Canada currently delivers about $4.1 billion a year in development co-operation, or what is commonly known as 'foreign aid'. Moreover, Canadian aid has been increasing in nominal (non-inflation adjusted) terms for the last several years--as recently as 2001 Canada's development co-operation was just $1.9 billion. Nonetheless, in an October peer evaluation of Canada's development co-operation effort, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development's (OECD) Development Assistance Committee suggested that Canada's development co-operation policy lacks focus and political direction. Of course, the OECD did not say this quite as bluntly as this; it is a diplomatic talking shop. Nonetheless, the point was made.
According to the Washington-based Center for Global Development (CGD), Canada as a country scores pretty well in the CGD's 'Commitment to development index'. This index evaluates OECD countries on the basis of the size and quality of development co-operation, their openness to exports from developing countries, their policies to promote investment and technology transfer to developing countries, their openness to migration, their commitment to controlling greenhouse gas emissions, their efforts to secure peace and security, and their attempts to combat corruption. Canada is ranked 7th in the OECD. It does not score well in aid, but does do well in trade, investment and technology. It scores less well on the environment and on security, as well as migration. The countries with the biggest commitment to development, according to the CGD, are not surprisingly 'the Nordics': the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland. It is to Canada's credit that it places in this league; the Nordics are indeed impressive donors.
If Canada is doing so well, in relative terms, in its commitment to development, why is it falling short in its development co-operation? According to the OECD, part of the problem is that the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has a weak mandate and is insufficiently results-oriented. The weak mandate is reflected in the lack of a clear statement as to what is the purpose of Canadian development co-operation. This is reinforced by changing political circumstances, which result in improvised policy pronouncements, at the expense of a clear direction. Changing political circumstances are reflected in ministerial appointments; five ministers have had responsibility for CIDA over the past six years, and the average tenure of the head of CIDA over the past few years has been 18 months. This, of course, goes back to the body politic, and the transition from the Liberals, under two prime ministers, to the Conservatives, ruling from the position of a minority.
The OECD report proposes that CIDA should do what is actually already Government policy. This reflects the iterative character of such reports; the conclusions were seen by the Canadian Government long before the report was published, allowing the Government to pre-empt the findings of the report in the last Budget. In the Budget, two lines signified quite an important change in Canada's aid policy. The first noted that the Government intended to focus bilateral (country to country) aid on fewer countries where 'we will aim to be among the largest five donors in core countries of interest'. The second was the pledge to 'put more of our staff in the field, allowing us to be more responsive and make better choices on the ground'. Both these recommendations, which were made in the OECD review in October, were in the Budget in March.
In fact, the first recommendation shows the remarkable degree of consensus within the Canadian establishment about development co-operation. This is because it was under the previous Liberal-led government of Paul Martin that the first intention to reduce Canada's number of development 'partners' to 25 was announced. These countries have been receiving upwards of 40 per cent of Canada's development co-operation over the past few years, and indeed in 2006 the top 20 recipients of Canadian aid received 68 per cent of the total.
As to the second recommendation, there can be little doubt that CIDA is far to ensconced in its headquarters in Hull. Only between 10 and 20 per cent of CIDA's staff works abroad, in the field.
So: does the OECD--and the Government--have it right? Only partially. The problems with Canada's aid program are three: it is inefficient; it is distorted; and it is inadequate. Canada's development co-operation is inefficient precisely because of some of the problems identified in the OECD review: as anyone who has worked with CIDA (as I have) will tell you, it is extremely bureaucratic and inflexible. It has a culture of form filling and box checking that, in my view, demonstrates the worst aspects of the 'development industry'. However, that is only part of the problem. It is also staffed by a surprising large number of people who have little, if any, interest in international development. Many CIDA staffers are career civil servants brought in to fulfill a task. This means not only a lack of professional commitment to international development; it also means a lack of adequate preparation--or indeed understanding--for the work that they have to do. As a consequence of this, CIDA relies very heavily on a coterie of well paid consultants, some of whom are very good (I have to say that--I was one!), but many of whom are professional consultants that earn their living by securing the next contract and the next contract is secured by giving the client what they want to hear. The lack of adequate preparation is also reflected in CIDA's attachment to the latest development 'fads': it is somewhat ironic that having scaled back rural development programs for some years, with the new World Bank World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development, agriculture is back, and, in all likelihood, CIDA will now have to try and revive an expertise in a policy area that it neglected for decades. Finally, the lack of adequate preparation means that CIDA often plays 'follow the leader'; and in development co-operation, this means, far too often, follow the neoliberal leader.
As for distortions in the aid program, the biggest is, of course, Afghanistan. Not even mentioned in the Martin Government's list of 25 development 'partners', Afghanistan is far and away Canada's largest aid recipient, and will receive more than $1 billion by 2011. However, Canadian aid in Afghanistan is embedded within a broader discourse: defence, diplomacy and development. The aid effort in Afghanistan is very closely tied into Canada's military mission there; with the defence leg being much stronger than the other two it is totally unclear as to what exactly is the purpose of Canada's aid in Afghanistan--other than providing support for the military mission.
Finally, there is the inadequacy. Canada has committed itself to the UN target of devoting 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) to development co-operation. Currently, Canada devotes around 0.35 per cent of GDP to development co-operation. This is where the discussion on concentrating foreign aid should be located. One of the reasons Canadian aid needs to be concentrated is because it is, in global terms, so paltry. If you don't have a lot of money, you don't have a lot of money to go round, which means you have to make strict choices--it is a very neoliberal perspective. Others of a less neoliberal persuasion might suggest that increasing the amount of money increases the choices that can be made, and that that is what is extremely important in understanding why Canada's development co-operation record in aid--as opposed to say trade, investment and technology--is not as good as one might hope.
Canada's development co-operation spending has increased for several years. Canadians are respected in the field, and have made important contributions to international development. Nonetheless, in global terms, Canada is not an important bilateral 'player' in international development. Part of this is because of inadequate resources for the tasks at hand; part of this is because of distortions caused by Canada's foreign policy; and part of this is because of inefficiencies within CIDA. These are the issues that must be sorted out by the new generation of international development activists that are emerging from the universities and from civil society.
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