Canada can balance its push for abortion rights in foreign aid with its need to maintain good relations with U.S. President Donald Trump, International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau says.
Despite starkly different approaches to development, Bibeau says Canada can lead on women’s issues while maintaining good trade relations with the U.S., which is by far Canada’s biggest trading partner.
“We can stand for our values and — inclusion is one, women’s rights is another one, that we will stand for,” Bibeau said.
“No matter what happens around us. This is too important for us.”
Canada’s Liberal government is staunchly feminist and promised during the 2015 election campaign to allow abortions within its international development funding. On the other side of the border, Trump last week signed an executive order to enforce what’s known as the global gag rule, which bars aid groups from even discussing abortion — or risk losing their funding for a range of programs.
The previous Conservative government focused on maternal, newborn and child health funding, devoting more than $6 billion from 2010 to 2020, but also blocked international development groups from offering abortion services with that funding.
Bibeau says even with the policy differences, Canada and the U.S. can find sectors where they can work together. She named energy development in Africa as one possibility.
“We definitely don’t agree — we don’t have the same vision on abortions and everything related to sexual and reproductive health and rights…. We will continue to discuss with the U.S. administration to try to convince them that this is very important, but for the time being, we will collaborate on some issues and just do our work on others,” Bibeau said.
It’s not clear yet who Trump will nominate as Bibeau’s counterpart at the U.S. Agency for International Development, but he is reportedly considering Martin Silverstein, a former ambassador to Uruguay under George W. Bush and a member of Trump’s transition team. Trump is also reportedly considering Mark Green, who heads up the International Republican Institute and is a former ambassador to Tanzania.
‘Major signature initiatives’ coming
The government reviewed its international development policy last year, with 15,000 people contributing from 65 countries. The report will be released after the federal budget, a date for which hasn’t been announced but is usually at the end of February or beginning of March.
Bibeau wouldn’t say whether the budget will include additional funding for international development. Canada’s $5.4 billion in overseas development assistance was up from 2014, but still only 0.28 per cent of Gross National Income. Aid advocates are pushing to increase it to 0.7 per cent as part of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s assertion more than a year ago that “Canada is back.”
Still, she promises “some major signature initiatives” around budget time.
“There’s a lot of priorities,” she said. “We have to be reasonable, but still we clearly understand that Canada has to do its fair share.”
Bibeau says Canada will adjust which countries receive development funding following the policy review, but it won’t be immediate. Right now, there are 25 “countries of focus” that receive program funding.
“You will not find the full answer in the policy [report] because we are still working on it. We have to find the right balance between fragile states, least-developed countries and middle-income countries,” Bibeau said.
“My mandate is clear though: it’s to refocus international assistance on the poorest and the most vulnerable.”
The shift will be progressive, she says, because it’s ineffective to abruptly cut off funding.
“There will be a certain shift in it. Doing more in some [countries], doing less in others…. We will have a different approach depending on the level of fragility and development of the countries.”
Other changes will be less surprising for the feminist government.
“Women’s empowerment, including sexual and reproductive health and rights, will be a very, very important element of the policy,” Bibeau said.