Will Canada rise to the global challenge at UNGA or falter in the spotlight?

This week the world descends on New York City for the United Nations General Assembly, or UNGA. Amid traffic congestion, celebrity-soaked events and more speeches than I thought possible, my little middle-power nation has some choices to make. How are we going to meet this important international moment? Will we respond with fervour, or will we flail?

A couple of weeks ago, the Globe and Mail’s editorial board, reporting on Canada’s record on Official Development Assistance (ODA — or foreign aid as it is known to most), made clear that Canada is not the global good guy it purports to be. Quite the contrary, Canada is a global laggard, trailing behind other G7 nations in global engagement meant to be a literal lifeline to people suffering the brunt of humanity’s plights.

Extreme poverty, defined as living on less than $2.15 USD a day (and no, it is not so inexpensive in Ethiopia that two dollars a day is enough), holds around 648 million fellow humans in deplorable conditions. Two dollars a day represents a series of impossible choices — feed yourself one meal or allow your kid to hang on for one more day. Seek shelter, water and safety or stay in the only community you’ve ever known.

The argument then to invest ODA in global goods — health (planetary and human), sustainable food systems and nutrition, education for all and crisis intervention — and work to the best of our ability to lift those ‘furthest behind’ out of extreme suffering is a moral one. Most Canadians (81 per cent) support this, and there is an intrinsic discomfort with the extremes on either end of the wealth spectrum that rattles Canadian sensibilities. 

Where the moral argument runs into a brick wall is when up against two things: the scale of the problems we currently face and the ways in which Canadians face these challenges — the ‘here at home’ argument.

This brings us back to the rainy streets of New York and the sustainable development goals (SDGs). The SDGs lay out a roadmap on the collective action required to get us to ‘better’ in Canada and around the world. Canada signed on to advance the SDGs at home and to contribute to the global community working to strategically advance progress around the world. As of the half-way point, however, many of these goals remain dangerously below target.

Holding up our end of the bargain on the SDGs is not an act of charity. Our presence out in the world is critical for Canada to flourish. This is true on almost every metric that matters to Canadian households — safety, economic prosperity, health security, leisure and connection to the loved ones outside our borders. Just ask the large Ukrainian, Egyptian or Libyan populations of Canada, or anyone (everyone) affected by COVID-19. As tempting as it is to look inwards, our lives are dependent on looking outwards.

Performance as an engaged global player is hard to measure, pinning down the metrics that would land us in a sweet spot of doing enough without overtaxing our resources is a balance that changes as fast as the next disaster, emergency or global concern. It’s not easy but it’s also not a footnote to the main story of governing — it is a plot line that is central to the success of Canada and Canadians.

Today, the global state of affairs can be summed up in one word: instability. Our world, it seems, has had one too many coffees — we are shaky, spinning and moving too quickly for our own good. What we need from our elected officials at this moment is a steady hand, a clear strategy and the ability to work  beyond election cycles.

Partisans beware, there are no single-party answers that will get Canada to where it needs to be over the next decade. Right now we have a seat at several international tables — earned through the good will of our historically non-partisan global engagement from the 1940s onwards — but those seats won’t be reserved forever.

As I sit here at an UNGA event in my own reserved seat, ready to listen to the first of too many speeches, I wonder which Canada will show up this week. The one who sees itself as a small player on a big stage, or the one that puts in the work, the resources and the political capital to move us towards a better world.


September 20, 2023


Julia Anderson, CanWaCH Chief Executive Officer