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OTTAWA — “The Trudeau government sends $2.2 billion of so-called foreign aid to middle- and upper-income countries like Argentina, Barbados, Brazil, China, Iran, Italy, Mexico and Turkey. Worse still, some of that money is shovelled to repressive regimes that are adversarial if not outright hostile to Canadian interests and values — countries like Iran, North Korea and Russia.

“At a time when Canadians are working harder than ever and not getting ahead, Trudeau is using their hard-earned tax dollars to support anti-Semitic organizations and prop up foreign dictatorships…We will cut 25 per cent in aid currently going to corrupt regimes and middle- and higher-income countries.”

— Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, press conference in Toronto, Oct. 1, 2019.


As part of a platform pledge to decrease foreign-aid spending by 25 per cent, Andrew Scheer took a broad swipe at Justin Trudeau’s record on international aid — accusing the Liberal leader of sending Canadian tax dollars to “corrupt regimes” that help to “prop up foreign dictatorships.” He also attached a dollar figure to the amount the Trudeau government has sent to high- and middle-income countries: $2.2 billion.

It turns out there’s a lot to unpack in these statements, especially in how the Conservative leader defines a high- and middle-income country and also how he defines “foreign aid.”

The first thing to know about international assistance is that it is not a subjective term. An official definition has been developed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (a 36-member group of richer countries) to ensure that “official development assistance” goes toward economic development and the well-being of developing countries. Loans and credits for military endeavours, for example, are excluded.

In the fine print of this announcement, the Conservatives are defining “high- and middle-income countries” as those with a human-development index of over 0.6. This UN-calculated indicator doesn’t just look at the income levels of a country, it also includes factors such as life expectancy and education. 

The human-development index is not normally used to measure eligibility for international aid.

The OECD has developed criteria for what countries qualify for foreign aid and maintains an active list of those countries. The OECD uses a country’s gross national income as its method to determine whether a country is low- or middle-income and, therefore, whether it is eligible to receive official development assistance.

To put it simply, the Conservatives are using a different measurement tool to decide whether a country is low-, middle- or high-income from the measurement used by OECD countries, including Canada.

Secondly, under the OECD rules, foreign aid can be provided to eligible countries bilaterally (between two countries) or be channelled through a multilateral agency, such as the United Nations or the World Bank.

But Canada has gone one step farther. It has added additional criteria for any money spent under official development assistance: the money must contribute to poverty reduction; spending must take into account the perspectives of the poor; and any assistance must fall in line with international human-rights standards.

Financial help with emergencies, such as the effects of a disaster, are also counted as official development assistance under Canadian law.

The Conservatives say that Canada is giving $2.2 billion in foreign aid to Argentina, Barbados, Brazil, China, Iran, Italy, Mexico and Turkey as well as to the “corrupt regimes” of Iran, Russia, North Korea and China.  

This $2.2-billion figure was compiled from numbers contained in the federal government’s own annual statistical report on international assistance for 2017-18 (the most recent year for which final figures are available.)

Looking closely at the numbers provided by the party, it appears Scheer has combined all amounts provided by Canada to countries for a variety of purposes — some money that does fall under the OECD definition of “official development assistance,” and some that does not, says Liam Swiss, a professor of sociology at Memorial University and the president of the Canadian Association for the Study of International Development.

For example, in 2018, Canada provided $2 million to Italy — a G7 nation. But this was not humanitarian aid money, it was money committed by Global Affairs Canada for “international security and political affairs,” according to the government report.

The report also notes that some of the assistance provided to Iran and China was part of an estimated portion of Canada’s institutional support to organizations such as the World Food Program, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the Global Environment Facility.

Much of the Iran money was related to international monitoring of its nuclear activities, Global Affairs Canada says. China also received funding for the implementation of the Montreal Protocol — an international treaty designed to phase out substances that damage the earth’s ozone layer.

As for money to Russia, Canada did provide $200,000 in 2018: through an international project to provide assistance to LGBTQ people under threat, according to Global Affairs Canada. The Global Equality Fund is a U.S.-led initiative that funds local groups and occasionally individuals directly.

“They’re painting every financial transfer that the country makes as being ‘foreign aid’ rather than paying a lot of attention to the reality of it,” Swiss says of the Conservative platform.

“To my mind the policy is kind of purposely misleading the public about what Canada’s aid does and, because Canada’s public doesn’t know so much about that, it’s pretty easy to lie with statistics — in this case, to try to make it look like we’re funnelling all sorts of money to dictators and wealthy countries, when in reality those funds are doing a lot of different things that aren’t’ really aid.”

So, is it correct to say that Canada has spent $2.2 billion in foreign aid to high- and middle- income countries, some of which goes to “prop up foreign dictatorships”?

This amount has flowed to these countries, but not all of it has been provided under official development assistance.

For this reason, the statement by Scheer earns a rating of “a lot of baloney” — the statement is mostly inaccurate but contains elements of truth.

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press

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