As Canadian aid priorities shift, our record as a laggard persists.
Parliament is unlikely to spend much time debating international development this fall. That does not mean, however, that there won’t be important decisions to make behind the scenes regarding Canadian aid policy.
For instance, as Canada winds down its military involvement in Afghanistan, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) will be “normalizing” its aid there to a level comparable to the aid that it gives to its 19 other “countries of focus.” This confirms a poorly kept secret: Aid to Afghanistan was always more about Canadians, candy, and Kandahar than about sustainable long-term development.
With aid levels frozen, there will be fierce competition for the freed-up funds. We should probably expect new assistance to Libya, where Canadian companies are already jockeying for important reconstruction and oil contracts.
We have already seen CIDA shift priorities to the Americas, where middle-income countries like Colombia and Peru have replaced low-income African countries as countries of high importance, a move aimed primarily at greasing the skids for Canadian commercial interests. Following Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s second extended visit to the region, aid there may become an even higher priority.
The aid-budget freeze announced a year ago may not last – it could actually get worse. Like other government departments, CIDA is preparing scenarios for five per cent and 10 per cent budget cuts. This would push Canada further down the list in terms of donor generosity, where we already rank 14th out of 23 OECD countries.
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As far as multilateralism is concerned, funding has held up relatively well – especially for international financial institutions – but the knife looms here as well. CIDA has, in fact, increasingly left the policy leadership in this area to the Department of Finance, which was conservative before the Conservatives.
Insiders say CIDA is planning to rework – yet again – its list of priority countries, last rejigged only two years ago. So much for long-term partnerships being the basis of effective foreign aid. In this regard, one might well ask about CIDA Minister Bev Oda’s magical mystery tour to Mongolia in August. Although Mongolia is not a CIDA focus country, our mining companies have made Canada Mongolia’s second-largest investor. Candy, anyone?
Minister Oda is likely to keep a low profile since her contempt of Parliament fiasco earlier this year. Her reappointment after the last election could be interpreted as a reward for “not” revealing who really ordered the cancellation of funding to the well-respected non-governmental organization (NGO) KAIROS. It was also a raspberry to other Canadian development NGOs whose relations with CIDA have been deteriorating. CIDA has become much more directive in its funding of NGOs, throwing out the window those it doesn’t like, and pushing others towards its own geographic and sectoral priorities. Increasingly, NGOs are being treated like contractors, rather than as development actors in their own right.
The Maternal and Child Health Initiative that Canada launched in 2010 will continue to play a prominent role in Canadian aid thinking. Stephen Harper is co-chair, with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, of the Commission on Information and Accountability for Women’s and Children’s Health, created to track pledges and measure results.
The initiative is not without controversy. Several donors have committed much more to maternal and child health over the years than Canada has – and only Canada explicitly excludes access to safe abortion. Hoopla aside, this is an area where Canada could put its leadership to effective use.
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On the level of rhetoric, we will continue to hear much talk about “results.” However, talk will not actually help solve the problem of achieving results, which is exacerbated by CIDA’s ever-changing definitions and priorities and the fact that CIDA withholds three things that recipient governments and implementing agencies need most: timeliness (CIDA remains one of the slowest bilateral agencies in the world), consistency, and predictability.
There is a serious morale issue at CIDA, with a growing number of early retirees. The result is that there are powerful senior managers who know little of development, and energetic, well-educated young recruits without much experience. Given the shallowness of the Canadian discourse and our low aid levels, it’s unlikely that we will have much besides hot air to offer at the Fourth High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, South Korea, at the end of November.
Despite a lot of crowing about transparency, Canada has yet to join Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., and many other European countries in signing on to the International Aid Transparency Initiative. Our government could do with a dose of practising what it preaches.
Canada might make a difference if it were to promote development effectiveness rather than aid effectiveness. In this regard, Africa should be moved up as a priority area for funding on Canada’s agenda. The Harper government still regards Africa as a backwater, suitable for emergency assistance and a little of its maternal and child health initiative to complement Canadian mining company contracts, but not for the kind of longer-term development support that would ultimately reduce the need for emergency assistance.
This piece was originally published in Embassy on Sept. 14, 2011.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.