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Canada's aid cut, geopolitical stances challenge 'pragmatic' pivot to Global South

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OTTAWA -

Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly said this fall that Canada needs to better reflect the needs of developing countries and have closer ties with states where the majority of the world's population lives.

But analysts say it will be hard for Canada to rise to that challenge as the Liberals cut back on aid and its foreign service, combined with stances on geopolitics that grate people in what is often called the Global South.

"Canada still has not left that rather comfortable framework that we had in the Cold War," said Pablo Heidrich, a Carleton University professor whose research focuses on the Global South.

"Canada is seen as problematic partner, a country that you don't know what it is going to come up with next."

In a major speech last October, Joly said an increasingly connected, volatile world requires Canada to work with more than just democracies.

"The current world order is also being questioned by people and nations, especially from the South, who challenge whether the rules reflect their reality and benefit their people," she said.

Joly added that many developing countries want relations with great powers such as the U.S. and China, instead of being forced to align with one. "The Global South cannot afford to choose one camp over the other," she said.

In response, Joly said, the Liberals are pursuing a "pragmatic diplomacy" that echoes Canada's Cold War approach of keeping close to Washington while finding ways to co-operate with states who don't align with the U.S.

Heidrich says the world has changed in the past three decades, and that Canada is seen in much of the Global South as echoing American double-standards.

For example, Canada has championed supporting Ukraine against Russia's full-scale invasion, particularly when ministers visit South America, Africa and Asia.

That rankles people who point to Canada's relative silence on conflicts elsewhere, Heidrich said, such as a brutal civil war that broke out in April in Sudan. This week, the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention asked countries to speak out about what it calls rising, ethnically motivated violence.

Heidrich says countries notice Canada's loud condemnation of Russia's occupation of Ukraine and its bombing of civilian infrastructure, and object to Canada voting against UN resolutions condemning Israel for its bombardment of the Gaza Strip.

Last week, Canada voted in favour of a motion calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. But Conservative and Liberal governments have for years voted against UN resolutions critical of Israel that pass with majority support, with Canada arguing that motions about the treatment of Palestinians over decades have unfairly singled out Israel.

Heidrich says much of the world sees those votes as an inconsistent take on human rights, one that goes easier on countries aligned with the U.S. such as Israel while criticizing America's adversaries.

In addition, Heidrich says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is perceived in large swaths of the world as lecturing to developing countries about human rights such as LGBTQ+ and gender issues, without an adequate focus on diplomatic ties or development funding in those countries.

The government's promised Africa strategy has repeatedly been delayed, and last spring the Liberals said the project had been downgraded to a framework, implying less funding and importance for a continent with a booming population and a massive free-trade area.

Canadian-owned mines in Latin America face allegations of environmental devastation and human-rights abuses, but advocates say Ottawa's corporate ombudsperson lacks the powers to investigate those issues. Panama has been roiled by protests this fall about environmental concerns surrounding a Canadian-owned copper mine.

"Canada has come across as someone who is rather self-righteous, admonishing and telling people in other governments and in other societies what they should do, how they should live. And it surprises people," Heidrich said.

He said Canada's perception is likely to only get worse as it cuts back on foreign aid. In last spring's budget, the Liberals reduced their projected aid spend by 15 per cent. The government argues the projected $1.3-billion drop is not a cut, instead putting Canada back in line with levels that predated the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

Aid advocates say the pandemic and the war in Europe have helped reverse trends toward eradicating global diseases and lifting people out of poverty.

Rajiv Shah, head of the Rockefeller Foundation, an American philanthropic organization, said COVID-19 has created a lopsided economic picture where rich countries have spent big to stimulate their economies, while middle- and low-income countries had far less money to tap into.

Shah, the Obama administration's former aid chief, notes that global inflation has hit the entire world, but rising interest rates have left poor countries unable to borrow enough money to run core health and infrastructure systems. Western countries, meanwhile, have seen a drop in unemployment and are rolling out subsidies for green-vehicle factories.

"That's why we're experiencing this divergence today, in terms of human-development outcomes across those two big groups of countries," he told the Global Dispatches podcast this month.

Shah believes the world needs a rethink in geopolitics, and the creation of new agencies similar to those formed in the 1950s.

"We're in a moment not unlike the end of World War II, where we have 50-60 countries teetering on the edge of a debt crisis, we have a climate crisis that's accelerating faster than almost anybody predicted," he said. "We have a dearth of resources investing in energy and climate transitions in emerging economies that will account for 70 per cent of carbon emissions in future years if we don't act now."

To that end, the Liberals have pushed for a reform of global financial institutions such as the World Bank, to allow countries facing natural disasters to build infrastructure that limits the impact of floods and wildfires. Caribbean leaders praised Canada's advocacy at an Ottawa summit this fall.

The Trudeau government is bringing the same message to Southeast Asia, hoping to help build things like bridges and roads in countries like Indonesia and Vietnam.

Yet at a conference earlier this month held by the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy about the Indo-Pacific region, multiple experts said their countries haven't seen Canada as a consistent partner, because Ottawa's aid, trade and military engagement has ebbed and flowed over decades.

Philippine ambassador Maria Andrelita Austria told the conference that Canada is still renowned for the work of the former Canadian International Development Agency, which in 2013 the Harper government merged into what is now Global Affairs Canada.

"The CIDA brand helped open doors, and helped flex Canada's soft power. Without the CIDA brand, Canada is not as visible as it should be," she told the conference.

The ambassador said Canada still sees the Philippines as a source of labour and a destination for aid dollars, instead of tapping into its mining sector or massive working-age population.

"I wish they would explore the other dimensions for co-operation," Austria said.

Beyond the aid cut, the Senate foreign affairs committee worries about a belt-tightening exercise for federal departments that include Global Affairs Canada, just as the department plans for new embassies and better training of its diplomats.

Committee chair Sen. Peter Boehm summed things up for reporters as he released a report on the issue this month: "It's very difficult to push change when you're facing a budget cut and trying to rationalize your resources."

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