Beyond Aid Budgets: What Canada can do to promote international development

Recent critiques of Canada’s development work have focused on the amount it invests, but, Stephen Brown argues, the push should be not just for more aid, but also better aid.

By: /
October 9, 2018
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Microsoft Founder Bill Gates and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attend UN High-Level meeting on financing during 73rd UN General Assembly in New York, September 24, 2018. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs

Of late, many commentators, from humble bloggers to the more august Toronto Star and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), have lamented Canada’s relative lack of generosity in foreign aid and called on the Canadian government to increase the aid budget. 

Canada is indeed a laggard compared to its peers and the Trudeau government is less generous than previous Conservative and Liberal governments. Moreover, more money would provide the resources the current government needs to implement its ambitious Feminist International Assistance Policy and help translate its global leadership rhetoric into reality.

However, more aid is only part of what is required to meet the challenges of global development. Also essential is better aid, as well as a range of non-aid policies in rich countries. So, other than — or rather in addition to — increasing the aid budget, what should Canada do to promote the well-being of billions of people in developing countries? Two recent reports help chart the way.

The first publication, released last month, is the OECD’s peer review of Canada’s development cooperation efforts. Although the press release’s headline read, “Canada needs to increase foreign aid flows in line with its renewed engagement,” and the media’s response also focused on falling aid flows over the past decade or more, the report itself pays very little attention to the quantity of aid. In fact, only one of the 14 OECD recommendations to the Canadian government relates to the size of the aid budget.

The other 13 recommendations address ways the Canadian government could improve the quality of its development assistance. Among them are: strengthening its engagement with Canadian, international and local civil society organizations; developing a strategy for working with private sector partners; providing more guidance and tools on how to implement the new feminist aid policy; and reducing the earmarking of its contributions to multilateral organizations, which prevents them from spending funds where they are most needed.

Several recommendations pertain to how Global Affairs Canada is organized internally and implements its aid programs, including: streamlining and harmonizing procedures within the department, which has still not adjusted to its absorption of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) five years ago; cutting the red tape, notably by giving officials in the field greater power to approve programs without undergoing burdensome approval processes in Ottawa; better supporting its staff; and being less Canada-centric by aligning more with recipient countries’ own data and results.

The 14th and last OECD recommendation concerns non-aid measures, more specifically the need to work across the government of Canada to identify and address the negative impacts of Canadian domestic policies on developing countries. This objective is known as “policy coherence for development”. In fact, the need for greater policy coherence was one of the government’s main justifications for amalgamating CIDA with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in 2013. 

"The Canadian government continues to rejig its aid priorities every few years, abandoning its old ones in its pursuit of the next shiny object."

The second recently published report focuses on such non-aid policies. Also released in September, the Center for Global Development’s 2018 Commitment to Development Index assesses and compares 27 rich countries’ records across seven issue areas that affect developing countries. Canada ranks 17th, down from seventh in 2005.

Canada’s aid score, which combines quantitative and qualitative indicators, is above average and has held steady for the past six years. On two of the six non-aid indicators, Canada fares better than average. It ranks sixth on both finance and migration. For the former, its relatively high score is due in large part to “exceptional” international investment agreements. Most other financial indicators place Canada around the median, while Canada lags behind its peers in a few areas, such as measures to limit financial secrecy and combat money laundering. 

The index also ranks Canada highly for its migration policies, especially for its acceptance and integration of immigrants and refugees, and for hosting many students from developing countries. It could increase its score further by ratifying international conventions on employment and the treatment of migrant workers.

Canada’s rank is a bit lower than average in the areas of technology and trade (15th and 17th out of 27, respectively). For security and the environment, however, Canada ranks among the worst (23rd in both cases). Under the rubric of security, the report flags in particular the country’s meagre contributions to peacekeeping and its relatively high level of arms exports. Canada’s ranking has fallen dramatically in this area over the past 15 years: in both 2003 and 2004, Canada was in the top six.

Canada’s environmental policies, by way of contrast, have always been among the worst. In particular, Canada scores very poorly for high levels of greenhouse gas emissions (and little progress in reducing them), fossil fuel production, fishing subsidies and the second-lowest taxes on gasoline. In this area in particular, the Trudeau government’s rhetoric on fighting climate change is not supported by new policies or action.

Interestingly, the election of the Trudeau government in 2015 barely seems to have registered on the Commitment to Development Index. In fact, Canadian development-related policies are falling further behind its peers: Canada’s overall ranking has dropped from 14th to 17th between 2015 and 2018. Some indicators have marginally improved under the Liberals, but the overall portrait remains quite poor. 

Both more and better aid are urgently needed. In recent years, Canada has not made significant advances on either, despite many high-profile initiatives from the Harper government’s Maternal, Newborn and Child Health Initiative to the current feminist aid policy. Instead, the Canadian government continues to rejig its aid priorities every few years, abandoning its old ones in its pursuit of the next shiny object, causing instability and forcing partner governments and organizations to recast their proposals to match Canada’s latest flavour of the month.

What is more, Canada is also falling further behind on non-aid policies that could help promote international development. All this provides additional evidence that changes under the Trudeau government with regard to international development are far more about rhetoric and branding than meaningful new policies and practices.

The recent reports from the OECD and the Center for Global Development provide valuable leads on how Canada can take concrete steps to provide better aid and greater policy coherence for development. None of these ideas is new. The main thing missing seems to be the political will to put them into practice, just like with the government’s refusal to become a more generous donor.