OTTAWA — International Development Minister Ahmed Hussen says he's focused on speeding up aid funding while cementing the Trudeau government's feminist approach to development abroad.
In his first interview about taking on the role since he was sworn in July 26, Hussen said his mandate letter calls for a continued focus on Canada's feminist international assistance policy, and to prioritize clearing bureaucratic hurdles that prevent that policy from fulling taking shape.
"We know that when women and girls are included in society, those societies do better, that poverty comes down, gender-based violence comes down (and) economic development takes off," he said.
Hussen previously helmed the government's housing and immigration portfolios.
His new job focuses on managing a $6.5-billion budget for development aid such as building schools, as well as helping send out humanitarian funding in response to crises such as major earthquakes.
The goal is to try creating a more prosperous, inclusive world that presents fewer security risks for Canada and its allies, even as the international community faces increasing climate chaos, pandemics and a historic number of refugees.
Hussen takes on a file at a time where Canada has joined some of allies in cutting back on foreign aid.
This past spring's budget called for a $1.3-billion drop in funding, amounting to 15 per cent less than the year before. The Liberals insist this is not a cut, since the budget remains larger than Canada's aid expenditures before the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Hussen argued in the interview that Ottawa's efforts "go beyond what it contributes in aid funding alone," and noted Canada remains among the top funders of development projects.
"Yes, the needs have grown in all different aspects, whether it's food security, whether it is refugees, whether it is disasters. The needs are greater, but we've stepped up over the years, and budget 2023 is another example of that," he said.
"We remain committed to to those amounts, but also to improve the quality and effectiveness of our aid, to generate better results for the poorest and most vulnerable people around the world."
To that end, Hussen said his No. 1 goal is to make sure the department simply gets back to people in a timely manner. He's overseeing a nascent reform of how Global Affairs Canada funds projects through organizations, from updating decades-old databases to changing forms and criteria to better reflect smaller groups abroad that have an outsized impact.
"My priority is to make sure that, first of all, that we have better client service," he said.
"The second one is (to) find ways to localize this work, and really partner with small and promising and innovative and nimble organizations that are local, and invite them into this process."
The reform involves an overhaul of the bureaucratic system Ottawa uses to approve funding requests for aid groups, which charities describe as notoriously cumbersome.
As part of this review, Global Affairs Canada is pondering how best to balance Ottawa's needs for reporting requirements that keep tabs on the flow of funds and measure outcomes, along with assessing whether local groups on the ground feel the projects are actually improving lives of the people they serve.
Hussen said it's all part of cementing progress for women abroad, by building up groups in developing countries and also working with like-minded rich countries to promote a feminist lens. For example, a women's voice and leadership program aims to form ties between organizations and train staff to be more effective in their work.
"We'll continue to partner, share best practices, learn from others and really continue to support not just the work, but the capacity of women leaders and feminist groups," Hussen said, linking that with efforts to cut red tape.
"How do we really double down on leveraging international development dollars to result in more sustainable socio-economic development?"
The hope is that whenever the Liberals leave office, there will be enough support from other rich countries, and enough know-how in local groups abroad, that progress on issues like abortion access are not left to the whims of future Canadian governments.
This spring, meetings of the House foreign-affairs committee aimed at studying global sexual and reproductive health were repeatedly postponed by Conservative MPs who argued that other issues, such as the war in Ukraine, should take priority.
That led other parties to accuse the Tories of a filibuster, and speculate that a future Conservative government would repeat the decision of former prime minister Stephen Harper to restrict whether dollars earmarked for maternal health can fund abortions.
"One of the ways to tackle this, to make sure that we have a long-term impact, is also to increase funding to grassroots women's rights organizations … that continue to do really important work to close persistent gaps in sexual and reproductive health and rights," Hussen said.
"For example, in relation to the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence, that work is really, really paying dividends, and we'll continue on that path to make sure that we solidify those gains."
The government is separately slated this fall to publish Canada's third action plan on women, peace and security, a five-year plan that shapes everything from domestic policy on policing to to diplomatic priorities and foreign-aid arrangements.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 19, 2023.
Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press