A Foreign Aid Program for the 21st Century

Kyle Matthews on why DFATD should embrace new digital technologies.
By: /
October 28, 2013
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Nobody riles up Canada’s international development community more than Stephen Harper. Many former diplomats, scholars, and NGO workers criticize the direction that Canada’s foreign aid program is turning towards under the Prime Minister’s watch.

Just last week it was announced that a select group of Canadians would help the Harper government in its efforts to fully merge the now defunct Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) into the newly renamed Department of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Development (DFATD). What is stirring debate now is that the CEO of the mining firm Rio Tinto Alcan is one of the members of the external advisory group who will help the government revamp and restructure the new ministry.

Many NGOs and development experts are fearful that Canadian aid will be swallowed up by the trade agenda. They worry that Ottawa is only interested in advancing Canadian mining interests across the globe. The demise of CIDA was first mentioned in the 2013 federal budget and was immediately met with criticism – too much attention would be put on foreign policy and commerce, leaving poverty alleviation as an afterthought. That Christian Paradis, the former Minister of Industry, is now in charge of the international development portfolio cemented some people’s worst fears.

Lost in the debate, however, are two important issues. The first is the need for Canada to take a much broader view of international development. The Official Development Assistance Accountability Act makes clear that while poverty reduction is an important goal, Canada’s foreign aid must also promote international human rights standards. In other words, preventing conflict and responding to humanitarian crises and natural disasters is important as well.

The second issue, which is directly tied to the first, is that we need to embrace new technologies as potent tools to be added to our foreign aid program. To do so, however, we cannot exclude the private sector.

The Canadian aid “shake up” is an opportunity to innovate and modernize. The technological revolution that has transformed every aspect of our society in the past few years should not be viewed solely as belonging to the personal domain of individual citizens or for commercial uses. New technologies and social media sharing platforms such as Twitter and Facebook need to be fully integrated into the new department’s operations.

Consider the important lessons that can be taken from Canada’s belated but welcomed embrace of digital diplomacy. As Ottawa plays catch up with our key allies, most notably the U.K. and the U.S., evidence suggests social media is a powerful tool that governments can use across a broad spectrum of activities. Earlier this year Foreign Minister John Baird, in collaboration with University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, initiated a dialogue on the future of Iran. The event was Ottawa’s first public foray using social media and new technologies to communicate with ordinary Iranians directly, bypassing Iranian authorities. This was not a one off exercise – an interactive website is up and running, ensuring sustainability in cyberspace.

While Canada is moving in the right direction on the digital diplomacy front, our international development agenda needs to kick into high gear on the technological front.

The Obama administration has also made several steps in this direction. The U.S. International Development Agency (USAID) has made science, technology, and innovation a key programming area and administers 12 different initiatives. Washington understands that investing in new technologies and facilitating innovative public-private partnerships to generate groundbreaking new solutions is essential to overcoming global development problems. Not only is USAID using technology to alleviate poverty and target development needs, but they are also attempting to do the same for the protection of human rights and the prevention of mass atrocity crimes.

Even the United Nations, an organization that is not exactly known for embracing change and technology, recognizes the need to modernize its practices. The UN Secretary General established The Global Pulse initiative to help move the UN into the 21st century and the digital sphere.

The same cannot be said about Canada’s foreign aid program. DFATD’s website does not appear to have any specific international development programs like those developed by USAID and the UN. This is unfortunate and must be addressed as part of the CIDA-DFATD merger.

Technological advancements like social media, mobile tech, commercial satellite technology, and crisis mapping, to name just a few, can be used to reduce poverty and protect human rights. By taking a lead and ensuring they are incorporated into DFATD’s new structure and programs, Canada can open up a space that will allow a whole new generation of international development practitioners and organizations to emerge and strengthen our aid program.