In Defense of Canada’s New International Development Assistance Policy

In Defense of Canada’s New International Development Assistance Policy
Women collecting water from a well in Gombe State, Nigeria.Imperative Initiative for Motivation of Global Care (IIMGC)

Criticism, while hardly ever welcome, is nevertheless necessary to draw attention to potential pitfalls. If heeded in time, danger may be averted; disaster, however, may follow an unexamined plan. Canada’s new Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP) has drawn its share of criticism. Upon perusing these criticisms, I have emerged with a somewhat supportive stand for FIAP, with a few cautions.

Most debated in academic and practitioner circles is the lack of new spending commitments for foreign aid while not reaching the internationally agreed upon, but arbitrarily set aid target of 0.7% of GNI, potentially resulting in all talk and little action for FIAP implementation.

Instead, we should focus on the quality and effectiveness of the aid in reaching objectives rather than being driven by the numbers. That pushing for targeted spending might backfire if that investment is not judiciously administered, as is quite clear from a recent statement by Britain’s well-reputed ex-Development Minister Claire Short. She once championed the 0.7% target but then admitted, “Money is useful if it is well spent, not in itself.”

Critics have also argued that a higher aid budget would help Canada be taken seriously internationally; a low contribution will not boost the Canada is Back image that the Liberal government promises to build.

I side with Claire Short on this one — it is not necessarily the amount of money spent but rather needs-based planning and well-implemented programs, achieving planned results that will build Canada’s image both nationally and internationally. Canadian public opinion can certainly play a role in projecting a positive image of Canada’s international development. Unfortunately, the Canadian public is not well informed about foreign aid nor the benefits of effective international development co-operation. Revival of a development education program with the specific objective of educating the public — which, in the last millennium, Canada’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) agency used to finance through civil society organizations — will be useful for stimulating public backing for foreign aid.

Critics are concerned that the principles of the ODA Accountability Act, with its singular purpose of poverty reduction, has not been integrated into FIAP, nor does the concept of focusing on priority countries (technically termed Country Focus) appear to play any role in the new policy. Is our development aid thus losing focus? Will these deficiencies lead us to scatter funds in too many countries and sectors, resulting in lower impact?

Both poverty reduction and country focus are implicit in the new policy, with the highest amounts (50% of the total aid budget) flowing to countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and those affected by fragility and conflict. Both categories doubtlessly include low-income countries (LICs), with very large percentages of the populations living below the poverty line. This focus, however, may not win over those pushing for offering Canadian expertise to emerging economies, which might serve as potential commercial partners or provide investment opportunities.

Nor does the new policy necessarily promote unfocused sectoral aid investment. The policy prioritizes humanitarian assistance; social inclusion; inclusive governance; peace and security through financing for education and training; health, nutrition, and women’s reproductive rights; and the protection of civilians from violence, which are all central to international development. Ultimately, country-specific needs analysis will identify the thematic focus for each country.

Unless caution is used, unintended negative impacts of the policy might follow. Here is some advice to avoid that:

  • The focus on women should not be at the cost of protecting the rights of children, an equally vulnerable group.
  • Development delivery in partnership with civil society organizations should be encouraged but should not fully replace multilateral channels (development banks, UN agencies) that address aid effectiveness principles and promote better donor harmonization. Budget support also normally promotes extensive larger-scale impact at the country level. Civil society projects suit grassroots development but are unlikely to have such extensive impact.
  • While blended financing is necessary to bridge the large gap in the Sustainable Development Goals, it is critical to ensure that for-profit interests do not overtake the benefits to developing nations.
  • Context-specific programming should be prioritized to allay concerns about transplanting Canadian feminist ideals to developing nations where societal, cultural, and religious values might provide inhospitable ground.
  • The feminist policy principles are similar to those underlying gender mainstreaming, which the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) used for decades, largely without success. Improved tools for planning and strict oversight of their use and results, given the new policy direction of investment of at least 80% of Canada’s development budget for women and girls, would be essential.
  • As in many past instances, the feminist orientation of FIAP might benefit educated elite women while failing to deliver assistance to the vast majority of women and girls in the lower echelons of society who need it the most. Special attention to planning and implementing the $150 million Women’s Voice and Leadership initiative will be required to ensure clear and equitable benefits for women in the partner countries.

In short, FIAP is an excellent tool to move development forward by focusing on women and girls as long as we wisely navigate around the possible pitfalls and keep the goals in sight.

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