What's New at Engineers Without Borders

Apr 11 2012 @ 12:20

The Delusion of Canadian Compassion – A challenging perspective

As EWB and other international development and aid organizations lament the $780 million cut to international development assistance in the 2012 budget, James Haga, EWB's Director of Advocacy, has had an op-ed published in Embassy Magazine, Canada's premier Foreign Policy newsweekly (or news publication).. It's not the perspective that you'd expect to hear, but it is important. It's time that we, as Canadians, take a look in the mirror, and question whether our self-image is rooted in fact or fiction.

Reprinted with permission from Embassy Magazine. Click here to read the full article.

The delusion of Canadian compassion

Harper bet that when push came to shove, Canadians would choose to prioritize a modest tax credit ahead of maintaining aid spending.
By James Haga
Published April 11, 2012

If the proof is in the pudding, the recent federal budget revealed that Canada is de-prioritizing its efforts in the global effort to reduce poverty.

Let's start with some facts. Over the next three years, Canada will spend $780 million less on international development assistance—roughly a seven-and-a-half per cent decline.

This will see our country backslide to become among the least generous aid supporters of all OECD countries. To put this in perspective, there is a chance that by 2016, South Korea—a former recipient of Canadian aid that was once so poor it was deemed a hopeless case—will give roughly the same amount of aid as a per cent of GDP as Canada.

Compared to our international counterparts—many of whom continue to give more aid per capita despite faring less well throughout the economic crisis—Canada is failing to assume its leadership responsibilities in the push to solve one of the most pressing challenge facing humanity today: the persistence of global poverty.

While how much we spend on aid isn't the only measure of Canada's contribution, in this case it is an important proxy that affects our country's credibility at an international level.

Looking for a convenient target to blame, many will point their finger at the government and cry foul.

The more prescient question is whether the government has rightly made a decision—to significantly cut the aid budget—that represents the views of Canadians, or whether they've acted out of step with the public and are lagging behind the people on this issue?

Aid groups would argue the latter. Every year a procession of NGOs line up to trumpet the results of public opinion polls asserting that Canadians believe our government should do more to alleviate the scourge of global poverty. My organization, Engineers Without Borders, has touted these polls as well.

The inconvenient truth, of course, is that they're wrong.

Governments don't make decisions on a whim. In the four-year cycle of elections, their success depends largely on pursuing the path of least public resistance, so they invest big money—far more than any aid organization—in rigorous polling to gauge the public's threshold for desired policy changes.

If recent cuts to the aid budget are any indication, I'd bet my last penny (no pun intended) that the government made a calculated, politically-savvy decision that there would be little political cost to reducing aid.

In short, they bet that people wouldn't care. They bet that, when push came to shove, Canadians would choose to prioritize a modest tax credit ahead of maintaining aid spending, which is used for a whole host of things such as substantially increasing primary school enrollment in Tanzania.

At the same time, Canadians continue to willingly delude themselves into thinking we're more and better than we are on the international stage. Relishing the opportunity to spread the tiring myth of Canadian internationalism, we tell ourselves that while we're a modest bunch, we continue to "punch above our weight" through our support for developing nations.

In Global Brief, Irvin Studin wrote tellingly, "only a self-consciously small power talks about punching above its weight. Serious or great powers speak only about punching; the weight of the punch speaks for itself."

It's high time we Canadians stop deluding ourselves and take a good long look in the mirror. No matter how many times we repeat it, the truth remains that our own image of ourselves is grossly out of step with reality.

In our system, citizens get the government and, in turn, the policies that we ask for. At the most fundamental level, we exert our power as citizens with our vote. It is our democratic right, and our democratic burden.

When we fail to demonstrate as citizens that we will prioritize international development spending as a vital interest for Canada—be it during election time or when a government is busy governing—we legitimize decisions by the government to cut aid.

The aid organizations will, of course, disagree with this assertion. Still, these same organizations, my own included, have fallen short in the vital and deeply political challenge of proving to more and more Canadians that they should care about Canada being a leader in international development.

Our job—as leaders in NGOs, business and academia—is to articulate to Canadians a robust and far-reaching vision for international engagement. Our job is to articulate how we will have a disproportionate impact on creating more global prosperity.

Aid isn't just about being charitable, it's also a vital tool for Canada to manage its interests in the world, and in the absence of a consensus, Canada's capacity for international leadership will be greatly reduced.

On the measure of engaged and responsible citizenship, articulated by Vaclav Havel as "it is up to us all, and up to us alone to do something about it," we are falling short as Canadians.

It's no surprise that our foreign aid continues to fall short as well.

James Haga is the director of advocacy at Engineers Without Borders Canada.



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