Sending More Canadians Abroad: Innovative or Old-Fashioned Development Assistance?

Sending More Canadians Abroad: Innovative or Old-Fashioned Development Assistance?

Why is the Canadian government trotting out such an old-fashioned approach to aid?

Does the world need more Canadians? Global Affairs Canada recently announced a new initiative to send more Canadians abroad to help developing countries fight poverty. The new Technical Assistance Program, says the press release, “highlights Canada’s commitment to innovation and partnership with Canadian experts from various sectors”, as well as “the commitments in the Feminist International Assistance Policy to adopt more flexible approaches to deliver Canada’s technical assistance”.

That may sound appealing. But rather than an innovative new approach, this is a throwback to an approach to foreign aid that prevailed many decades ago. As Chris Roberts asked, “doesn’t this sound like it’s 1958 all over again?”.

Indeed, inspired by modernization theory, 1950s-style aid assumed that poverty in “underdeveloped countries” was due to a lack of skills. The solution was to send more of “us” over there to show “them” how to do things – or worse, do it “for them”. Does that sound paternalistic? It was.

Technical assistance ignored broader causes of poverty and inequality, such as power inequalities and unfair global trading practices. It also cost a lot of money to send a Canadian overseas, especially when someone already there could do the job, and understood and could navigate the context far better.

With good reason, technical assistance fell into disrepute. Over the decades, aid agencies – including the Canadian International Assistance Development Agency – shifted to more effective ways of providing assistance, including funding the recipient government’s own projects and programs or providing budget support. Each modality has its pros and cons, but technical assistance has been widely singled out as a particularly poor way to reduce poverty.

Technical assistance ignored broader causes of poverty and inequality, such as power inequalities and unfair global trading practices.

A 2006 report by development NGO ActionAid argues that technical assistance is ineffective, overpriced, donor-driven and outdated. It even points out that, way back in 1969, the Canadian-led Pearson Commission on International Development criticized technical assistance for doing little to achieve development objectives. Although sending “experts” from industrialized countries to developing ones no doubt has provided some valuable assistance, it assumed that technical knowledge was not available locally. While this may have been the case in some very poor or conflict-affected countries or in some very specific technical areas, it is not true as a general rule – and is increasingly an incorrect assumption. Developing countries, especially the middle-income ones, often have scientific, technical and policy analysis capacities that rival our own. Canada needs to adapt its aid practices to this new reality.

Although sending “experts” from industrialized countries to developing ones no doubt has provided some valuable assistance, it assumed that technical knowledge was not available locally. While this may have been the case in some very poor or conflict-affected countries or in some very specific technical areas, it is not true as a general rule – and is increasingly an incorrect assumption. Developing countries, especially the middle-income ones, often have scientific, technical and policy analysis capacities that rival our own. Canada needs to adapt its aid practices to this new reality.


Recommended: A New Face in International Development


So why is the Canadian government trotting out such an old-fashioned approach to aid? This is the reasoning Global Affairs Canada provides:

  • Increasing the provision of Canadian expertise and further projecting Canadian leadership globally will:
    • align with the government’s commitments to enhance Canada’s leadership role in the world and to eradicate poverty and promote international peace and security globally
    • advance and strengthen Canada’s position as a champion of human rights, women’s empowerment, gender equality, social inclusion and diversity around the world
    • provide visibility and branding and draw on Canada’s greatest resource – its people.
Global Affairs HQ at the Lester B. Pearson Building, Ottawa.

The justification supports my fears about this new program, that it is all about “us”: promoting Canadian priorities and reinforcing Canada’s image. As I have argued elsewhere, far too much of Canadian aid policy is motivated by branding, not aid effectiveness or actual poverty reduction. This problem applies as much to the current government as to the previous one.

The announcement claims that the program seeks “to enable demand-driven deployments of Canadian expertise”. It sounds like the Canadian government is aware of the need to avoid being donor-driven.

There is nothing feminist or innovative about an old-fashioned, flag-flying, paternalistic approach to aid.

But reread the government’s arguments in the bullet points above. They appear exceedingly donor-driven. The emphasis on promoting “Canada’s leadership” and “Canada’s position as champion” makes actual poverty reduction, women’s empowerment, gender equality and other development goals seem almost incidental. And why does the expertise have to be Canadian?

If a developing country government really requires specific skills or knowledge, Canada should prioritize funding the services of specialists from the country in question and, if that is not possible, then from that country’s region. Only as a last resort should the consultants be hired from further afield, especially high-income countries. There is no reason to limit the pool to Canadians. In such cases, the best-qualified person should be sought out, regardless of citizenship.

Canada officially abolished tied aid in 2012. Since then, the government has no longer required that any Canadian assistance be spent on Canadian goods and services, since doing so may not provide the best value for money. There is no reason to reintroduce tied aid via this new program.

There is a legitimate but limited place for technical assistance in international development, but the expertise can come from anywhere. Canada doesn’t need a special new program to send more Canadians abroad to teach people in developing countries how to do things. There is nothing feminist or innovative about an old-fashioned, flag-flying, paternalistic approach to aid.

This article was originally published by on August 29, 2019

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