A key goal for Canada is to be BACK as a credible development partner. A significant driver is the ambition of taking a UN Security Council (SC) seat in 2020. Recent signals, however, suggest some uncertainty about Canada winning this secret ballot. This goal was not helped when the recent OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) peer review of Canada suggested that Canada needed a more ambitious Official Development Assistance (ODA) volume target. Canadian ODA presence has backslid from the 1970s and ’80s, when we routinely ranked in the top five as a trusted interlocutor and reliable partner in those countries where we were an active donor. The current 2016 DAC ODA figure for Canada is a lowly 0.26% of GNI, ranked 17th in the DAC; our record effort was 0.54% of GNI in 1975.
But ODA dollars are not the sole indicator of engagement. More fundamental is the challenge of rebuilding our credibility as a trusted empathetic development partner. Our main UN SC rivals, Norway and Ireland, are often seen as having stronger commitments to peacekeeping, and focus on the poorest, notably in Africa. What we actually deliver is a more critical measure of being “Fit for Purpose” (F4P) than our words. Our profile on progressive goals is enhanced by the new Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP) with its bold, pro-poor feminist agenda, but again there are real concerns about our implementational capacity.
Being BACK is affected by the substantial F4P challenges facing Global Affairs Canada (GAC). To be recognized as being “BACK” we need to close gaps in our implementational performance. This demands significant shifts in the institutional culture that shapes our relations with developing countries. GAC needs to break away from the cautious, process-heavy Harper days. Moreover, our development policy talk could soften its paternalistic, charity-flavoured tone. A good first step would be to talk less about assistance and more about co-operation. Especially with something as transformational as FIAP, global priorities need to move far beyond “aid” and big cheques for multilateral organizations.
These realities should drive Canadian leadership towards a fundamental rethinking of our geopolitical stance. We must move Canada away from its narrow focus on G7 and EU relations towards a new openness to the Global South: the developing world of Asia, Africa, and the Americas. We are already seeing the possible damage from too cozy a Canadian worldview, especially one too long myopically directed due south. Meanwhile trade, investment, and political harmony are now as much the policy mantra of poorer developing countries as they are for Canada.
Canada’s current development partners are a mix of the most vulnerable, fragile states and middle-income countries (MICs) such as Indonesia or Colombia. This approach to country selection, promoted as “flexible,” may be detrimental to an overall geopolitical goal of building stable strategic partnerships. Open-ended eligibility is not optimal for a modest-sized donor such as Canada. “Focus,” with perhaps a dozen or so poorest countries as core partners rather than a “flavour of the month” approach, is better for both donor and recipients. We might emulate our Security Council seat competitors by programming via committed partnerships. This could be balanced by ODA contributions to the more vulnerable via improved funding to pro-poor multilateral organizations such as UNICEF. As in past years, selective programming in non-focus countries can always be accommodated by a “notwithstanding”-type clause for the minister.
The evolving reality, spelled out in the FIAP, is rightly one where Canada’s development partners are overwhelmingly the poorest and most vulnerable, mainly (but not exclusively) in Africa. The poorest are not all the same, of course. Implementation needs to be customized to match country realities, as well as our commitment to the sustainable development goals of “eliminating poverty” and “leaving no-one behind.”
We must be particularly cautious if scarce Canadian ODA is directed to support quasi-commercial loans to MICs. The international community has only recently finished writing off its “aid” loans to the poorest, under several rounds of Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) write-offs. We should be alert to a possible new HIPC-like crisis, linked to an ODA subsidy race for commercial loans to the poorest developing countries. In the 1970s, it was the Treasury Board that forbade CIDA from making any more aid loans to developing countries, saying they were intrinsically risky. Recently, however, we saw President Trump order the diversion of $30 billion of US Aid funding to upgrade the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC).
Developing countries, even today’s poorest, need to be seen increasingly as tomorrow’s potential economic partners. Most are evolving quickly, working to build societies that are more democratic, better educated, and with access to basic health services. Their governments, while certainly not perfect, have become less corrupt and more responsive to their own democratic pressures.
Against this evolving global context, Canada must abandon its paternalism. It is no longer reasonable to expect developing country governments to buy into pre-packaged project designs or policy papers prepared in Ottawa. For a newly self-confident Bangladesh or Ghana, partnership is about sustained dialogue and mutually agreed upon goals. Development co-operation is not about charity; it is about building a broader set of equal relationships. Canada is slowly recognizing that benefits — financial, political, or UN votes — are only gained over the medium-term. Photo-ops don’t create jobs.
For Canada to really be BACK, it must win respect via improved predictability and empathy within meaningful development co-operation partnerships. The Canadian response to a developing country’s national development agenda must be shaped to match the aspirations of its more demanding population and an increasingly ambitious business community.
Canada must also better recognize that the increasingly multi-facetted global framework involves many new competitive actors as donors and investors. New partnerships might even be possible with China and its new $100 billion multilateral infrastructure bank (but we joined late!). Other potential partners are emerging-economy groups such as the BRICS with their South–South partnerships, or Arab donors with their own development institutions.
Canada, welcome to the new world of development partnerships!
See Part 2 of this blog, A Canadian Action Agenda.