U2’s Bono lauds budget boost, but aid groups say it is a good start

OTTAWA — U2 frontman Bono is heaping praise on the Trudeau government for a new infusion of Canadian overseas development spending, leading a chorus of anti-poverty activists who are cheering the biggest boost in almost two decades.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s budget pledged $2 billion over five years to increase international aid through a new International Assistance Innovation program, designed to come up with flexible new financing arrangements, and the Sovereign Loans program.

It is the biggest increase in Canadian foreign aid in 16 years, and it comes after more than a decade of austerity and budget cuts branded the country as laggard in helping the world’s poorest people.

The new spending is being heralded as a way for Canada to leverage its G7 chairmanship to help alleviate poverty when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hosts its leaders for their June summit in Quebec’s Charlevoix region.

Bono, who founded the anti-poverty advocacy group known as the ONE Campaign, heaped praise on the prime minister, reversing his group’s earlier criticism of the current government’s past stinginess on foreign aid.

ONE is an advocacy group that does not administer foreign programs, but the agencies that deliver it in the world’s poorest countries are welcoming the new cash as a good start, although they say more is needed.

“Oh Canada! Prime Minister Trudeau’s budget — and the smart, women-centred policy that guides it — is leadership in action,” Bono said in a statement.

“Words alone can be cheap, but words written into budgets are worth their weight in lives saved, and worthy of praise. We are grateful for your leadership today, and for what we know Canada will help the world deliver at the G7 this spring.”

CARE Canada welcomed the new money, saying it would be a “welcome starting point” to G7 efforts to alleviate poverty. But Gillian Barth, its president, said the government needs “to raise ambition in line with Canadians’ desire for increased influence and compassion on the international stage.”

Though the initial boost will be nine per cent more than last’s year’s budget, the increases are less than two per cent year a year between 2019 and 2023, she said.

“This is insufficient to keep up with the rate of inflation,” said Barth.

Michael Messenger, the president of World Vision Canada, said the budget represented “an important and necessary first step” that demonstrates leadership.

“Escalating conflict, health pandemic threats and weakened economies have created global needs we haven’t seen in recent times, especially for the most vulnerable children — and Canadian international assistance is an important part of the solution.”

Under the Trudeau Liberals, Canada’s international development budget has atrophied just as it did under the previous Harper Conservatives.

According to the latest statistics by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Canada’s aid spending amounted to 0.26 per cent of gross national income, placing it 15th among 35 OECD countries.

That’s far below the elusive 0.7 per cent target set by the United Nations — a goal that was set after a recommendation by an international commission led by former Canadian prime minister Lester Pearson.

Canada has never reached 0.7 per cent; only a handful of countries have, including its G7 partner, the United Kingdom.

The Harper government faced heavy criticism in 2010 for not boosting aid spending when Canada last hosted what was then the G8. The Conservative government honoured a 2002 commitment by the Jean Chretien Liberals at the G8 summit in Kananaskis, Alta., to double aid spending to Africa by 2010. But the Tories froze and then cut foreign aid entirely.

Tuesday’s budget said Canada would spend $594 million on the G7 leaders’ summit and the ministerial meetings leading up to it.

Prior to Tuesday, the current Liberal government had said it would be too difficult to increase the aid budget to the 0.7 per cent target, making it clear it had other spending priorities.

“The failure to come anywhere close to achieving the development assistance target … raises legitimate questions about whether ‘Canada is back,’” Timothy Evans, the head of health and nutrition at the World Bank, wrote last week as part of a study by the British medical journal, The Lancet.

After last year’s federal budget, Morneau told The Canadian Press that aid agencies would simply have to do more with less, citing the creation of a new Development Finance Institution, which will lend money to private companies to help them pay for poverty reduction.

But after International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau unveiled Canada’s new feminist foreign policy in June with no new money attached, she said she would continue to fight hard around the cabinet table for more funding.

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