Effective aid: Why does Canada struggle?

In an age of increasing global prosperity, over one billion people still live on less than $1 per day, 100 million children do not attend school regularly, and diseases like AIDS and malaria take the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of men, women and children in developing countries every hour.

These conditions have spurred the international community to action. In 2000, at the United Nations Millennium Summit, world leaders agreed to establish benchmarks to improve the plight of the poorest states — the Millennium Development Goals. In 2005, based on years of research into best practices, the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness added a series of indicators of progress — concrete steps to be taken by donors and recipients to maximize the impact of development projects. Considered together, they provide a clear way ahead: aid works when it is recipient-driven and effectively managed. Thus far, however, in spite of signs of real progress in some areas and in some countries, the results have been mixed. Since 1960, the international community has spent over $1.6 trillion on public aid to less fortunate states, and yet the rich and poor divide between and within countries still grows.

Canada has been actively involved in international development at the official level since the government of Louis St. Laurent agreed to participate in a Commonwealth assistance program, the Colombo Plan, in 1950. Almost sixty years later, foreign aid advocates across the country continue to express frustration. For example, the 2007 report of the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade that dealt particularly with sub-Saharan Africa challenged the credibility of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and of Canadian aid policy more generally. Even more recently, the Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan was harshly critical of Canadian reconstruction efforts.

In the face of these and other criticisms, governments in Ottawa have promised improvements. In the 2005 International Policy Statement, the Liberals argued that “Canada has the capacity and the history to be among the best in the world in development, and Canadians support this priority.” In their Budget Plan 2007 the Conservatives said: “Canadians take pride in our role in reducing global poverty and contributing to international peace and security. Increasing the amount of resources that we make available for international assistance is a key element of that effort.”

If there is agreement that global poverty is a problem, and if the government is committed to improving the situation, why then does Canada continue to struggle to be effective, and what can be done about it?

Part of the answer is straightforward: Ottawa’s approach has lacked focus and consistency. The United Kingdom has transformed its Department for International Development in less than a decade through strong, determined leadership, support from the highest levels of government, and a clear mandate. Norway has enhanced the impact of its program dramatically by concentrating the bulk of its aid in just seven main countries. Denmark has decentralized its aid delivery system, reducing administrative costs while improving policy coherence through greater ground-level understanding of recipient needs. All three countries have also increased their monetary commitments to the developing world.

Canada needs much of the same: strong leadership at the highest levels, a clear mandate for CIDA, a concentration of effort in a limited number of countries and sectors, a more rigorous ground-level approach to aid distribution, and a stable financial environment.

The sticking point, as it has been for years, is mobilizing the political will necessary to pursue a series of bold and demanding changes to Ottawa’s official development assistance (ODA) strategy. Little can be expected without that cabinet-level commitment.

Development challenges
There is a clear and convincing argument to be made that alleviating global poverty is not just an ethical imperative but also a significant Canadian national interest. Nevertheless, the immediate incentives for a government to choose international development as an area of strategic focus and investment (as opposed, for example, to national security, the domestic economy, or the environment) are hardly overwhelming, particularly in terms of the approval — at home or abroad — that such initiatives might bring. The strategic challenges are fourfold: a lack of national momentum to drive reforms forward; a limited number of immediately measurable opportunities for international acclaim; the strategic focus and policy coherence available upon which to base future programs is missing; and it is difficult to demonstrate the immediate results often necessary to sustain support at every level.

Canadians are rightly proud of their generosity towards the less fortunate. Indeed, it is this perception of national good will that makes the history of poor performance in official development assistance so baffling. There is a difference, however, between Canadians’ sense of obligation, as reflected by their personal remittances overseas and response to disasters, and their political commitment to an effective ODA policy. Polls have noted that Canadians have typically ranked foreign aid last when considered against other federal spending priorities.

Studies over the last twenty years have shown that Canadians are also largely unaware of where their official development dollars are being directed. Moreover, there is little evidence to indicate the public is particularly troubled by the lack of accountability. Humanitarian emergencies are exceptional. Canadians are particularly committed, morally and financially, to disaster relief, and have shown leadership in this regard.

Defining a Canadian niche has often been explored as a method of deriving public recognition. The 1987 Standing Committee on External Affairs and International Trade argued that Ottawa should differentiate itself by focusing exclusively on the poorest of the poor, a strategy that it never fully adopted but has been accepted by some other countries. Almost ten years later, a special task force chaired by a past president of CIDA, Maurice Strong, recommended that Canadians exploit their superior knowledge brokerage and innovation skills. This was an appealing yet vague proposal that, although unrealized, still echoes in some circles. Current government thinking suggests that a regional focus on Latin America might enable Canada to demonstrate a distinctive and more effective contribution.

There is certainly value in a niche approach, but the disappointing results of the past reflect an additional series of strategic challenges to a comprehensive political commitment — a culture of generalism that pervades the national development assistance infrastructure, an unfocused and poorly integrated research base, and a Canadian International Development Agency that has been something of an orphan in Ottawa, or at least has not had very interested parents.

The recent history of the Canadian foreign policy establishment belies an emphasis on strategic areas of specialization. Both the Department of Foreign Affairs and CIDA are staffed largely by policy generalists. They are well-suited to the ever-changing political trends that influence foreign policy, but less ideal for long-term, issue – or country – based strategic planning. Canada also has led the developing world in the breadth of the dispersion of its foreign aid program, providing assistance to nearly every developing state. The alleged benefit of this approach, the influence that Canada achieves within each one, is unproven and unconvincing given the small quantities of aid dispersed. A fear of the repercussions of cancelling any assistance program means programs are added rather than replaced when new priorities are set, making change increasingly difficult.

