Humanitarian groups call new federal budget a 'missed opportunity'

Humanitarian groups in Canada are expressing disappointment with the federal budget presented by the minority Liberal government, calling it "a missed opportunity for Canada's global engagement" and saying it limits Ottawa's ability to play a "meaningful long-term role" in a post-pandemic global recovery.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland unveiled on Monday $101.4 billion in new spending in the first federal budget in two years.

The 739-page document commits up to $1.4 billion over five years to international assistance to help "developing countries and vulnerable populations respond to this crisis and to meet growing humanitarian needs around the world."

That includes $375 million for the global pandemic response.

The budget proposes to allocate an additional $165 million in 2021-22 to Global Affairs Canada to provide international humanitarian assistance to areas of the world suffering from conflicts, food insecurity and other crises.

It also commits Canada to allocating $288.3 million over three years, starting in 2021-22, to respond to the Rohingya crisis.

The new budget also proposes to provide $80.3 million over two years, starting in 2021-22, to respond to the Venezuelan migrant and refugee crisis.

Nicolas Moyer is CEO of Cooperation Canada, the national association of international development and humanitarian organizations. He said the budget falls far short of what the international development community in Canada was hoping for.

"The budget does some extraordinary things on the domestic front," Moyer told Radio Canada International. "But when it comes to the international side of things, this budget really falls flat and it feels like a big, big missed opportunity."

'A mixed bag'

Moyer said the domestic elements of the budget appear to be well-thought out and strategically oriented.

"And the international portfolio seems like a bit of a mixed bag of initiatives that the government was going to have to do anyway — you don't really see the connection between all the pieces. And there is certainly not the level of ambition that we were looking for," he said.

"The world is going through the crisis of a generation, arguably a double crisis of COVID and the climate crisis, and for Canada that should mean significant investment in these spaces for us to ensure that there is progress around the world that is for everyone, including ourselves."

Canada has contributed to the global effort to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic is by investing in the COVAX Facility, a World Health Organization initiative that aims to ensure equitable access to vaccines. (Diomande Ble Blonde/The Associated Press)

Humanitarian NGOs in Canada were calling on the Liberal government to invest one per cent of its COVID-19 response in supporting the global response and recovery, Moyer said.

He said Canada is contributing far below its global fair share and its international commitments and invests only 30 cents in international assistance for every $100 in gross national income. Despite an increase last year, Canada continues to perform below the average of donors of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), he added.

Care Canada president and CEO Barbara Grantham said much of the $1.4 billion allocated to foreign assistance is targeted for this year, with no indication of a long-term strategy to eradicate COVID-19.

"Keeping Canadians safe is the most crucial role of the government. Today, that means eradicating COVID-19 worldwide," Grantham said in a statement.

"This budget allocation limits Canada's ability to play a meaningful long-term role in a global recovery."

Michael Messenger, president and CEO of World Vision Canada, said he too was disappointed by the absence of robust annual increases in international assistance funding.

"We won't be safe until the whole world is safe," he said. "And there will be no Canadian recovery until there is a global recovery."

'A substantial and additional investment'

International Development Minister Karina Gould said the Liberal government has been a strong ally globally for developing countries struggling with humanitarian crises, a changing climate and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Canada is renewing its investments in live-saving programs for migrants from Venezuela, refugees from the conflict in Syria and hundreds of thousands of displaced Rohingya families from Myanmar, Gould told Radio Canada International in an emailed statement.

"Our government has been there since the start of the pandemic with $3.25 billion already provided in international assistance in response to COVID-19," Gould said. 

The addition of $1.4 billion over five years in the new budget is "a substantial and additional investment made by Canada," she added.

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