01/31/2017 03:52 EST | Updated 01/31/2017 03:52 EST

It's Time For Canada To Put Words Into Action And Increase Aid Budget

President Trump's "America First" mantra and other indications of a pro-isolationist stance will undoubtedly create a vacuum some degree on the world stage. While some may rejoice in this retrenchment, one cannot overlook the fact that the U.S.'s contribution to international development and strategic alliances such as NATO dwarfs those of other counties in absolute terms.

The time is now for the Liberal government to turn its own "Canada is back" mantra into concrete action by helping to fill that vacuum. This will require a complete reversal of our track record over the past 20 years. During that period, both Liberal and Conservative governments have raided the aid budgets like the proverbial cookie jar in the name of balancing the books.

justin trudeau

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives at a news conference in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Dec. 12, 2016. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)

From 1990 to the present, cuts to our aid budget were triple that of domestic programs in percentage terms. Given that aid accounts for a mere two per cent of total spending, this was nickel-and-diming the poor was downright unconscionable. We now spend a miserly 0.26 per cent of Gross National Income (GNI) on aid.

According to a recently released report Assessing Canada's Global Engagement Gap by the Global Canada Initiative, that is half the average of the G7 and "like-minded" countries. The gap also compares what we've been spending in aid during the last 20 years to our pre-1995 historical average of 0.46 per cent. It is estimated that by not maintaining this average has cost over seven million lives using a cost-per-life-saved metric developed by the report's author.

There are many proponents of "trade not aid." Quite often this has been a thin guise for gaining access to cheap raw materials. True bilateral trade requires both parties to have certain level of economic activity, a healthy and productive workforce and a supporting infrastructure. It's easy to forget that China, the second largest market of Canadian goods today, was our second largest recipient of aid just 20 years ago.

South Korea has emerged from a war-torn state to an economic powerhouse largely due to the Colombo Plan of 1950, a multilateral effort to spur social-economic progress in South Asia, one of the world's poorest regions at the time. Canada was one of the plan's chief architects. Today, South Korea is part of the donor community and is a growing market for our goods and services. It only stands to reason that using aid to sow the seeds of development of countries who may one day too become future trading partners, thereby diversifying our trading base, is good for Canada, Trump or no Trump.

seoul skyline

A general view shows part of central Seoul, South Korea on Mar. 10, 2011. (Photo: Lee Jae-Won/Reuters)

Two all-party Standing Committees, one on Finance and the other on Foreign Affairs and International Development have recommended that Canada reach the 0.35 per cent level by 2020. Although this is setting the bar pretty low and still leaves us below our peer average, any goal that aims to reverse the downward spiral in our international assistance should not be discounted. Given that we have best fiscal position in the G7 according to the IMF and recognizing the myopic nature of governments, this intermediate goal is easily achievable for the most part during the government's current mandate.

To be fair, the Trudeau government only inherited two decades of neglecting to meet our international commitments just like he inherited decades of neglecting to meet the commitments to our indigenous people. But at least he has taken ownership of the latter. Do not the world's poorest deserve as much?

As the government makes its final decisions on the Budget, it must decide if it will continue to pursue a seemingly "Canada First" agenda. This form of nationalism is part of a disturbing trend among Western countries that risks destabilizing the world even more than today. Global security will continue to be elusive as long as the world's gross disparities remain off the political agenda, the cries of the displaced and dispossessed go unheard and justice reserved for a privileged few.

If the government chooses to continue to avoid paying its fair share, it will have the dubious distinction of having the lowest commitment to international assistance of any Canadian government in the last half-century (paradoxically, our aid peaked at 0.54 per cent in 1975 when the prime minister's father was in power). In the closing words of his election victory speech, the prime minister proclaimed "In Canada, better is always possible." The Budget will determine if these noble words will be put into action when it comes to helping the world's poorest.

Stephen St. Denis is a member of RESULTS Canada, a global movement of passionate citizens, committed to raising our voices for a world without extreme poverty.

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