Is Canada ready to be a better development cooperation partner?

The government’s International Assistance Review wraps up this month. Are the consultations focused enough on practical and institutional changes needed, from stronger partnerships with the Global South to better planning and dialogue in the field?

By: /
July 6, 2016
A cluster of houses is seen at a slum in Mumbai May 6, 2014. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

Canadians and the international community are waiting to hear how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s announcement that Canada is “back” will be turned into deliverables. There was little about the importance of international development in the budget earlier this year and no aid boost for developing countries, not even the poorest (least developed countries or LDCs in UN-speak). How will Canada deliver on the ambitious, some say transformational, UN Agenda (with its 17 SDGs) that we signed in 2015, with its promises of eliminating poverty and “no one left behind?"

In an effort to answer that question, in May, Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau launched a complex consultation, the International Assistance Review (IAR), with selected Canadians and international partners on shaping a new Canadian development cooperation agenda. Meetings will run until later this month. Minister Bibeau has personally attended several of the round tables.

But yet unanswered is how much influence these outsider inputs will have. Are the IAR themes pre-determined? The six themes are a mix of the old and some important new priorities from human rights to climate change to a feminist foreign policy. However, there was little discussion of the challenges of implementation.

There is no tabula rasa — blank slate for Canadian development cooperation. Instead it will be catch-up time. We will be re-engaging with developing countries and a donor world that has moved on for a decade in which, bar the odd exception like maternal health and humanitarian assistance, we were not seen as leaders on important global policy issues. Will we be ready for change? For example, could we partner with Cuba and Brazil on maternal health in Mozambique? Or co-finance a project with China’s new US$100 billion Asian Infrastructure Bank to help Nepal, an Asian LDC?

Canada needs to relate to a stronger Global South for our longer–term future as a nation dependent on trade and investment. We need relationships with both the poorest (LDCs/fragile states) and the emerging Middle Income Countries (MICs, like China and India), not just the USA and EU. The LDCs should become the main beneficiaries of our concessional aid; for the MICs there will be a mix of two-way trade and investment. Incidentally we also need their secret UN votes to win that Security Council seat in 2021.

Partnerships: A new norm

Cooperation today is not about a donor arriving in a developing country cheque-book in hand and carrying a binder outlining its own priorities. Canada’s IAR themes will not be the only options in town. The broad content of the priorities in the review backgrounder may be fine, but the approach of a donor, Canada, arriving with its own pre-packaged ideas runs somewhat counter to today’s development cooperation norms. Here the vocabulary and expectations are all about partnership. Even the poorest of developing countries are not looking for ‘charity’ or what seems like paternalistic advice. Individual IAR themes may well emerge through in-country discussions to set a mutually agreed, developmental partnership, but that process needs to be organic, as we respond to their plans for their future.

This new norm is rooted in the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness with its principle of 'country ownership' and the approach of recipient country ‘in the driver’s seat’. To regain our credibility and become a trusted partner, Canada will need a new style. Within our bilateral, country-to-country aid, we will need to work via partnerships. Increasingly these arrangements, complex but more effective overall, will involve other bilateral donors, including perhaps a developing country like Brazil and/or a multilateral financial Institutions (e.g. World Bank) and United Nations agencies (e.g. UNICEF). Hopefully Canadian NGOs, neglected in the Harper era, will also be involved, partnering in turn with local NGOs.

A mid-sized donor like Canada will need to focus its aid. We lose out in terms of effectiveness by fragmenting our effort. Focus is another partnership product. It needs to involve predictable multi-year funding commitments for a stable pool of priority aid countries, drawn largely from amongst the poorest and most vulnerable countries. Our contribution to others will be indirect, mainly via core funding to those multilateral organizations who share our enhanced ‘pro-poor’ focus.

A key instrument for managing strong multi-stakeholder partnerships will be decentralization, i.e. moving project planning and strategic dialogue from Ottawa to the developing country. Canada experimented with this in the ’80s but then let the idea drop. Other donors have, however, continued on this path. With much of the policy ‘driving’ now by the recipient, our catch-up work will require a small, professionally strong team, led by an empowered country director, in our embassies.

