International Development Minister and Pacific Economic Development Agency of Canada Minister Harjit Sajjan rises during Question Period, Thursday, February 9, 2023 in Ottawa. Canada's aid sector is anxiously awaiting this spring's budget amid fears of a funding cut that could shut down projects abroad. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

‘The worst time to go backwards’: International aid groups fear cuts as budget looms

Canada’s aid sector is nervously awaiting this spring’s federal budget amid fears of funding cuts that could require projects abroad to shut down.

“This lack of predictability is creating anxiety in the sector,” said Louis Belanger, whose group Bigger Than Our Borders advocates on behalf of major Canadian charities.

“The future is uncertain for a lot of organizations that are working in developing countries, because there’s a lack of clarity and a lack of transparency.”

Since taking office in 2015, the Liberals have pledged to keep increasing development spending each year — but emerging crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have significantly altered the focus of that spending.

Before the pandemic, the Liberals had earmarked an annual $6.6 billion in foreign aid. After the arrival of COVID-19, they boosted the target to more than $8 billion, first for programs related to fighting the virus and then to help Ukraine and its neighbours.

In late 2021, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was still instructing International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan to “increase Canada’s international development assistance every year.”

And since then, Trudeau has announced large funding allocations related to a UN biodiversity summit, a new Indo-Pacific strategy and the Global Fund, which tackles diseases such as AIDS.

Yet it’s unclear whether the Liberals intend to renew long-standing development programs or let them lapse in order to fund these emerging priorities.

For Belanger, it boils down to whether the Liberals build on the benchmark of funding that preceded the pandemic, or whether they see the current amount of funding as a new baseline.

“(They’re) seeing COVID as the exception, and that we need to go back to 2019 levels. We completely disagree, because there’s a series of crises that we’re seeing in the world right now,” Belanger said.

“You can’t tell me that the needs have decreased since COVID.”

Aid groups fear Canada will follow Britain in announcing cuts. London has long been one of the world’s top development funders, but is facing economic upheaval at home.

Meanwhile, a global focus on suppressing COVID-19 came at the expense of other health programs, leading to a sudden backtracking on two decades of progress in fighting tuberculosis, cholera and extreme poverty.

And the African Development Bank and other continental institutions have lamented rich countries diverting aid to Ukraine.

“COVID left the Global South in critical condition, and so cutting aid now is like pulling the oxygen supply for them,” Belanger said.

“It would be the worst time to cut foreign aid. It would be the worst time to go backwards, when there’s so much need.”

Belanger said officials across federal departments seem most interested in development projects linked to three priorities: climate change; sexual and reproductive health; and paid and unpaid care work.

“Other programs ⁠— on governance, nutrition, social justice, even humanitarian programs ⁠— have been sort of put on hold until they announce the budget,” said Belanger, who is a former Liberal staffer.

He said years-long projects are sunsetting with no sense of whether Ottawa will renew them. But organizations aren’t speaking openly for fear of losing federal funding.

The aid sector argues that developing countries need strong health, agriculture and education systems in order to withstand political instability and natural disasters — let alone future pandemics.

Save The Children Canada said the government has been right to respond to emerging humanitarian crises, such as this week’s earthquake in Turkey and Syria.

But the charity’s president and CEO, Danny Glenwright, said children also need Canada’s help in places with long-standing conflicts, such as the Central African Republic, Somalia, Yemen and Myanmar.

“Unfortunately, it’s a very long list. We have several cases where needs increase the longer a crisis continues,” he said.

“These are countries that are seldom in the news, because new crises have popped up.”

His organization is asking Ottawa to peg its annual development spending at $10 billion by 2025, through year-over-year increases. He said that would help Canada meet its commitments to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to make the world more resilient to crises by 2030.

In a Wednesday evening speech at a reception held by groups to mark International Development Week, Sajjan gave no hint of what his government’s spring budget will bring.

Instead, he said aid groups need to drum up public support by doing a better job publicizing their progress.

“We need to be louder when things are going well, and saying, ‘This is conflict prevention. This is success.’ And we should be celebrating that even more,” he told the assembled groups.

“Policies are one thing. Money is one thing. But action can only happen through you.”

On Thursday, Sajjan earmarked $23.4 million for public engagement programs to get that message out.

Aid groups are hoping he will announce a boost to Canada’s funding at a speech Friday afternoon in Montreal.

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