GRAEME MARK 

The greatest risk foreign aid faces today is the threat of abandoning the successes and progress we have made because they are wrongly thought of as failures.

The argument that foreign aid money spent on less visible long-term aid projects is wasted, ineffectively spent and supporting a broken system is made all too often. The bottom line is that Canada’s 2014 foreign aid budget needs protecting.

Recently the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation published their 2014 annual letter in which they address three myths that block progress for the less privileged: poor countries are doomed to stay that way, foreign aid is a big waste and saving lives leads to overpopulation.

Foreign aid is most commonly associated with money being spent on humanitarian relief efforts. This year alone there have been several very large humanitarian crises deserving of our funding — from the Syrian war to the damage caused by Typhoon Haiyan. Thus, foreign aid is not waste of money.

The Syrian civil war is the largest of these humanitarian crises, claiming the lives of over 130,000 people. According to the World Food Program, 2.9 million refugees have fled Syria and there are currently 6.5 million internally displaced people living within Syrian borders; 7 million Syrians are in need of food, medical aid and other basic supplies.

Of Canada’s $5 billion aid budget, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development has spent CDN$612 million helping the Syrian people over the past three years.

It is easy to justify spending money on these highly visible humanitarian crises. We should be providing financial aid during these situations and doing more in terms of physical work and labor to help the people in such disaster situations. However, disaster relief spending only makes up a small but very visible part of the foreign aid budget; much of the budget is spent on less visible projects aimed at breaking the cycle that leads to chronic poverty, famine and disease.

Foreign aid is effective and has made a large impact on the lives of billions, and there are metrics to prove it. According to the World Health Organization, the world’s infant mortality rate has dropped from 63 deaths per 1000 births in 1990 to 35 deaths per 1000 births in 2012.

Absolute poverty — living on a $1.25 dollars a day or less, adjusted for inflation — is down worldwide with the United Nations saying it has decreased more in the past 50 years than it has in the past 500 years.

To put this into perspective, World Bank reported the number of people living in absolute poverty as down from 43 per cent of the world’s population in 1990 to 20 per cent today in 2014.

In the past 10 years WHO has seen the mortality rate from malaria drop by 25 per cent. In 2012 there were 223 newly reported cases of polio; this number is down more than 99 per cent from 25 years ago when there were 330,000 new cases of polio a year. People in almost every country in the world are more likely to live longer and less likely to be hungry than they were ten years ago.

These amazing successes have been made possible because of the investment nations like Canada have made in developing countries. After hearing all this good news you might think the majority of the work is done and you can understand why the current Canadian government thinks it is reasonable to cut back spending on foreign aid. This is simply not the case.

The WHO reported that nine million children aged five or younger died in 2012 and 6.3 million of these children died from preventable ailments such as pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria and measles — all of which were worsened by birth problems and inadequate nutrition. In addition, World Bank estimates that there are 2.4 billion people still living on less than $2 a day. These numbers are unacceptable.

In 2013 the Canadian government cut the aid budget by $370 million and by the end of the year another $290 million from the budget went unspent. By cutting Canada’s aid budget we are risking the lives of millions living in abject poverty, tarnishing Canada’s reputation and reducing our country’s impact in ending the injustice of extreme poverty.

Development work has not been perfect. There have been setbacks and there will continue to be more but today the money spent on foreign aid is being used more effectively, more efficiently and more transparently than ever before. The money Canada spends today on foreign aid is helping to build a more stable and peaceful world — but we need to keep doing this.

Canada’s 2014 federal budget was released on Feb. 11 and foreign aid was spared from this year’s round of budget cuts. This is excellent news, but we should still be concerned about the budgets to come.

The world expects Canada to lead, and so do we as Canadians. Be vocal with your Member of Parliament to ensure that Canada continues to help those who don’t have the means to help themselves.

  • angry foodie

    Good article, arguably the best I have read in Sheaf opinions.

    I respect that you did not indulge in the comparisons to countries like Norway who spend a much greater percentage of GDP on foreign aid than Canada does but do not have the level of immigration from foreign countries that Canada does.

    It was well-researched and decently argued.

    Coming from someone whose views are closer to Easterly and Moro than they are to Sachs, this compliment might have more meaning.

    Aid is not a fix-all and can be bad when given to the wrong people.

    I quibble with your closing comment though. Aid should NOT be about helping those who can’t help themselves. It should be about empowering people to have the means TO help themselves. This should be the end goal.

    • Guest

      No, you are mistaken. Do some research… Norway has a significant immigration rate. About 15% of their population while Canada sits at abou 20%.

      Canada is still lacking in many foreign aid goals we’ve set for ourselves over the years.

      There are some who cannot help themselves, and to insinuate that our only help to these people should be temporary is disingenuous.

    • angry foodie

      As disingenuous as posting as a guest only to troll my comment?

      15% of a population of 5 million is a far cry smaller than 20% of a population of 33 million. Using percentages to discuss the problem is disingenuous.

      720 000 immigrants against 6.6 million immigrants. In numbers, Canada has around 9X the number of immigrants that Norway has.

      All aid should have an end in sight. It is disingenuous to say you want to help but you don’t want to structure that help in a way which some day might lead to people not actually needing it.

      This supports the presumption that you are more interested in the warm fuzzy feeling aid gives you than the practical effect of that aid, which should be to give people opportunity and independence. A world where aid is not necessary is a laudable goal, not one I see happening soon, but much better than your goal of perpetual aid. Helping people to have the opportunities they need to be independent is what we want.

      Of course, I am not a doctrinaire proponent of “hand-ups, not hand-outs”. I have had to point out to people that these are often the same thing and you have to accept that some people will be lazy and take the hand-out if you truly believe in giving people a hand-up.

      And in my experience, many aid organizations do exactly what I am describing. It is a nice feeling to see the child and community you sponsored for 10 years grow up and no longer need your support. You then move your donation into another community. It’s a long process, but those communities who had the help and developed so far that they no longer need it are far better off for it.

      You speak of “these people” as if the poor of the world are some homogenous entity. They are not.