06/25/2013 12:24 EDT | Updated 08/25/2013 05:12 EDT

Harper Plays Clever With Foreign Aid

Canadians have witnessed the emaciation of Canada's overseas development budget since Harper won his majority in 2011. Most core Conservative voters would be appalled at any increase, particularly in iffy economic times. So when it comes to foreign aid, Stephen Harper is a clever politician.

Canada, like all civilized countries, needs a stable world to nourish its prosperity and civility. International turmoil drains governments of opportunities to improve the lives of their citizens. This is why intelligent, prosperous governments invest in development in less fortunate parts of the world.

When I was chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, Conservative and Liberal members alike were adamant that Canada needed the military strength to both defend itself and contribute to maintaining international stability. But we also published reports arguing for an increased Canadian foreign aid budget.

Any thoughtful Conservative, Liberal or New Democrat I have come across recognizes that while wars sometimes have to be fought, they are incredibly costly in terms of lives and money being poured down the drain. Which is why investing taxpayers' dollars in ameliorating the conditions that breed conflict is so important.

Unfortunately, politicians know that there aren't many votes to win by increasing foreign aid. It's more likely there are votes to lose.

There aren't many Liberal or NDP supporters who would have switched to the Conservatives had Stephen Harper increased Canada's foreign aid budget last year instead of gutting it. Conversely, most core Conservative voters would be appalled at any increase, particularly in iffy economic times. Those are two good reasons why Canadians have witnessed the emaciation of Canada's overseas development budget since Harper won his majority in 2011.

So when it comes to foreign aid, Stephen Harper is a clever politician. He's probably far more clever than fellow Conservative David Cameron, Britain's prime minister. Cameron, like Harper, is likely to face his electorate in 2015. Like Harper, he has been flagging in popularity polls recently. But unlike Harper, Cameron is not playing politics with foreign aid.

Despite the fact that Britain's economy is in a far more precarious state than Canada's, Cameron has increased Britain's foreign aid budget to .56 percent of his country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and committed himself to hitting the UN's international target of .7 percent a year from now.

Britain is bankrolling a $4.1 billion international initiative to alleviate malnutrition in poor countries with core funding of $600 million and $446 million set aside to match contributions from other countries.

Canada signed the initiative at last week's G8 summit, but Harper's little nod of approval only masks what has been Canada's appalling performance on the foreign aid front under his government, which has managed to out-slash even the tight-fisted Chrétien Liberals during Paul Martin's deficit-fighting years.

That Harper appointed Bev Oda and Julian Fantino -- two ministers with little experience in international development -- to administer the aid budget was predictable. The rationale for foreign aid needs to be sold to Canadians, and these people weren't going to dazzle anybody with their sales pitches.

That Harper would pull CIDA out of some of the poorest countries in the world -- like Malawi and Niger -- and shift its focus to countries Canada wants to increase trade was reprehensible for a government committed to stand on firm moral principles in its international dealings.

That Canada would announce earlier this year that it was pulling out of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification -- signed on to by 194 countries -- fell into the same moral quagmire. Harper's rationale was that the convention was too bureaucratic, but the strong suspicion is that this government doesn't want anything to do with any scientific battles against climate change.

That the government would cut the last year's foreign aid budget by 7.5 percent -- bringing it down to .31 percent of GDP -- was a sad step in the wrong direction -- the UN target is .7 percent. But at least there was transparency to the move.

Then things got really ugly. Minister Fantino simply stopped approving CIDA projects coming through the pipeline. Oda had been painfully slow to approve projects. Fantino simply shut them down.

At the end of the 2012-2013 fiscal year, CIDA had lapsed approximately $800 million in spending. Traditionally, departments who lapse funds approved by Parliament are considered blunderers. But this was no blunder. It was clearly done by design, at the top.

The agency effectively took the money away from the world's unfortunate and handed it back to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who is busily working toward the government's promise to reduce Canada's annual budget deficit to zero by election time. After that open budget cut of 7.5 percent, the government sneaked behind the curtains and chopped the agency's disbursements by another 20 percent.

All this while it was being announced that CIDA would be folded into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, which once had quite a reputation for dispute solving and other world-improving activities but whose primary focus is now largely confined to promoting foreign trade.

When speaking about his initiative to fight world hunger, David Cameron pointed out that more than 60 percent of the world's malnourished children live in fragile and conflicted states. "We understand that if we invest in countries before they get broken, we might not end up spending so much on dealing with problems -- whether that's immigration or threats to our national security."

Cameron appears to be making a commitment to bettering the world long after he has left the political scene. That's not the stereotypical image of what politicians do. For too many of them, it's all about today, which is where the votes -- and power -- reside.

How good though that every now and then an international statesman does step forward. There will be a time, one hopes, that it will be a Canadian.

[Colin Kenny is the former chair of the Senate Committee on Security and Defence.]

*This article was originally published in the Toronto Star -- June 24, 2013.

Photo gallery Who Gets The Most Canadian Foreign Aid? See Gallery