Foreign Aid: More of the Same?

Published in Embassy Magazine, September 19, 2012

Canada’s contributions to reducing global poverty are rarely a priority topic for debate in the House of Commons. Foreign aid is an important tool for supporting international development, but it will likely attract less attention now that controversial international co-operation minister Bev Oda has resigned.

Sadly, in the past year, Parliament and the media focused all too often on her personal extravagances and not enough on how the Harper government is progressively undermining the ability of the Canadian International Development Agency to fight poverty—which the 2008 Official Development Assistance Accountability Act defines as the primary purpose of foreign aid.

“In all likelihood, the government’s preoccupation with domestic politics and its emphasis on the interests of the Canadian private sector will continue to distract CIDA from its legislated mandate: fighting poverty.”

In particular, the government froze and then cut Canada’s aid budget, while Oda micromanaged CIDA staff and cut off NGOs that criticized government policy. The government also increasingly aligned aid with narrow Canadian interests, especially those of the private sector, rather than with the needs of the world’s poor.

The new CIDA minister, Julian Fantino, appointed in July, has said that he won’t take any bold new initiatives for now. So we should expect more of the same: more generally empty rhetoric about transparency and accountability, more intolerance of criticism, and more use of aid money to support Canadian foreign policy and commercial interests.

One of the first things Fantino promised was to “ensure that every nickel…of tax dollars that come out of our good Canadian people is not squandered.” Though the statement could be interpreted as a swipe at Oda’s personal spending habits, it is probably no more than a new formulation of the Conservatives’ mantra on accountability. Though such assurances sound good, they are in practice impossible to keep.

No one has found a magic formula for “doing development.” Some aid projects inevitably fail. When things go wrong, we need to admit it, understand why, and learn from our mistakes. Instead, Fantino responded to a Toronto Star article on Canada’s failure to rehabilitate the Dahla Dam—a CIDA signature project in Afghanistan—by stating that the criticism was “really unfair…so childish. It’s immature. It’s total lack of appreciation for the goodness of Canadians and what we’re doing around the world.” So much for accountability and learning.

Transparency also took a hit when Fantino denied the empirical reality that the last federal budget cut $319 million in CIDA funding. While visiting drought-affected areas of Burkina Faso last week, he declared that, “in actual fact, the CIDA budget has not been cut. We’ve just been more selective, if you will, in how we spend Canadian taxpayers’ generosity.” Does he really think that people are fooled by such obfuscation?

Fantino is thus off to a weak start in his new position. It will be interesting to see how he tries to sell the next round of funding for development projects being designed in collaboration with Canadian mining companies. Another announcement to look out for is the creation of the Canadian International Institute for Extractive Industries and Development, to be housed at a Canadian university, possibly Calgary. Will the research institute live up to the promise of autonomy or will it toe the government line and legitimize the government’s close embrace of the oil and mining sectors?

Finally, the Conservative-dominated House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development will soon release its report on “The Role of the Private Sector in Achieving Canada’s International Development Interests”—its very title suggests a focus on self-interest. MiningWatch Canada, an Ottawa-based NGO, reported that two Tory committee members, including the chair, travelled to Guatemala in late August at the expense of Canadian mining giant Goldcorp, along with three other parliamentarians (two Liberals, one independent). Official documents reveal that Goldcorp is seeking CIDA funds to provide medical services near the company’s highly contentious Marlin mine and has hired former MP Don Boudria to lobby the government on its behalf.

In all likelihood, the government’s preoccupation with domestic politics and its emphasis on the interests of the Canadian private sector will continue to distract CIDA from its legislated mandate: fighting poverty.

The government should stop playing to its base and let CIDA distance itself from corporate interests. Moreover, it should try harder to live up to its international commitments, not only in aid volume, but also how it should be spent: not on short-term, isolated projects with highly visible outputs that can be stamped with a maple leaf or used to legitimize highly contested mining activities, but working with recipient countries and other donors in long-term partnerships that put the needs of poor people first.

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