Episode Transcript

Lama Alsafi: (00:00)

Hello, and welcome to 15 Minutes to Change the World, where in 15 minutes you can learn a bit more about the world and how you can help change it. My name is Lama Alsafi, host of this podcast and this episode of 15 minutes to change the world, we're looking at Canadian international assistance in the age of COVID-19, how it has compounded existing inequalities around the world and changed how Canada is responding to support people in vulnerable places. And of course, what we can do to ensure is critical work continues and expands. Our guest today is The Honorable Bob Rae, former Premier of Ontario and interim Liberal Party leader between 2011 and 2013. In October, 2017 Mr. Rae was appointed as Canada's Special Envoy on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh. On March 10th of this year, just before COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, Mr. Rae was appointed Special Envoy of the Prime Minister of Canada on Humanitarian and Refugee Issues. Recently he released his report on humanitarian and refugee issues in the context of COVID-19 just today before taking up his new role as Canada's Ambassador to the United Nations in New York. Welcome Mr. Rae. Thank you so very much for taking the time to join us today.

The Honourable Bob Rae: (01:52)

My pleasure Lama. Good to be with you.

Lama Alsafi:(01:54)

Well reading your introduction here, it makes me a bit nervous to speak to a man of your esteem.

The Honourable Bob Rae: (02:01)

[Laughs] We'll get through it. Don't worry.

Lama Alsafi: (02:03)

Alright. Very good, sir. Thank you. Alright, Mr. Rae, so you were appointed Special Envoy on Humanitarian and Refugee Issues. What was your mandate and how did the pandemic affect the severity of humanitarian and refugee crises around the world?

The Honourable Bob Rae: (02:17)

Well, already in the last couple of years, there's been a growing crisis of refugees, migrant workers and people who've been physically displaced from their homes. We have about a hundred million people who fit into that terrible category and it's all been made much worse by COVID because COVID has effectively shut down a lot of economies around the world and that's affected everybody, but it particularly affected the humanitarian and refugee situation.

Lama Alsafi: (02:51)

And in your report, Mr. Rae, you make the point that COVID-19 is more than a health crisis, that it is a social and economic crisis that's compounding other challenges. What do you mean by that sir, and who bears the brunt of these crises and what sorts of solutions do we need to be pushing forward at this time?

The Honourable Bob Rae: (03:10)

Well, I mean, it's because of the methods that governments around the world have used to deal with the health crisis. We don't have a vaccine yet. So the only way we can deal with it is by literally shutting things down and keeping people at home and keeping people apart. This is easier to do in the industrialized world and the advanced economies than it is in the developing world. But right across the world, this has been the methodology that's been used and it's had, the shutdown of the economy effectively, has had a terrible impact on people. Lost jobs, lost incomes, lost revenues for businesses, closed businesses and so on. And that therefore creates a problem for people. It creates a problem for businesses, creates a problem for governments because governments don't have any money either. In our case, we can borrow a fair bit and that's what all countries are doing in the advanced world. But for a lot of other countries, they don't have the same access to money. And so, things are getting very, very tough.

Lama Alsafi: (04:16)

And what sorts of solutions do you think we need to be pushing forward?

The Honourable Bob Rae: (04:21)

Well, I think we need to be, in effect, looking at the world as a whole and saying, you know, we can't really deal with this crisis unless we come up with some global solutions. Not just for one country, not just for ourselves, but for everybody. And so at the UN we've been working hard to try to create a coalition of countries that will advocate on behalf of what we call global solutions for a global pandemic. And that's been very much part of my approach to my new job.

Lama Alsafi: (04:53)

And in your report, Mr. Rae, you underlined that we'll not have a successful recovery unless developing countries also recover. At this time when so many Canadians are struggling here at home, what do you say to those who may be skeptical about sending money—Canadian money—overseas?

The Honourable Bob Rae: (05:10)

Well, I think COVID-19 has made us all a little bit more isolated. It's made countries more isolated, but even as individuals, we're more isolated. We're having difficulty really understanding, grasping entirely what's happening all around the world. And I think the answer to that isolation is simply to try to break it down as much as we can by expressing solidarity with one another. From an economic point of view, Canada is a trading country and in order for us to trade, we need people who can buy our goods. And we need countries to be in a position of relative prosperity, as opposed to being very poor and broken, not having any cash. So it's in our interest to make sure that these economies can recover. That's the same logic that we used, you know, 70 years ago, when the world was emerging out of World War II, and the Americans developed something called the Marshall plan, which was all about helping Europe to recover so that Europe could become a strong economic partner. That's the kind of approach and thinking that we need, we need all the countries and around the world to be strong economic partners for us, that's in our interest to do that. So when we spend money on development assistance, as long as we spend it wisely, but if we spend money in development assistance, what we're really doing is helping ourselves.

