Obfuscation and Ventriloquy: Does Canada Speak for the World’s Poor?

Obfuscation and Ventriloquy: Does Canada Speak for the World’s Poor?

The tweet from Cooperation Canada after the webinar said it all: ‘“We want to be a voice for the low-income countries”, explains @HarjitSajjan of Canada’s response to the pandemic #COVID19 around the world’. Funny thing, we thought the low-income countries could speak for themselves. In fact, they do. Often. It’s just that Canada is not particularly good at listening to them.

Above all, poor countries have been clamouring for more doses of COVID vaccines, which are desperately needed to save lives and help end the pandemic. However, Canada and other rich countries are hoarding doses and only very slowly meeting their commitments to share them.

Poor countries have also demanded a relaxation of intellectual property rights to enable the ramping up of COVID vaccine manufacturing. Since October 2020, most countries in the Global South – and some in the North as well – have been trying to get the World Trade Organization to agree to a temporary waiver, but rich countries including Canada have been blocking it. The Canadian government has also stalled since May 2021 on a Bolivian request to include COVID vaccines in Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime, which would permit the manufacturing of vaccines under compulsory licencing. Such stockpiling and obstruction are the opposite of being “a voice for the low-income countries”.


The aspiration to speak for the poor was one of several flat notes sounded in the recent webinar with new International Development Minister Sajjan, his Parliamentary Secretary Anita Vandenbeld and Deputy Minister of International Development Christopher MacLennan. The online meeting, held on February 3, aimed to introduce the minister to the Canadian international cooperation sector and begin a dialogue on policies and priorities.

To give them credit, the government representatives did admit, a bit indirectly, that Canada’s aid program is characterized by cumbersome bureaucratic procedures and perverse incentives. And they committed to fix that.

Attentive students of Canada’s aid program will remember, however, that the need to cut the bureaucracy was a major takeaway that the then new Liberal government heard in its consultations with Canada’s international development community back in 2016. Progress since then has been positive, but slow. No one in the webinar questioned whether the mechanisms and management approaches to promote “aid effectiveness” might actually be adding to the bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, virtually all the speakers endorsed “localization”, the concept that development interventions should be based on locally identified needs, be guided by local priorities and use local expertise. Localization is, of course, a good thing. The era of donor-driven “solutions” should be far behind us by now.

But many of the very same contributions also featured invocations of the need to share “Canadian expertise” with the world. The government officials seemed to embrace a vision of development assistance consisting mainly of sending Canadians abroad to do specific things themselves or to teach local people how to do them, a model long discredited in development circles for its high cost and frequent lack of effectiveness. And no one in the webinar seemed willing to discuss the fundamental contradiction of advocating an aid policy based on localization while focusing on providing Canadian technical assistance.

In a related vein, there was a lot of talk of “capacity building”. Much of this discussion proceeded as if capacity building were something new and innovative. In fact, it is old and amorphous. And it often fails, precisely because the “standard model” of delivering capacity building is through donor-driven technical assistance.

Parliamentary Secretary Vandenbeld mentioned the importance of governance in international development. No doubt she is on to something there. But the conversation quickly degenerated into the old trope that Canada has something special to teach the world in terms of governance (presumably through more technical assistance?). Alas, the trucker convoys/occupations blossoming throughout Canada and the descent of Canada’s once sane Conservative movement into Trumpishness would suggest otherwise.

Nobody mentioned either the well-known difficulties of converting the vague concept of governance into effective development programming, or Canada’s mixed record in this field in the recent past. (Remember Rights & Democracy, the Canada Corps, the Democracy Council and CIDA’s Office of Democratic Governance?) The Prime Minister’s instruction to Minister Sajjan “to establish a Canadian centre to expand the availability of Canadian expertise and assistance to… promote human rights, inclusion and democracy, and deliver good governance” looks like a rerun of an old movie.

But the nadir was reached late in the show, when the Deputy Minister came close to blaming the victims for global vaccine inequalities. While correctly pointing out the difficulties involved in running any nationwide vaccination program, he then suggested that developing countries’ inability to use COVID-19 vaccines before they expire was an important factor in explaining developing countries’ low levels of COVID vaccination. Sajjan has similarly suggested in the past that Canada was holding back on donating surplus vaccines to countries in the Global South because Canada needed first to make sure they wouldn’t let them go to waste.

Most developing countries had robust vaccine delivery programs before COVID-19. In 2019, for instance, 159 countries containing the vast majority of the world’s population had measles vaccination coverage rates of 80% or more. While some COVID doses have indeed had to be destroyed, it was usually because donor countries shipped the vaccines too close to their expiry dates. The developing countries’ alleged inability to manage vaccination programs is not the main problem here.

Rather than address Canada’s contributions to vaccine shortages by hoarding supplies and blocking patent waivers, thereby prolonging the global COVID pandemic, Sajjan obfuscated by stating that vaccine supply was no longer a problem and that the main challenge was now distribution. But faced with the Omicron wave, the shortage of the more effective mRNA vaccines is as pressing as ever. What solution did the minister suggest? Sending Canadians vaccinators abroad to help get needles in arms, an expensive and unneeded endeavour. What poor country is asking for that?

We were told that Canada wants “to be a voice for the low-income countries” in this pandemic. Our advice to them: Beware of ventriloquists.

This article was first published on the McLeod Group

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