February 1, 1993

Foreign aid: what's in it for us?

This is a pivotal time for Canada's foreign-aid program. Though polls show that most Canadians take pride in Canada's assistance to developing countries, and believe it should continue, the recession has caused some to argue that we should vastly reduce our commitment. In response, more than 70 Canadian voluntary organizations, including the one I work for, have mounted a campaign this week to highlight the achievements made possible with Canadian help.

There remains, however, a critical gap in the debate. We need to start talking about how foreign aid helps us.

Unlikely as it seems, there are lessons to be learned from the U.S. space program. In common with aid workers, the scientists and engineers who worked so passionately on the moon missions were driven, in part, by altruistic motives - in their case by the thirst for discovery.

But advocates of space research knew a noble vision was not enough to sustain public support for a multi-billion dollar industry. The cold war with the Soviet Union, whose Sputnik threw such a scare into the West, was a powerful selling point in the early days. Later, supporters cited a litany of non-milliary spin-offs, from Teflon pans and Velcro to telecommunications and microwaves. Space missions (right through Roberta Bondar's shuttle flight) were crammed with scientific experiments supposed to help us here on Earth.

Canada plays a secondary (though) not insignificant) role in space, but it is a major and widely respected player in international development. Yet Canadians are only dimly aware of the spin-offs from foreign aid. They are every bit as tangible:

A safer environment. Foreign aid is important to the international effort to combat global warming, a thinning ozone layer, desertification and other environmental threats that respect no national boundaries. As Maurice Strong, the Canadian who organized last year's Earth Summit in Brazil, pointed out, "Lasting solutions to problems such as deforestation and pollution will have to address global poverty." Among our best allies in creating a safer environment are the farmers in the developing world who plant hundreds of millions of trees each year.

Practical new knowledge. Much expertise has been adapted from developing countries for use in Canada. Examples include the use of tropical plants for medicine, the conversion of waste material into fuel (biogas) and ways to provide banking services to those with little collateral.

Canadian employment. The jobs of thousands of Canadians depend directly on our foreign-aid program, including factory workers, engineers, researchers, farmers, civil servants and the employees of voluntary organizations. Hundreds of thousands more are dependent on the economic well being of developing countries. The North-South Institute has estimated that, for example, 130,000 Canadian export jobs were lost in the 1980s because of the debt crisis in Latin America.

More influence for Canada. Canada's reputation as a compassionate country and honest broker gives us prestige - and opportunities - on the world stage. Our views are often incorporated into vital international agreements, such as those signed at the Earth Summit; and Canadian business benefits from the goodwill that a generation of Canadian aid workers have helped build up around the world.

Peace. Canada's peacekeeping forces are rightly admired, but their deployment is, by design only a stop-gap measure. Lasting peace and stability can come only through the kind of social and economic development efforts that Canadian aid promotes.

If the spin-offs from foreign aid are so significant, why aren't Canadians more aware of this? Partly because it runs counter to our humanitarian instincts. According to a 1991 survey commissioned by the Canadian International Development Agency, 85 percent of Canadians believe we have a moral responsibility to help the Third World. And 55 percent oppose "tied aid" - assistance provided on the condition that it is used bo buy Canadian goods and services.

But while we should not be self-serving when allocating our limited foreign-aid budget (which totals only two cents of every government dollar), basing support for foreign aid entirely on humanitarian grounds can backfire when times are tough. Public support weakens, and "we have to take care of our problems at home first" becomes the common refrain. By discussing the spin-offs more openly, Canadians will recognize that the distinction between "our" problems and "their" problems is rapidly losing its meaning. If we care about the kind of world our children will live in, we must understand the real return we receive on our investment.

As Canadians become alarmed about soaring health-care costs, for example, health professionals are looking for ideas to places such as Pakistan, Kenya and Chile, where the scarcity for resources has led to new ways to prevent disease, involve local communities and treat common illness inexpensively. In Bangladesh, scientists recently discovered a simple treatment for dehydration caused by diarrhea - the world's number one killer of children. The treatment is a life-saver for parents without access to hospitals. Made from cereal, salt and boiled water, it can be made right in the home. The research was made possible in part by Canadian aid. Now the results may help us, too. A paper presented last year to the National Council for International Health in Washington estimated the treatment could save North America $1.1-billion in hospital costs each year by eliminating the need to treat many dehydrated children intravenously. If so, the financial benefits to Canadians from this single discovery will exceed our health-care assistance to the developing world.

If our motives are honourable, there is nothing inherently wrong in benefiting from foreign aid. There is an analogy in friendship: we don't expect anything in return when we do our friends a favour, but we are quite content to receive a favour in return.

Recognizing that international development is an investment in our own future places our relationship with people of developing countries on a more honest and equal footing. It also gives us a truer picture of the real costs of reducing Canada's commitment top international co-operation.

Source: The Ismaili, Canada

Please use the back arrow to go back to the previous page

Back to timeline 1993