open Letter to the New Government

While not a head-line grabber during this election campaign, current Canadian international development policy and its future direction are critically important as a measure of the moral integrity of this country. International development (as envisioned in the Sustainable Development Agenda and 2030 Goals, endorsed by Canada and fellow member states at the UN General) is clearly linked to how we see our role in uplifting and supporting less developed nations and those emerging from war and conflict. While a dollar amount and overall percentage of GDP spent on official development assistance (ODA) is a good barometer of commitment and usually grabs the headlines, it does not tell the whole story.

Where the Parties Are At

The Liberal Party platform builds its international development policy on Canadian values of “defending democracy, human rights and the rule of law”—in which its Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP) is firmly entrenched. FIAP entails investment in “girls’ education and women’s empowerment,” including access to safe reproductive health services.

This past year, figures from Global Affairs Canada note that Ottawa’s international development package granted $6.09 billion, of which $3.41 billion was direct bilateral aid, $993.82 million earmarked for multilateral international assistance, $858.43 million allocated for international assistance from federal departments (e.g., National Defence, RCMP, Environment and Climate Change Canada). Currently, Canada’s total aid package represents 0.28% of GDP.

The Conservative Party’s platform calls for a 25% cut in current foreign aid spending, with monies to be allocated for bilateral assistance focussed on countries with a U.N. human development index (HDI) score of less than 0.6 (with the exception of Ukraine , a recipient of $54.5 million in aid this past year alone). These platform figures do not deviate from past Conservative government’s relatively strong positions on targeted international assistance, such as the Harper government’s $3 billion earmarking for children and maternal health initiatives. The Conservative Party would continue to focus its priorities on redirecting aid to the world’s poorest nations, and in particular on children in conflict zones.

The NDP platform calls for Canada to raise its aid expenditures from .28% to .7% of GDP in order to honour its UN Commitments. The NDP believes that in order to deliver on our development programmes that grassroots aid and women’s organizations need to be included in all phases of policy development.

Citing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Green Party platform prioritizes re-establishing the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and de-linking aid tied to Canadian business interests overseas. As well, the Green Party would, like the NDP, increase our full package of aid to .7% of GDP, increase Canada’s commitments to $4 billion by 2030 to the Green Climate Fund and Global Environment Facility, and align Canadian policy with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

The People’s Party of Canada platform indicates that its Canadian foreign policy would focus on the security and prosperity of Canadians, with the Party decrying the rise of a “corrosive globalization vision,” championed by international bodies such as the U.N. The PPC flatly states that “there is no persuasive moral or economic efficiency argument for development aid.” The PPC is clear in intention to phase out development aid and only finance international assistance initiatives that are categorized as emerging humanitarian assistance, including health crises, major conflicts and national disasters.

Experience shows promoting and establishing stability and democratic institutions of good governance with strong adherence to the rule of law ensures that criminality and terrorism are dealt with locally, not exported abroad. Canada’s safe and peaceful society is protected from the importation of chaos and violence if managed within the domestic or regional borders form where it originates. And so, regardless of which party or parties form the new government it is very much in Canada’s interest that we continue to work towards promoting Canadian values of the rule of law, human rights, democratization and good governance.

Good News and Bad News

The good news is that most, if not all, parties do agree that these values are worth promoting abroad. The divergence comes in the amount and apportioning of contributions and from varying emphases of component policies. The bad news is that for as long as we fall less than .5% of the expected development assistance goal of .7 percent of GDP we are diminished in the eyes of the international community, our clout is similarly lessened, and our record of moral integrity opened to question. In short, we not only fail others, we do ourselves a disservice.

But there is further good news given that dedicated civil servants at Global Affairs Canada and other key departments here and abroad -- together with civil society, and individual Canadians -- will continue to tirelessly work in support of Canadians and others in need. The bad news is that we continue to fail to harness the vast wealth of domestic Canadian-bred human capacity in both the academic and private sectors. Such expertise and experience remain under-engaged in the policy development or program delivery of the federal government assistance initiatives. Yes, a number of large Canadian conglomerates and universities are routinely involved and contracted but individual expertise in academia and beyond are rarely included in this important work. That must change is we are looking for greater efficiencies and effect.


A new government would do well to steer clear of the false dichotomies of national interest vs. moral imperative and sustainable vs. economic development. It is increasingly clear that these are merely two sides of the same coins. To be sure, difficult choices will continue to be made in international development assistance policy and funding. The growing urgency and complexity of climate change and biodiversity loss together with increasing geopolitical uncertainties only make such decision making more difficult.

But we are convinced that complexities and difficulties are an inadequate excuse for Canadian “under action” in IDA. Yes, it is undeniable that international development assistance is in part about financial resources. But is at least equally about human resources.

Canadian development professionals enjoy a well-earned reputation amongst their peers around the world. Similarly, a number of the country’s universities house world-class international development institutes and attract tens of thousands of international students eager to join a growing number of Canadian students heeding the call to work with others in support of humanity and the global environment. As members of one such institution, we have had the privilege of working with the next generation of international development leaders and practitioners. We are convinced, and this is no exaggeration, the future of this country and the world in which we live, depends on such dedicated and caring youth. These are not easily dismissed, naiive do-gooders, but rather a generation of people who ‘get’ that we are at an historic global cross-roads.


Mark Berlin


Timothy Hodges



About the Authors

Mark L Berlin is a Professor of Practice at ISID.  Currently he is Senior Advisor to the Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs.  A former legal policy advisor to four past federal Attorneys General and Ministers of Justice, Mark Berlin was also Director General of International Legal Programmes, and Special Advisor on the Middle East to the Minister of Justice.  Prof Berlin was recently appointed to the Board of Trustees for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Timothy Hodges is Professor of Practice at McGill University's Institute for the Study of International Development (ISID), where his work focuses on environmental global governance, and the negotiation and implementation of international sustainable development treaties by Indigenous Peoples, governments and stakeholders. Professor Hodges is a former career Canadian diplomat and a past President of the Canadian Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO). He served as Co-Chair, Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for the United Nations treaty on Access and Benefit-sharing of Genetic Resources and Traditional Knowledge (i.e., the Nagoya Protocol).


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