“The System is Broken”: Canada’s Latest Rationale for Stinginess

“I would love to increase the aid budget,” admitted Celina Caesar-Chavannes, Liberal Member of Parliament and Parliamentary Secretary to Canada’s Minister of International Development, speaking at a recent conference organized by the Canadian Council for International Co-operation. But, she argued, “The system is broken.”

As an illustration, she told the story of a Pakistani woman whose husband had kicked her out of their home, changed the locks and left her destitute. Caesar-Chavannes rhetorically asked, “No matter how much money goes into a broken system, if cultural norms don’t change, what are we investing in?” Not all systems are broken, she later clarified, but “we need to fix broken ones, before investing further.” Increasing Canada’s foreign aid budget under those circumstances, she implied, would be a waste of money.

My interpretation of the Parliamentary Secretary’s anecdote suggests quite the opposite. It actually demonstrates the need for more foreign aid. For instance, additional support could be provided to women who find themselves in similar situations, as well as to women’s and human rights groups fighting to change unjust laws or ensure that existing protections are enforced. In other words, more assistance is required to help fix a broken system.

Moreover, blaming “cultural norms,” as Caesar-Chavannes has done, shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction. Doing so is also reminiscent of French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent — and widely criticized — blanket condemnation of Africa’s “civilizational problem” of having “too many” children as an underlying cause of the continent’s poverty, rather than a symptom.

For many years, the Canadian government has struggled to justify why it was not paying its share of global foreign aid. Canada’s generosity has been falling since 2010 and the country slipped to 15th place in 2016 in the ranking of industrialized countries’ generosity. The Harper government first froze and then cut Canada’s aid budget during the second half of its decade in power. The Trudeau government, in turn, increased the aid budget slightly and has now frozen it for the next five years.

Under Harper, the most common justification for stinginess was that the government was concentrating on aid effectiveness, not volume — though it struggled to make a convincing case that it was making aid more effective. The Trudeau government’s oft-repeated initial rationale was that a budget increase was simply “unrealistic” in the current fiscal context. That excuse became untenable after the last federal budget allocated an extra $30 billion to defence. Instead, the government fell back on the Harper-era emphasis on “real results” and wanting to avoid “throwing buckets of money indiscriminately at a problem,” making Trudeau sound a lot like Harper Lite.

The latest refinement of this rationale appears to be that “the system is broken.” And not just for foreign aid. The expression seems to be integral to a new set of speaking points issued by the Prime Minister’s Office, just like in Harper’s day.

On the same conference panel, when asked about what the government was doing to ensure that Indigenous children had the same protections and opportunities as other Canadian children, Adam Vaughan, Liberal MP and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, replied, “If you pour money into a broken system, you will have broken results. You need to fix [it] before turning on the tap.” This could well be the new stock excuse for refusing to match rhetoric with concrete resources.

Like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Minister of International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau and other members of the government, Caesar-Chavannes emphasized in her speech the importance of Canadian leadership on the global stage. She presented leadership as being a better contribution than money.

However, this is surely not an either/or proposition. Leadership is only credible if it is backed up with resources. Especially as the government seeks to regain credibility on the international stage, it would do well to heed Denis Stairs’ warning from many years ago:

if there is anything worse (from the diplomatic point of view) than the value-imperialism of the strong, it is the value-imperialism of the weak. It lacks political clout. Hence, it is short on credibility. And that makes it undignified. The result, among other things, is that it can make Canadians seem too precious by half to their counterparts abroad. They are forever riding white horses in support of causes for whose effective prosecution they do not have to pay. And when such perceptions set in, Ottawa’s store of diplomatic credit runs swiftly down, not up.

None of this is to suggest that there are no significant problems with how foreign aid is delivered. Major improvements are essential. But the need for betterment should not be an excuse for not increasing aid to where it demonstrably can do more good or for not taking concrete steps to “fix” parts of the system that may be broken.

Caesar-Chavannes’ casuistry is actually dangerous. As she herself noted in her speech, trillions of additional dollars are required to reach the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. By making spurious excuses for not contributing its share, Canada is not only failing to lead by example, it might actually be encouraging other donor countries to shirk their responsibilities as well.


Stephen Brown
Stephen Brown

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