Canada: Foreign Aid Failures
In light of Minister Beverly Oda’s recent resignation (as Minister of International Cooperation), many politicians, journalists, columnists, and stakeholders have taken to the pen and commented on her record as a politician, a minister, and a connoisseur of orange juice. They have been both glowing and harsh in their comments, but many have focused on her public gaffes and her extravagant lifestyle.
What has been missing from much of the commentary is a discussion of what has happened to the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) over the past four years under Minister Oda’s reign. Many, including myself, have watched with great concern as our official aid agency has been re-made and re-formed time and time again, each with increasing ineffectiveness. Under her watch, Canada’s contribution to foreign aid has declined in absolute and percentage terms, and has moved away from aid for the poorest of the poor and towards those countries that offer more enticing political, economic, or business advantages.
It would be unfair to place the blame for these bad choices entirely on Minister Oda’s shoulders. Not to say she could not have performed better in her role, but that there were certain realities she could not change. For example, I have no doubt that it was not her decision alone to de-fund worthy charitable organizations such as KAIROS. However, her refusal to address some of the serious internal problems within CIDA has had devastating consequences. By refusing to comply with the new legislative mandate for her department she took things in CIDA from bad to worse.
Earlier on in her term many saw our aid agency’s performance slipping and sought to find a way to improve Canada’s aid effectiveness. So along came a bunch of academics and policy wonks with a simple idea: foreign aid should be for poor people. While this insight may not rank with those of Plato or Aristotle, it did provide a framework to assess Canada’s contribution to international assistance.
In response to this thinking, in 2007 I introduced a Private Members Bill in the House of Commons that sought to ensure that all aid delivered by the Canadian government would be directed towards poor people.
The bill set out a legislative mandate which required our Official Development Assistance to meet three criteria: It must…
- be focused on poverty alleviation;
- be consistent with international human rights standards;
- and take into consideration the perspectives of the poor.
The legislation, which was co-sponsored in the Senate by Romeo Dallaire, was met with widespread support and received royal assent in May 2008 after receiving unanimous approval in the House of Commons and the Senate.
For a couple of years following the passage of the bill, the government paid lip service to the legislation and issued reports on CIDA’s activities as promised. Recently however, they have dropped any pretense of adhering to the mandate of the bill and have resisted any efforts to follow to any metric that would measure performance. Now they simply assert that they are complying with the legislation because they have written in their reports that they are complying. Not exactly a convincing argument.
Many of the NGOs who supported the legislation and have criticized the government for their lack of compliance with the law have had their funding cut. These NGOs are now either out of business or are shadows of their former selves. Others are afraid to speak out for fear of a similar fate. Criticism of government aid initiatives are now quite limited. So when low income countries like Malawi, Nepal, Niger, Rwanda, Zambia, Zimbabwe and others were cut off from Canadian foreign assistance, the outcry in Canada was largely non-existent.
To make matters worse, when these countries were cut, the Government announced with great fanfare that it was going to refocus on the Western hemisphere — where we coincidentally have significant political, economic, and business interests. You’ll note the poverty alleviation doesn’t even make the top three.
Today we see the government teaming up with Canadian mining companies operating in the region, using our aid dollars to fund corporate social responsibility programs for the companies’ projects. How this fits into our legislated mandate is still a mystery.
Luckily, not everyone has ignored this bill. In recognition of my work as the sponsor of the legislation I was asked to speak at the United Nations Development Cooperation Forum of the Economic and Social Council in New York on “what difference legislation can make on foreign aid.” Speaking alongside two other politicians, both from developing countries, my perspective was intended to demonstrate how legislation can help you do aid right, although my conclusions find that legislation on its own simply isn’t enough.
Legislation can help you to “do aid right” and ensure that poor people are getting the help and support they need, when they need it. Unfortunately, you cannot legislate morality. Despite the passage of the “Better Aid Bill”, Canada continues to have an ineffective and counter-productive aid agency that consistently places politics and profits ahead of poverty and justice. The government chose to ignore the legislation, and as a result the bill failed to make a significant difference. It is now simply a decorative plaque on my office wall that demonstrates the cruel reality that in this country, that without political will, legislation can’t make an impact.
It is puzzling though. For a government that claims to believe in transparency, accountability, and the effective use of taxpayers’ money, this legislation should be exactly what they aspire to practice. It is not a question of how much money we spend (though I would certainly endorse spending more), but rather a question of how we spend that money. Is it too much to ask that our aid dollars go to those who need it, rather than those who we think we need?
Aid should not be about partisan bickering or scoring cheap political points. It is about doing the right thing and using our aid in the most effective way for those that need it the most. Minister Oda had the opportunity over the past four years to do just that, and to make a substantial and significant contribution to the world. Instead she chose to use her department to push the government’s political and economic agenda.
I welcome her resignation and wish her the best in retirement with the hope that when Minister Julian Fantino takes her place, he learns from her mistakes and recognizes the potential that his department can have. My only advice to him is that he should above all else remember the mandate of his department — foreign aid is for poor people.
Hon. John McKay P.C., M.P.