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Wednesday, April 12th, 2017


Headshot, Mark Brender, PIH Canada

Mark Brender,
National Director
PIH Canada

As international NGOs and advocates for increased foreign assistance budgets, we do ourselves a disservice when we make the case for greater development aid in isolation from domestic spending priorities.

Surely those with a global outlook can agree that it’s not borders that matter, but people: namely, people who have been left behind by forces and events rarely of their choosing. The question is how to integrate these values into government policy in a comprehensive way.

We already do it on a piecemeal basis. All development-sector funding proposals to Global Affairs Canada (GAC), for example, must address the three cross-cutting themes of environmental sustainability, gender equality, and strengthening governance institutions and practices. So here’s a proposal: If we really want to improve quantity (and quality) of international aid programming, maybe it’s time to add ‘justice’ as a fourth cross-cutting theme to be pitched and promoted – and run it across the entire federal bureaucracy. From that day forward, the Minister of Justice will the most expansive portfolio in the country, with sweeping powers to identify and rectify wrongs and to articulate the justice prism through which all decisions must be viewed. She’ll be plenty busy, so someone else can head up the law-and-order division.

The need for our new cross-cutting theme is evident in light of the flat foreign aid contributions in the 2017 budget that came out last month. At roughly 0.28 of our GDP going to international assistance, we’re light-years from the 0.7% goal proposed by Lester Pearson nearly 50 years ago and far behind many European countries on a percentage basis. Others have explained why we need to do better and have laid out the compelling case that it is in Canada’s interest to increase our foreign aid and development investments. The case can be even stronger if we take out the word ‘foreign.’

‘We can’t afford to spend all this money in faraway places when I can show you all the problems we’ve got at home,’ says the case against increased international assistance.

‘We shouldn’t be pitting one against the other when I can show you they have similar causes and that tackling them is part of the same agenda,' says cross-cutting justice.

Without a response to the question about supposedly competing domestic priorities, the need for stronger social and development programs at home will continue to be used as a stick to swat away the demands of foreign aid. A cross-cutting policy orientation toward justice—a piece of which is being planned via a gender differentiated strategy—brings them back together where they belong. The philosophical shift away from ‘international health’ and toward ‘global health’ a decade ago is a recognition of these ties. They fit together under a coherent policy framework that prioritizes taking care of the most vulnerable, broadly defined—because the most vulnerable have also been the most exploited.

Adding justice as a cross-cutting theme for international assistance applications in particular would force us to pay more attention to history. It has the power to shift an applicant’s statement of need to a statement of contextual understanding. Colonialism might even be mentioned in a few aid proposals, just like it is in any reasonable discussion of reconciliation with Indigenous communities in Canada. Ditto with resource-extraction and racism and structural adjustment and human rights. You can think of a few others, and we’re all implicated in a good number of them.

If promoting justice starts from a desire to learn by asking questions, the Canadian government took some positive steps by also including input from global partners in last year’s international assistance review. What’s surprising in the reporting back to Canadians is the lack of any mention of health system strengthening. In Partners In Health’s experience, we can’t move toward greater justice in the health sphere without it.

Health system strengthening, as wonderfully articulated last week by Adam Graham, is about the hard work of not just providing training or care, but building systems that can provide high quality care and training over the long haul. Invariably these systems are what are missing in resource-starved settings: not enough doctors and nurses, not enough funds to pay them or train them, not enough medicines and equipment, not enough well-functioning facilities. These are all at the top of the list of the needs of health ministries in partner countries. We should be demanding that Canadian aid flows are flexible enough to meet those public sector needs—including when necessary paying salaries of people without a maple leaf on their passport who do the overwhelming majority of global health work.

Two thumbs up to Canada that we’re finally getting around to asking more questions and doing more listening to understand the answers. It’s the part about responding appropriately to what we hear— both within our borders and beyond them—that’s still in question.


Mark Brender is the National Director of Partners In Health Canada

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