Politics·Fact Check

Andrew Scheer's claim about foreign aid deemed false

The Conservatives want to cut 25 per cent from Canada's international aid budget. But they are fudging the numbers when it comes to claims about billions going to well-off nations or dictatorships.

Official figures don't support idea that $2.2 billion a year is going to rich or undeserving nations

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer addresses the media in Toronto Tuesday. His party wants to cut Canada's foreign aid budget by 25 per cent to help fund some of his platform promises. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

The claim: "The Trudeau government today sends $2.2 billion of so-called foreign aid to middle- and upper-income countries...Worse still, some of that money is shoveled to repressive regimes that are adversarial, if not outright hostile, to Canadian interests and values."

-- Conservative leader Andrew Scheer announcing his proposal to slash 25 per cent of Canada's foreign aid budget and redistribute the money to taxpayers at home.

The facts: Ottawa spent a total of $6.098 billion on "international assistance" in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2018, according to the latest statistical report from Global Affairs Canada.

Of that amount, $3.41 billion was spent directly on aid to other nations and $993.82 million was devoted to "multilateral international assistance," benefiting more than one country or an entire region. In addition, other federal bodies like the Department of National Defence, the RCMP and Environment and Climate Change Canada spent a total of $858.43 million that falls under the "foreign aid" umbrella.

In Toronto on Tuesday, Scheer said he believes that the "vast majority" of Canada's foreign aid is "well spent," but maintained that a "significant chunk" is being misdirected under Justin Trudeau. The Conservative leader specifically cited assistance to "middle- and upper-income countries" like Argentina, Barbados, Brazil, China, Italy, Mexico, and Turkey. And he identified "hostile" regimes like Iran, North Korea, and Russia as also being undeserving.

In total, those 10 countries received $22.03 million in Canadian assistance last fiscal year, mostly under multinational programs for international security, food assistance, or disaster relief. For instance, the $2 million that went to Italy was to help pay for rescue and recovery efforts after a 2017 earthquake.

It's not clear how the Tories arrived at their $2.2 billion figure. The party has said that they are defining "middle- and upper-income countries" as those with a score of 0.6 and above on the United Nations' Human Development Index (HDI). But that's not a benchmark that any other country or international body uses to determine which nations need assistance. And it seems like a rather arbitrary point within the HDI itself — about three-quarters of the way down the list of "medium human development countries."

Cut would be wide-ranging

If Canada were to adopt that cut-off it would mean that Ghana — ranked 140th of the 189 nations currently scored on the development index — would be the wealthiest country to qualify for our foreign aid. And it would disqualify five of Canada's top 20 aid recipients — Jordan, Bangladesh, Iraq, Lebanon and India — from future assistance.

Last fiscal year, those countries received a total of $387.55 million, $211 million of which was classified as emergency humanitarian aid, going mostly to support Syrian refugees in the Middle East and Rohingya Muslims who fled a genocidal regime in Myanmar. 

During his Toronto speech, Scheer said that a Conservative government would continue to assist Ukraine — ranked 88th on the development index with a score of 0.751 — which received $54.51 million last year. But applying the 0.6 HDI mark would exclude every other European nation from Canadian assistance, as well as every country in Central and South America and every Caribbean nation except Haiti.

North African nations would no longer qualify for Canadian aid, nor would South Africa. And in the Middle East, only Syria and Yemen would make the grade. The list in Asia would be whittled down to Afghanistan — Canada's top foreign aid recipient at $237.97 million last year — Pakistan, Myanmar and Nepal.

That would account for the $1.5 billion that Scheer is promising to cut from the aid budget, but not the additional $700 million he claims the Trudeau government is wasting on well-to-do countries and corrupt dictatorships. 

Experts say they are puzzled

Experts in the field are mystified by the Tory claims and their number crunching. 

"This is not the standard way of looking at country income classification. No one does it that way," says Aniket Bhushan, an adjunct research professor at Carleton University, who oversees the Canadian International Development Platform, a database that tracks aid spending. "There's nothing in the empirical literature that says anything about 0.6 HDI."

Bhushan says that Canada doesn't actually provide any official development assistance to high-income countries — they are excluded under agreed international definitions. (The cut off, as per this OECD eligibility list, is "Upper Middle Income Countries," with per capita Gross National Incomes of between US $3,956 and $12,235 in 2016.)

And he suspects that the Conservatives are including the funds that go to multinational programs — some $2.4 billion in 2018 — and the money that Canada spends at home — like the $462.19 million that went to support newly arrived refugees last fiscal year — in their calculations of direct foreign aid. 

'A Trump-like response'

"It's all bizarre," says Bhushan. "It's sort of a Trump-like response."

But regardless of how it is justified, a 25 per cent cut to Canada's foreign aid would be a serious blow to the developing world, says Liam Swiss, a Memorial University sociologist who serves as president of the Canadian Association for the Study of International Development.

"Fundamentally, you're talking about immunizing fewer children, more mothers dying in childbirth, less potable water and more refugees suffering in conflict zones. That's what it means in terms of Canada's aid," says Swiss.

And then there's the question of Canada's commitments to the international community. 

It was Lester Pearson, the former prime minister, who helped the UN set a development spending target for wealthy nations — 0.7 per cent of GDP — back in 1970. It's a goal that Canada has been committed to for 50 years, but has never come close to attaining. At present, Ottawa's $6.1 billion aid budget is 0.28 per cent of GDP. The proposed Conservative cut would drop that figure to 0.21 per cent.

Not paying fair share now

"We're already well below our fair share," says Nicolas Moyer, CEO of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, an association representing aid organizations. "We rank 15th in the OECD, and this would drop us to 19th, and make us second-last among G7 countries."

Moyer says past Conservative governments have been strong leaders on foreign aid, citing the almost $3 billion that Stephen Harper devoted to child and maternal health initiatives. 

And he's not sure why Andrew Scheer is talking about cuts.

"Is it a signal that we're withdrawing from the rest of the world?" asks Moyer. "In an era of climate change, mass migration and challenges to the international order, Canada needs to engage more in the world, not less."

The verdict: False. Scheer's claim that Canada is sending $2.2 billion to upper- and middle-income countries and corrupt dictatorships isn't supported by the numbers. 

Sources: Statistical Report on International Assistance, 2017-2018, Global Affairs Canada; Andrew Scheer details plan to reclaim Canadian leadership on the world stage, Conservative Party of Canada; Scheer promises to slash foreign aid spending by 25 per cent, CBC News; Human Development Index and its components, Canada's Foreign Aid, Canadian International Development Platform, Project Profile - Funds for the 2016-17 Italy Earthquakes, Government of Canada; The 0.7% ODA/GNI target - a history, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; Canadian Global Aid, Canadian Council for International Cooperation; Net Official Development Assistance, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; Canada made maternal, newborn and child health a priority for the G8 Muskoka Summit in June 2010, United Nations.


Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.

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