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15 Proposals for Canadian Foreign Aid

The French version of this essay was published on the Huffington Post Québec blog Un seul monde on January 8, 2015.

When the Harper government abolished the Canadian International Development Agency and transferred its functions to the newly renamed Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD) in 2013, it promised “more efficient, effective and targeted programming”. This institutional reorganization, however, will do little in and of itself to improve Canadian aid.

Here are therefore 15 suggestions that would contribute to a better aid program, a non-exhaustive list presented in no particular order. One could think of them as desirable New Year’s resolutions for DFATD or recommendations for the next federal government.

  1. Reverse the cuts in the official development assistance budget and significantly raise aid levels to achieve the target of 0.7% of gross national income, adopted in 1970. This ratio has been falling since 2010, dropping to 0.27% in 2013.
  1. Streamline the criteria for choosing priority countries. The Harper government has established three criteria for the selection of countries of focus. The first one, developing countries’ “needs”, should predominate. The second one, their “ability to benefit meaningfully from Canada’s assistance”, is less important because the development process should actually strengthen that ability. The third one, “alignment with Canada’s foreign policy”, should be abandoned.
  1. Abolish the priority themes, not only the current ones, but any prioritization of specific sectors. This preselection contradicts the principle that developing countries should have “ownership” of their development process, enshrined in the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness. By signing this document, Canada committed itself to respecting the priorities identified by the recipient countries themselves.

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  1. Eliminate the explicit lists of priority countries. Regardless of what donors claim, the concentration of the aid is not necessarily more efficient, while periodic changes to the list create volatility and unpredictability, which are detrimental to efficiency. For example, Canada identified Benin and Burkina Faso as priority countries in 2005, removed them from the list in 2009, and then added them again in 2014. If the government wishes to focus its aid program geographically, it should do so in consultation with other donors to ensure a proper division of labour.
  1. Put greater emphasis on poor, “fragile” and post-conflict countries, rather than middle-income countries, even if the latter more important trading partners for Canada.
  1. Apply the principles of the Official Development Assistance Accountability Act (2008), which states that foreign aid should be “provided with a central focus on poverty reduction”. According to the act, aid must “contribute to poverty reduction”, “take into account the perspectives of the poor” and be “consistent with international human rights standards”. Compliance with this legislation must guide any new aid initiatives.
  1. Ensure that policy coherence is for development, not for Canada’s own interests. DFATD’s recent Global Markets Action Plan (2013) expresses a desire to “leverage development programming to advance Canada’s trade interests”, which contradicts the basic principles of the ODA Accountability Act (see previous point). Commercial motives underpin the selection of new countries of focus announced in 2014, especially Myanmar/Burma, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mongolia, all of which have natural resources of great interest to Canadian mining companies.
  1. Rebuild the partnership with non-governmental organizations (NGOs). NGOs are development actors in their own right and play a complementary role with DFATD. The latter should fund organizations, not just their projects and not just following calls for proposals. True partnerships are needed, with the right to dissent. The government should also abandon its attempts to force marriage between NGOs and mining companies, as well as stop supporting NGOs that do not respect the non-discrimination principles enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, such as anti-gay group Crossroads Christian Communications.
  1. De-emphasize visible short-term results and results-based management because development often requires systemic transformation that cannot be measured in 3-5 years. An obsession with these practices is counterproductive.
  1. Implement the international aid effectiveness principles, including the Paris Declaration mentioned above, notably local ownership of the development process.
  1. Decentralize and delegate decision-making authority within DFATD. Canada’s aid program is currently one of the most centralized ones in the world and the cumbersome bureaucracy can cause paralysis.

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  1. Increase transparency and accountability regarding decision-making, rather than only in terms of spending. One can now find on the DFATD website how the Minister of International Development spent on a specific meal, but not why the minister decided to fund one NGO and not another.
  1. Reverse the current trend of “bilateralizing” multilateral aid, that is to say, stop treating multilateral institutions as mere executing agencies for projects selected by the Canadian government. The government should instead provide generous and stable core funding so that they can implement their programs independently.
  1. Recognize that the development process is complex and that even the Canadian government sometimes makes mistakes, because one can learn from errors only after recognizing them. In the case of Afghanistan, the gap between the government rhetoric of success and actual results is particularly striking. Because innovation requires experimentation, which involves risk, failure does not always mean that an NGO or the Canadian government lacks so-called effectiveness.
  1. Stop treating aid a tool for the ruling party’s re-election and a branding exercise for the party. Such practices greatly hamper the quality of aid, including by increasing the probability that the next government will abandon the previous one’s priorities.

This essay summarizes remarks the author made on November 7, 2014 at the conference « Où va la coopération internationale au Québec et au Canada? », organized by the Un seul monde blog.

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