The culture of generalism extends to development research. The International Development Research Centre (IDRC) is widely respected, but its links to CIDA are only informal and the two groups’ priorities are not always consistent. The dearth of research tied directly to national development assistance priorities is part of a political problem that is unlikely to be resolved in the short term.

The way ahead
In spite of the significant challenges, a sustainable strategic plan for Canadian development assistance policy is achievable. In collaboration with a cooperative nongovernmental community there are deliberate steps that can be taken to facilitate a transition towards greater long-term effectiveness.

The first ones include ending a long-standing theoretical debate about foreign aid, differentiating explicitly between short-term humanitarian commitments to natural and human-induced disasters and long-term development assistance, establishing an economic framework for success, and rehabilitating CIDA’s reputation. All four initiatives should gradually alter the public mindset and the national strategic condition to make it politically feasible to implement more comprehensive improvements in the future.

1. If Canada is to contribute more effectively to development assistance, humane internationalists and international realists must recognize that they share an ultimate goal – greater global prosperity – and collaborate in their efforts to improve national performance.

2. A more achievable preliminary step would be a legislated differentiation between emergency humanitarian aid and development assistance. By treating disaster prevention as part of a more general project, there is a greater chance of achieving sustainable results.

3. Recognizing that aid that is promised and then rescinded — as has been the case in the past when the Canadian economy has soured — is often worse than no aid at all, the national approach to funding and evaluating development assistance must also be reformulated to ensure that any significant, long-term commitments will withstand changes in government, public misperceptions, and unanticipated economic pressures. A revised approach to the Canadian foreign aid budget would set a relative level (in comparison to other states) below which the national contribution to long-term development assistance cannot fall.

4. The image of Canada’s lead agency responsible for aid management and distribution is in need of significant rehabilitation. Not all of the problems, however, are of CIDA’s own doing. However, until the political will necessary to focus CIDA’s mandate and institute an exclusively recipient-based policy has been mobilized, the agency might concentrate on working to increase awareness of successful aspects of Canadian aid policy that it can control and, in doing so, rebuilding public trust. More regular and transparent reports to Parliament, a substantial public relations campaign, and continued cooperation and communication with the other international leaders in sustainable development are first steps in the establishment of an institutional context more conducive to bold moves at the political level.

In summary, a sustainable, strategic plan should be supported by both humane internationalists and international realists. It should differentiate formally between immediate humanitarian emergency aid and long-term development assistance, and support each accordingly. It should be based on a budget that is at least reasonably predictable. And it should be managed by a capable, responsible agency that is aware of its limitations, as well as its strengths.

In reviewing previous studies of Canadian development assistance, it is impossible to ignore the emphasis on focus. Canada must concentrate its aid, in terms of research and volume, in a limited number of countries and sectors. How it should determine its partner states and areas of specialization remains contested. Although they both ultimately seek to enhance the prosperity of the developing world, humane internationalists start with the poorest of the poor while international realists concentrate on those states whose success will provide Canada with the greatest direct and immediate benefits in return. Even if it were possible to synchronize the two ideas – and in some cases it likely is – unless the policy creates a willingness among the voting public and the national leadership to maintain a full commitment regardless of domestic political or economic volatility, it might still disappoint. The immediate solution is to establish a rough number of states.

Establishing priorities at the sectoral level also creates a dilemma. To build public support in the short term, to limit the potential for funding to be cut when budgets are lean, and to reinvigorate CIDA’s research arm to ensure that its findings reflect both depth and focus, it seems prudent to select – in consultation with donors – a number of relevant sectors based on their resonance with the general public and Canadian capacities, and then create partnerships with recipient countries whose development plans cite those same sectors as areas of particular emphasis.

Health care and education are both sectors of development in which Canada is already equipped to contribute meaningfully. If the government were to focus further on the health of younger children, it would be politically difficult to justify a reduced commitment, regardless of the domestic economic climate. Early childhood education seems to be a complementary choice. Investing in children is politically popular, and Canada has the expertise.

Finally, humanitarian aid on its own does not necessarily create conditions for sustainable development or alleviate systemic poverty. Therefore, the government might contemplate a final focus on disaster relief, which can potentially draw effectively on national, provincial, and municipal expertise in crisis management and relies significantly on the commitment of multilateral and nongovernmental organizations. The immediate results of an emergency response are at least somewhat measurable. Finally, if the political will necessary to institute a more progressive policy does emerge, as it has in much of Western Europe, Ottawa could shift its focus fairly easily to the broader theme of disaster prevention.

In spite of the relatively clear political incentives to move aggressively on the development agenda, successive Canadian governments have failed to embrace and then follow through on a national ODA strategy focused on aid effectiveness. The Paris Declaration makes the recipe for progress clear: empower the recipient state, harmonize donor responsibilities, and focus on results by promoting mutual accountability. Moreover, other countries have made significant progress and their achievements have enhanced their international reputations. Why then, has Canada not done the same?

The most significant factor is a lack of effective leadership. Progress will not be achieved without a strong minister who is able to build firm support among cabinet colleagues and leaders in other political parties. Even with such leadership, however, this analysis counsels a cautious way forward.

It is easy to declare that global poverty alleviation is a national interest that must be pursued with vigour. Over fifty years of underachievement suggests that it is much more difficult to implement a strategy to do so. Foreign policy is, and has always been, the art of the possible. Canadians must work with whatever resources are available to them, not the ones they would like to have, or should have, to promote their national interests and values effectively.

Adam Chapnick is deputy director of education and research at the Canadian Forces College. This article is edited from a longer version in Behind the Headlines, a publication of the Canadian International Council. For the full text, see: www.igloo.org/canadianinternational.

Author: Adam Chapnick from the July/Aug 2008 issue published

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