Making policy coherence meaningful

The IAR backgrounder shows little sign of a self-critical interest in being prepared to tackle the new challenges of development cooperation. Global Affairs (GAC) needs to look in the mirror and pose effectiveness questions about its structure and skills post-merger. The same debate under the heading ‘Fit for Purpose’ finds donors, including Canada, pressing the UN on its capacity to lead implementation of Agenda 2030. This is the practical side, but the issue of policy coherence is even more critical to whether we are strategically ready for a new relationship with developing countries.

Policy coherence was the core Harper rationale for merging CIDA with old DFAIT, but observers saw little of a new coherent agenda, only budget cuts, aid re-allocation to help specific overseas Canadian mining companies and the addition of a few political/trade favourites (e.g. Mongolia, Colombia) to the list of priority countries, displacing several African LDCs. 

"To regain our credibility and become a trusted partner, Canada will need a new style."

Meaningful coherence – something Canada certainly needs politically and economically –must reflect a broader definition of development, one embracing topics like trade, fairer taxation, private investment, patent protection, rights, climate change, and immigration. It could be facilitated by introducing an internal GAC process for screening new policy and program initiatives for their developing country implications. Real coherence will need basic shifts in bureaucratic mindsets as a foundation to a two-way partnership between trade, political and development officials. Canada should be seeking new partners from the Global South – India and Brazil, as much as the USA and France. Finally, the Development Minister’s mandate should be understood to include being the voice in Cabinet of developing country interests, arguing for positive impact and no collateral damage.

Whether intentional or just collateral damage, one outcome of the CIDA merger is a significantly depleted pool of committed development professionals amongst GAC staff. Many chose to retire early. Those that remained became acclimatized to passively waiting for instructions from the Minister’s staff or the Prime Minister’s Office. New managers have often come with no development experience. The IAR should think through whether the card-shuffling approach is proving counter-productive. Change and innovation do not seem to be preferred options for many bureaucrats, some still mentally bruised from their collisions with ministers under Stephen Harper such as Bev Oda. Enhancing development cooperation likely needs a solid ‘fit-for-purpose’ review and probably new recruitment, to gain the commitment and professional experience that gave CIDA a superior reputation with developing country partners. One small step might be to give GAC’s development staff back an identity, such as the name CIDA. This would also ease confusion amongst our partners and the Canadian public.

New partners, new funding, and a renewed profile for development work

The world has moved on. Canada and developing countries alike are seeking new business and political networks. But these need to be based upon a different worldview, one of partners with a common perspective on the world we share. The UN’s Agenda 2030 takes seriously the potential of private investment as a growth driver and source of new jobs.  However, the caveat, unmet so far, is that this be pro-poor and consistent with “no one left behind.” LDCs and conflict–affected fragile states are certainly open to more private foreign investment, but they want these commercial partnerships as a complement to increased aid, not as political cover for cuts.

Our donor motivation can no longer be rooted in charity. It should come from a recognition that developing countries are increasingly our economic and political partners, thus key to our future. Failed development can extract a heavy price as a path to increased epidemics, refugee flows and recruits for global terrorism.   

A no-brainer is immediate action to increase aid for LDCs. Canada should plan now to allocate them most — say 80 percent — of our bilateral ODA, even if only formally announced in Budget 2017. A new priority country list is needed which is 80 percent LDCs. Getting started will require new joint strategies via crash partnership dialogues on implementation. We should also commit to reaching an aid (formally ODA) level during this Parliament’s life that closely matches the peak we found affordable under another Trudeau back in 1975, namely 0.54 percent of Gross National Income. Finally, if aspirationally, we should indicate our approach to the core 0.7 percent target invented by Pearson.

Development cooperation is not a high profile agenda in Canada or elsewhere. Development ministers have had junior Cabinet ranking. But development cooperation is something ordinary Canadians strongly support. It seems to have a committed believer in Canada’s prime minister, but he may need to over-ride powerful ministers who downplay the importance of aid and development. The best performance (UK DFID) was facilitated by a Finance Minister who was as committed as his PM; but historically this has not been the Canadian experience. 

None of this will happen overnight. Some important topics like engaging Canadians, promoting human rights and framing a role for our private sector needs a conversation beyond this article.

But the IAR, as it weaves its final way to Cabinet in the coming months, hopefully will be a key vehicle for advancing the policy and organizational details of more effective development co-operation for Canada. Critically, the approach must embrace both a feminist foreign policy and be one that engages the Global South as an increasingly important partner for Canada in creating Agenda 2030’s sustainable world, one with no one left behind.