02/07/2015 01:03 EST | Updated 04/09/2015 05:59 EDT

Conservatives Must Be Accountable for International Development Budgets

We should all be asking how the government plans to engage Canadians regarding the sustainable development goals, which will focus the global development agenda for the next 15 years, and what Canada's position is on these goals.

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A volunteer carries boxes containing food items and household products which are to be distributed to those suffering the fallout of a severe financial crisis in the centre of the Cypriot capital, Nicosia, on April 3, 2013. The food was collected during a charity concert organised by relief organisations where concert-goers were asked to bring dry food for families struggling to make ends meet amid the crippling crisis that forced the Cypriot government to accept tough bailout terms from international lenders. AFP PHOTO / YIANNIS KOURTOGLOU (Photo credit should read Yiannis Kourtoglou/AFP/Getty Images)

The year 2015 promises to be transformative, as the international community comes together to set a new global development agenda with opportunities for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women, a universal climate agreement, and a 10-year plan to make the world safer from natural hazards.

We should all, therefore, be asking how the government plans to engage Canadians regarding the sustainable development goals, which will focus the global development agenda for the next 15 years, and what Canada's position is on these goals.

For example, does Canada support the concept of universality, meaning that all countries -- both developed and developing -- should have responsibilities for global development? Are there certain goals Canada champions over other goals, or does it support all 17? Does Canada support Goal 13, which calls on us to "take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts"?

And while governments debate these important goals, we must not forget the need for overseas development assistance remains significant with ongoing humanitarian crises in the Central Africa Republic, Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, and in West Africa as countries recover and rebuild after Ebola.

Canadians should be told how, exactly, the government puts their tax dollars to use, that is, how it determines the amount of humanitarian assistance to provide. The simplistic "five million dollar" approach seems to be a recurring theme with this particular Administration: $5 million for Central African Republic in December, 2013, $5 million more in February, 2014, $5 million for Somalia in July, 2014, and $5 million initially for Iraq. These are very different crises, however, and they clearly call for different responses.

Canadians should also ask how long funding takes to actually reach those who need it on the ground, and how the government measures the overall timeliness of its responses.

In one critical case, the recent Ebola outbreak, the government largely responded with pronouncements and delays. It announced the availability of a vaccine -- followed by a delay of three months before sending the product to the World Health Organization. And of the $35 million initially pledged, only $4.3 million was showing up in late October as committed funding on the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs' financial tracking website, suggesting no legal agreements had yet been drafted concerning the remaining funds.

Canadians should also know that the government is stepping back and deliberately under-spending in this vital area. In 2014 alone, $125 million in aid earmarked for the world's most vulnerable countries was returned to the Finance Department, unspent.

This comes on top of $300 million which was lapsed in 2012-13 or six times more than the $49 million lapsed in the previous year. Also in 2012-13, the International Development Research Centre, an arm's length agency funded by Canada's aid budget, lapsed $85 million. In fact, the total amount of money that the government left unspent in 2012-13 was approximately 10 per cent of the announced Canadian official development aid (ODA) budget. Why is the government passing budgets promising certain actions, and then operating differently?

Furthermore, last month, the Parliamentary Budget Officer reported that Canada's overall foreign aid as a percentage of GDP has dropped since the government announced its Maternal, Newborn and Child Health initiative in 2010.

As we wrap up International Development Week, I call on the government to be transparent and honest about foreign aid so that Canada can once again assume its role as a constructive and engaged player on the world stage and to end the practice of lapsed spending.