The ODA Accountability Act at Ten: Time for an Update

by Stephen Brown and Hunter McGill

Ten years ago, the Canadian parliament unanimously passed the Official Development Assistance Accountability Act, following years of intensive lobbying by Canadian civil society organizations. Prior to 2008, Canada had not had any legislation setting out the parameters for its foreign aid. On the law’s 10th anniversary and as the Trudeau government prepares its legislative agenda for its last year before seeking re-election, the time is ripe to assess and update the legislation.

The Act sets poverty reduction as the focus of Canadian official development assistance (ODA). It states that Canadian ODA may be provided “only if the competent minister is of the opinion that it contributes to poverty reduction, takes into account the perspectives of the poor, and is consistent with international human rights standards.” It directs the minister to publish an annual report summarizing activities and providing statistics on aid disbursements. The Act also compels the him or her to “consult with governments, international organizations, and Canadian civil society organizations at least once every two years… and take their views and recommendations into consideration.”

The most surprising thing about the ODA Accountability Act is how little difference it seems to have made. In the government’s opinion, all Canadian aid was already compliant with the three requirements (on poverty reduction, perspectives of the poor, and human rights) and existing consultations were sufficient to conform to the Act.

The Act’s imprecise language is not helpful, as it defers to the minister’s opinion, rather than a more rigorous, evidence-based test. The government eventually issued guidance notes to help applicants for funds ensure compliance with the Act, but this is not challenging, given the government’s loose interpretation of the legal criteria.

The government’s lack of commitment to the spirit if not the letter of the Act is further illustrated by the 2014 Global Markets Action Plan. Launched by the Harper government, but still official policy under the Liberals, it seeks to “leverage development programming to advance Canada’s trade interests,” which is in direct contradiction of aid’s mandated focus on poverty reduction under the Act.

The legislation is hard to enforce. Only once, as far as we are aware, has the Act been invoked in court. A 2011 lawsuit on behalf of Bashir Makhtal, a Canadian imprisoned in Ethiopia, unsuccessfully sought to end Canadian aid to that country based on the Act’s human rights provisions. The main impact of the Act has been on how government reports on past aid (about which more below).

The fact that the Act was passed unanimously in Parliament reflects the degree to which amendments had watered it down in order to convince MPs and Senators of all stripes to vote in favour. Notably deleted at the last minute were the bill’s provisions for creating a 20-member Advisory Committee for International Development and a mechanism for people in developing countries to petition the government if they believed that Canadian aid to their country did not respect the provisions of the Act.

Another weakness of the Act lies in the reporting requirements. Early reports to Parliament, covering the international development activities and expenditures of numerous government departments, were mainly descriptions of their various projects and programs. The latest report, covering the 2016–2017 fiscal year, focuses on Global Affairs Canada (GAC) and retroactively organizes the described activities according to the six priority “action areas” of the Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP), which did not yet exist when those activities took place. If we rule out time travel, the adoption of this approach demonstrates the malleability of those categories.

These annual reports provide very little practical information and seem to be an exercise in formal compliance. They are not publicly announced, nor presented and debated in Parliament. They are also hard to find on the GAC website — the last five can be found here, but where are the previous ones? Independent analysts prefer to use the aid statistics compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The reports would be more useful if they contained larger-picture information on current thinking and implementation of aid policy, which could then be discussed in Parliament. In the current context, a frank discussion of the implementation of FIAP would be especially germane.

For this important piece of legislation to have more of an impact, it needs to be updated. International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau could activate the periodical formal consultations it mandates, starting with a review of how it is faring on its 10th anniversary and how it can be improved. The provisions for assessing compliance need to be tightened and the government should also create the planned advisory committee (see our previous blog on the UK model) and the mechanism for petitions from recipient countries. The revised legislation should also highlight the importance of gender equality, a key Canadian development priority since the early 1980s.

Many Canadians, while supporting development assistance, are sceptical about what Canada is doing and the impact Canadian aid is having. A reinvigorated ODA Accountability Act and better compliance would help convince them — and perhaps some key Cabinet ministers as well — that aid is money well spent.

This article was first published by McLeod Group on 4 September 2018.

Stephen Brown
Stephen Brown

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