Re-focusing Canadian aid: Much ado about nothing

By Rachael Calleja and Yiagadeesen Samy

As originally posted at Embassy.

The recent Canadian government announcement to boost the number of countries of focus for its bilateral development assistance from 20 to 25 will not make a big difference to its aid program. While the proposed change is laudable and, if implemented, could improve the effectiveness of Canadian aid by reducing fragmentation, we doubt this latest announcement will have any tangible effect.

Many will debate why the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, Benin or Burkina Faso have been added to the list of priority countries, or why Bolivia, Pakistan and Sudan are no longer on the list. But such a discussion is at best useless, and at worst counterproductive, because it distracts us from the real issues of aid fragmentation and effectiveness.

In fact, the parameters for choosing priority countries—based on their need, their capacity to benefit from aid, and their alignment with Canadian foreign policy priorities— are so broad that it is easy for anyone to justify why the 25 countries were chosen.

The announcement marks the third change to Canada’s countries of focus over the past decade. In 2005, under the Liberal government of Paul Martin, efforts to improve the focus of Canadian aid, which had long been criticized as highly fragmented, resulted in the announcement of 25 Development Partners and a commitment to increase the proportion of bilateral aid to identified priority countries. In 2009, the list was further narrowed to 20 countries of focus by the Conservatives, with a new promise to allocate 80 per cent of bilateral resources to priority countries.

Similarly, the most recent announcement to alter the list of priority countries was coupled with a renewed commitment to boost the proportion of bilateral resources allocated to focus countries to 90 per cent. Although this was not made clear in the announcement, it would appear that the 90 per cent target would follow past practice of only applying to bilateral aid allocated through geographic country programs.

To put it into perspective, according to our own calculations based on the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development’s Statistical Reports on International Assistance, DFATD’s geographic country programs accounted for less than 40 per cent of Canada’s total bilateral aid between 2009 and 2013. Even if the government reaches its 90 per cent target (and it did not meet the previous one), the actual proportion of Canada’s bilateral assistance devoted to priority countries will remain well under half of the total budget.


This raises serious questions regarding the actual difference that the policy is likely to make towards improving the effectiveness of Canadian aid through reducing fragmentation.

Moreover, the frequency of changes to the list of priority countries could indicate that focus countries are continually changing based on foreign policy priorities and may make it difficult to reallocate aid towards priority recipients. In some cases, aid is committed years in advance, with a necessary time lag between the announcement of new priority countries and the actual reallocation of aid to reflect changing priorities.

The point is made more salient when we consider that Canada continues to provide aid to a large number of recipients. In 2012, for example, Canada provided aid to almost 90 countries beyond the stated priority recipients. Even if some of them receive negligible amounts, the use of Canadian aid as a foreign policy tool makes it unrealistic to expect this number to fall any time soon.

Concern surrounding the ability of the government to meet its target is further exacerbated by a list of 12 Development Partners identified in addition to the 25 priority recipients. These are countries where Canada has had a modest presence in the past, with programming in these countries focused on partner development priorities aligned with boosting food security, supporting governance, securing the future of children and youth, and contributing to sustainable economic growth.

While the list of development partners includes some former priority recipients, such as Pakistan and Bolivia, other countries including Egypt, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Nigeria also made the cut. Little precise information is currently available on the Development Partner initiative and it remains unclear how these countries will factor in to the 90 per cent target.

Without a clearer sense of how DFATD plans to reach its focus country targets, which countries will see aid scaled up or down, and how the Development Partners will factor in to the development financing equation, it is difficult to reasonably consider the recent announcement as a real attempt to improve the quality of Canada’s aid program.

While we hope that the announcement will be followed by actual change towards reducing the fragmentation of Canada’s aid program and improving the effectiveness of Canadian aid, if past performance is any indication, then it does not look promising.

Rachael Calleja is a PhD candidate and Yiagadeesen Samy is an associate professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.


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