A Backwards Decade on Foreign Aid: How Commercial Gain Came to Replace Poverty Reduction as the Primary Goal of Canadian Foreign Aid.

By Stephen Brown

A decade of Conservative rule has had a profound impact on Canadian foreign aid — and mostly for the worst.

With respect to aid level, we are back where we started. The Harper government initially embraced the Liberals’ goal of doubling aid. However, having reached it, they froze and then cut aid spending. When measured as a percentage of gross national income, foreign aid is now lower than when they came to power — and barely a third of the target to which Canada committed in 1970.

For a while, security interests seemed dominant. Afghanistan became the largest Canadian aid recipient ever. Under a new “whole-of-government approach,” the government increasingly linked aid with other elements of foreign policy, including diplomacy and especially defence. The result was disappointing on all levels. An internal government evaluation recognized that an overemphasis on short-term goals undermined the achievement and sustainability of long-term results. For instance, after Canada withdrew its troops from Kandahar, it left its much-touted Dahla Dam “signature project” for the Americans to complete, but the latter had other priorities.

Ottawa is now emphasizing Canadian commercial interests. For example, former minister of International Cooperation Julian Fantino described the “need” for Canadians to benefit from Canadian foreign aid — despite the passing of legislation in 2008 that defined the fundamental goal of foreign aid as poverty reduction in developing countries.

Using aid funds to promote Canadian businesses has a long and shameful history of failure. For instance, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) spent over $1 billion on its Industrial Cooperation Program, but achieved very little. An internal evaluation found that, between 1997 and 2002, only 15.5 per cent of the projects it supported could be considered successful. And yet the current government wants to do more of the same.

Nowhere is commercial self-interest more evident than in the use of aid funds to support Canadian mining companies. In 2011, the government set aside tens of millions of dollars to support stand-alone projects that benefit communities affected by Canadian mines, helping buy local support and thus indirectly contributing to the companies’ bottom lines. The Star’s Marco Oved visited the three main projects last year — in Peru, Burkina Faso and Ghana — and found lacklustre results. Despite the ostensible ineffectiveness of such partnerships, Minister of International Development Christian Paradis promised to expand them.

The government’s choice of “countries of focus” for Canadian aid also clearly reflects commercial interests. This was seen in the selection of Peru and Colombia in 2009, and by the addition of Mongolia, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2014, all countries rich in natural resources. To make way for them, many poor countries, especially in Africa, were unceremoniously dropped from the list, including Cameroon, Malawi and Niger.

The devaluing of Canadian non-governmental organizations’ contributions mirrored the rising place of the Canadian private sector in the government’s development policy. NGOs’ funding increasingly depended on aligning with government priorities — and not criticizing government policies. Those that refused to toe the government line found their applications for funding renewal denied or were suddenly faced with onerous audits by the Canadian Revenue Agency.

One of the most visible legacies of the Conservative government in the aid sector is CIDA’s abolition and the takeover of its functions by the newly renamed Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development in 2013. The new institutional arrangements could theoretically bring development concerns to bear in diplomatic and trade policies, but the likely result is the further subordination of development assistance to Canadian commercial policies and other foreign policy priorities.

The Harper government’s other high-profile aid initiative is its focus on maternal, newborn and child health (MNCH). It has channelled billions of dollars into this important area, but its approach has somewhat limited its potential impact. It has excluded support to safe abortion services, even where legal, and has strongly de-emphasized access to contraception, sidelining some of the most useful tools for maternal health. Its approach often focuses on the symptoms of poor MNCH, rather than its deeper causes: poverty and gender inequality. Also, in the context of annual cuts to the aid budget, every additional dollar allocated to MNCH requires cancelling aid to other sectors.

The one unambiguous achievement of the Harper government has been the elimination of “tied” aid, a process begun under Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government. No longer requiring aid money to be used to purchase goods and services in Canada, even when they do not provide the best value, is definitely a step forward. However, so much more needs to be done.

If it wants to re-establish Canada as a reputable player in the field of international development, the next government, whatever its political stripe, should take immediate steps to restore greater autonomy to Canada’s aid program, significantly increase its budget every year, re-engage with NGOs as partners rather than subcontractors, decouple aid from Canadian commercial interests and focus instead on fighting poverty and inequality, as well as align its strategies with developing countries’ own long-term priorities.

Stephen Brown is a professor of political science at the University of Ottawa. He is the editor of Struggling for Effectiveness: CIDA and Canadian Foreign Aid (2012) and co-editor of Rethinking Canadian Aid (2014). Additionally, he is the author of “Canada’s Development Interventions: Unpacking Motives and Effectiveness in Canadian Foreign Aid,” chapter 7 in Canada Among Nations 2015. In it, he examines which of van der Veen’s seven “frames” – security, power and influence, economic self-interest, enlightened self-interest, self-affirmation and reputation, obligation and duty, and humanitarianism – have motivated Canadian aid initiatives over the past 15 years. He finds that motivations have varied over time and across ruling parties and Prime Ministers. 

This article was initially published by the Toronto Star.

One thought on “A Backwards Decade on Foreign Aid: How Commercial Gain Came to Replace Poverty Reduction as the Primary Goal of Canadian Foreign Aid.

  1. Dr. Brown has a much broader and more knowledgeable base to provide a summary view of the past 10 years of foreign aid than I do from my fairly narrow perch of looking at Canada-Mongolia relations specifically.

    I do want to respond to one piece of his argument though, as it specifically refers to Mongolia.
    “This was seen in the selection of Peru and Colombia in 2009, and by the addition of Mongolia, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2014, all countries rich in natural resources.”
    The implication here is that focusing on resource-rich countries is a commercially self-interested decision. That may well have been part of the motivation with some Conservatives as Dr. Brown suggests, but I have no particular knowledge of those motivations.
    BUT, what could motivate that decision in a different kind of targeting of foreign aid, however, is recognition of Canadian expertise when it comes to the development of a resource sector and development based on a resource sector.
    I would emphasize that this is not expertise that is based on a history of triumphs, but rather on a history of recognition (often not until much after the fact) of some failures, be they in terms of environmental, community or other impacts. Canada has much to offer in terms of knowledge of past bad practice, and some currently relevant good practice. That is knowledge that is quite relevant to policy-alleviation in Mongolia.
    When Mongolian policy-makers are looking for models and advice on how to grow a mining industry, they look to Canadian expertise, not Dutch practice, just like a low-lying country would seek Dutch experience with dyke-building, not Canadian input. [I recognize that this is a simplistic example, but I hope it helps illustrate my point.]
    I am not suggesting that foreign aid should be structured entirely around some kind of international division of labour rooted in national experiences. But, as an element of foreign aid that aims at a constructive impact, emphasizing expertise rooted in specific experiences does not seem a bad idea.
    The fact that Canada has expertise to offer on the nexus of mineral resource endowments and development is rooted, of course, in the fact that Canada also has a large mining industry and that that industry is very engaged in international exploration and investment in mining projects. From my perspective, however, that is not a good reason not to focus on this nexus, instead it is a good reason to embrace this area as a logical area of focus for Canadian development aid, but also to be vigilant about interactions with industry that depart from the overall goal of poverty alleviation. Here, I think Dr. Brown would agree.

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