Nahlah Ayed: Look who's saving the world – not Canada

As Western economies retrench, the fast-rising economies of the developing world are shouldering a growing share of aid to the world's poor. Are we really OK with ceding foreign aid, and influence, to China and Brazil?

Are we OK with ceding more foreign aid, and influence, to China, Russia and Brazil?

It was with some bemusement that some Western media greeted the news last week that fast-rising, non-Western economies are shouldering a growing share of the assistance funnelled to the world's poor.

"Look who's saving the world," trumpeted the Christian Science Monitor headline — a reference to newly released figures that indicated a dramatic rise in foreign aid spending by the so-called BRICS countries: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

The report, prepared by the non-profit health-care advocate Global Health Strategies Initiatives, says that despite "significant domestic health and development challenges" of their own, these countries have been increasingly engaged in contributing to needs abroad.

Dramatically titled "Shifting Paradigm," the report singled out Brazil and China, both of which boosted their foreign assistance by more than 20 per cent between 2005 and 2010.

As a group, the BRICS still give far less than the wealthy traditional Western donors, the report states. But it goes on to note that "as the U.S. and Europe have slowed donor spending, the BRICS' assistance programs have become much more prominent."

About time, you might say. Traditionally, the more prosperous — and similarly influence-hungry — West has been the primary source of foreign assistance over the last many decades.

But, in recent years, the West hasn't been as prosperous as it once was. Time for someone else to pony up. The question, though, is whether Western democracies are willing to live with the consequences.

Canada's share

When it comes to foreign aid, Canada has a long and respectable tradition. But recently it, too, has embarked on significant retrenchment, reflecting what are often called the new economic realities.

Visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao embraces a local chief during a 2006 visit to Ghana. (Reuters)

Last week's federal budget and the cuts it proposes were just the latest expression of the government's view that, despite Canada's relatively rosy outlook, prudence is a must.

So it was probably inevitable that foreign aid and diplomacy, too, would take a hit. Why should they remain immune, or trump domestic priorities?

And so they did get cut, significantly. Foreign aid alone will be trimmed by $377 million over the next three years.

For aid advocates, however, the problem is that Canada's foreign assistance spending had already been frozen for the past two years – at about $5.2 billion or 0.34 per cent of Gross National Income in 2010.

(That is still more than China, now the world's second biggest economy, gave that year  -- $3.9 billion US, according to the BRICS report. But China does have its own internal development problems and a GDP per capita of about $7,600 versus Canada's $40,300.)

There is also the fact that Canada’s 0.34 per cent rate is just half the long-standing global target of 0.7 per cent of GNI, which many smaller nations have met and which former prime minister Lester Pearson initially proposed.

"On the generosity index, this budget moves Canada closer to the bottom of the world's 22 donor countries," Oxfam policy co-ordinator Mark Fried said in a statement.

"Why is the government saving money on the backs of the world's most vulnerable people?"

Re-examining priorities

Canada's critics, including aid organizations, suggest these cutbacks are less about fiscal prudence and more about an inward-looking agenda that favours trade over assistance.

They point to other parts of the federal budget, which aim to trim areas related to Canada's foreign presence, to prove their point.

Ottawa intends to make new cuts to CIDA, Canada's international development agency. Embassies will be closed and diplomats will likely stay abroad longer for what seems to be less pay.

More disquieting, for some at least, is the government's suggestion that it might withdraw from yet unspecified international organizations that are deemed to be not "relevant to Canada's interests and priorities."

The budget documents don't say which organizations are under review. But the mere fact that the government is re-examining Canada's participation in such global bodies doesn't bode well for its reputation abroad.

A matter of influence

All of it brings us back to countries like Russia and China, and the question of consequences.

As this most recent report notes, "like traditional donors, the BRICS have their own motives for engaging in international assistance, and there are, to be sure, reasonable concerns about the effectiveness of their programs."

"Yet these countries represent a potentially transformative source of new resources and innovation for global health and development," including, in particular, the disbursement of low-cost drugs, vaccines, contraceptives and diagnostics.

Like it or not, foreign aid, including Canada's, has always been motivated by a desire to peddle influence, as much as it has been by the sense of responsibility towards the world's less fortunate.

So we are left with a simple equation: Though dollar for dollar the West collectively still gives far more than BRICS countries, the more foreign assistance countries like Russia and China provide, the more influence they and their world view stand to gain — and in some cases, the greater the advantage they get in trade.

Should keeping pace with the BRICS be the primary motivation for a new look at the West's foreign aid budgets?

No, but with competitors on the horizon with vastly different agendas, you'd expect it to be part of the calculation. (A less than altruistic stance, admittedly, but then in international affairs, even foreign development assistance, there's never really been much room for altruism.)

Canada isn't economically or politically in the same league as China and Russia, or the U.S. and Britain for that matter.

But it had once built a nice niche for itself as a country that derived its own kind of power from a reputation built on sharing with the less fortunate.

That reputation is in danger of waning, along with whatever kind of influence that came with it.

The message the federal government is sending with its latest cuts to foreign aid and its pullback in the international arena suggest Canada is indeed willing to live with the consequences.