Lama Alsafi: (06:34)

And the recent Throne Speech mentioned support for international assistance, and we've seen the government joined the COVAX initiative to provide a safe and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for low and middle income countries, and commit an additional $400 million to address the impacts of COVID-19 in vulnerable communities around the world. What's the significance of these recent actions for Canada's foreign policy?

The Honourable Bob Rae: (06:59)

Well, I think they're, they're an important step in the right direction. We're really doing two things. The first one is everybody can understand that if we don't have a vaccine that gets to everyone, then we're not really safe in terms of the disease itself. So if we want to deal with the virus, we've got to deal with it globally. And that's really what the COVAX program is all about. It's about developing access to the vaccine for all countries. And for everybody in the world, it's going to take time, it's going to take a lot of money, but it's a very necessary step. And the second thing we're doing is increasing the amount of money that we're using to support the economies and the people in the developing world. We actually haven't done as much as we could have in the past. And so this is, I think, an important step in the right direction. We're turning an important corner here in expressing our solidarity and, frankly, our self-interest. We're not just doing it because we're nice, we're doing it because it's a smart thing to do.

Lama Alsafi: (08:04)

And the $400 million commitment specifically mentioned women and girls to help women and girls in developing countries. Why do you think this is important?

The Honourable Bob Rae: (08:15)

Well, I mean, because women and girls have been systematically discriminated against, and because they're facing such tremendous challenge, we we've got to get girls into schools, we've got to get them educated, give them opportunities. And frankly, this is something we believe in very strongly. It's interesting to me being at the United Nations. Now, how many countries recognize Canada's leadership in this, in this challenge of looking at the need to address the particular situation affecting women and girls, what we call our Feminist Foreign Policy. I think it's a very necessary step for Canada. And I think it's a very positive step.

Lama Alsafi: (09:00)

In looking at how other countries around the world are responding to COVID-19, especially as relates to humanitarian and refugee issues, is there anything that you think is going very well and something that you would like to see Canada do more of?

The Honourable Bob Rae: (09:15)

Well, actually I think in some ways we've become an important leader. I mean, when it comes to refugees, for example, per capita, we take in more than most other countries. We do more in terms of private and community sponsorships. And that's something that I think people can get involved in. And we're also sharing this model with a number of other countries that they can see how well it works. I think it's fair to say that there are a group of countries, particularly the Scandinavians, many European countries that are actually doing more per capita just in terms of how much their governments invest in foreign assistance and direct assistance to folks. I think we could start to join that club, as opposed to other clubs. And be part of a bigger global effort. But I do think that Canadians should know that Canada is respected and Canada is taking some important initiatives, both in terms of COVID and in terms of climate change that I think are going to help to make a difference globally. And we should continue to increase our efforts as far as that goes.

Lama Alsafi: (10:26)

Finally, Mr. Rae, what can our listeners at home do to help to ensure that everyone around the world recovers from COVID-19 while working to build a more equal world?

The Honourable Bob Rae: (10:35)

Well, my first recommendation to our listeners is stay home, stay healthy, you know, do all the things that we're supposed to do, wear a mask, stay socially distanced, wash your hands all the time. But these are things that we all have to do. We're a much better source of help to the world when we're healthy ourselves as individuals. The second thing to do is, as weird as the internet is, it can also be a source of information and of access. And if you go on the websites of organizations like CARE and the Red Cross and all of the international organizations that are doing so much to assist and to help people. Look at what UNICEF is doing, the UN agencies, they all have excellent websites. Try and learn as much as you can about what's really going on around the world.

The Honourable Bob Rae: (11:24)

There are people are living in very, very tough, difficult circumstances. This will move people to see that the more we can do to help, the better off we're going to be. And I think the other thing we can do is just keep writing letters and writing messages to governments saying that, you know, we really do want Canada to play a role in global solidarity, not just a role for ourselves, but a role for everyone. And I think that's, you know, when the government begins to see that, that mood on the part of Canadians, I think that'll help to encourage them to do even more.

Lama Alsafi: (12:04)

Well, thank you so much, Mr. Rae, for taking the time to speak with us today.

The Honourable Bob Rae: (12:08)

It's my pleasure Lama. Nice to talk to you too.

Lama Alsafi: (12:11)

Thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. As always, you can stay up to date on our newest episode of 15 Minutes to Change the World on Spotify and iTunes.