Canada’s miscalculation on aid

Morneau’s suggestion to ‘do more with less’ is a wake up call that this government may not get how important aid is, especially to the lives of women and girls.  

By: /
March 29, 2017
A community health worker gives a lecture on family planning at a reproductive health clinic run by an NGO in Tondo city, Manila, January 12, 2016. REUTERS/Czar Dancel

In a post-budget interview published earlier this week, Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau responded to criticism of last week’s budget by rejecting calls for an increase to Canada’s low Overseas Development Assistance (ODA), and urging aid agencies to do more with less.”

In the interview, Morneau also touted the $60-million-a-year investment for the development finance initiative (DFI) — announced by the previous government and presented again in the March 22 budget — as a replacement for hundreds of millions of extra dollars needed for international development.

Now, we can certainly have a discussion about aid effectiveness and newer research on, for example, cash transfers or guaranteed incomes. But I strongly suspect this isn’t what Morneau means when he suggests being more effective with less funds. Instead, the simplistic slogan is an attempt to flip the frame, and place the burden of alleviating poverty on the poor and those with whom they work, rather than on governments like his.

Such an argument has three core problems: 

1. It underestimates the complexities of aid and how critical it is for women and girls.

Aid today is no longer simply about digging wells in northern Uganda, or nice white ladies teaching orphans in Kenya. Aid, when done well, is locally administered and designed. It is about sustainable solutions to complex, entrenched challenges. Aid is not hand-outs to poor starving Africans, as was once depicted. It is part of a global response to development, climate change, security and economic growth. If a simple, glib idea of “doing more with less” was possible, it would have been done already.

It is a fundamental problem to disconnect aid from Canada’s foreign policy, from our shared responsibility for global development, and from our moral obligation to the world. Aid is — or should be — a key component of Canada’s feminist government, and a primary tool for lifting up women and girls.

Yet, despite the public emphasis on gender in this year’s budget, by leaving aid investments as low as they already are, women and girls remain at the bottom of the pile. It is unacceptable to tell women and girls to “do more with less.” Women and girls have been doing more with less for centuries. And it results in 303,000 women dying needlessly every year due to pregnancy and childbirth. Doing more with less is why women still only represent about 20 percent of parliamentarians around the world. Doing more with less is why governments continually fail their female citizens, and why around the world 1,000 teenage girls contract HIV every single day.

"It is a fundamental problem to disconnect aid from Canada’s foreign policy."

While there has been a re-allocation of some of the funding from the previous government’s Muskoka Initiative on maternal, newborn and child health toward sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) projects, there has been no real new money for development from the Liberal government.

Meanwhile, Canada is at the back of the pack — about 0.28 percent of gross national income — and we’re falling further behind. Women and girls don’t just need feminist language; they need the money and weight of a country like Canada to back up its words.

Canada cannot be back, and we cannot be feminist, if we aren’t willing to prioritize the health and rights of women and girls around the world. 

2. The jury is still out on the role of the private sector.

Firstly, as Morneau knows, the $300 million in funding over five years for the DFI, which seeks to encourage private-sector involvement in development, was announced by the previous government. That figure is a drop in the ocean compared to the need, and it is not even new money.

Secondly, the role of the private sector in development is controversial (and well-studied). It isn't clear that the DFI will prioritize development impact (over profit-making), and it isn’t clear how the money will help the hardest to reach, as opposed to the easiest to reach. There are major questions about how the private sector protects human and labour rights, and how it ensures that local communities and national governments benefit from its investment too.

Finally, private sector investment should be additional to international public finance. It is not a replacement. The two can complement each other, but they address different needs and challenges. 

3. Aid is in fact a smart investment.

Perhaps most importantly, it is worrying that a finance minister is dismissing aid as a smart investment. Canada is investing heavily in infrastructure, mainly for its high return on investment (ROI). Canada should grasp the potential of aid too, particularly due to its high score in a Gender-Based Analysis (GBA+). Nutrition, for example, generates a 1:16 ROI. Contraception is even higher. Both investments primarily benefit women and girls, whereas traditional infrastructure (roads, construction) tends to primarily benefit men.

The World Bank’s recent focus on the importance of early childhood development to equitable economic sustainability should be instructive to the Canadian government. For example, not only is tackling stunting in children a moral imperative, it makes economic sense. How can a country develop a modern, skilled workforce to compete on the global scene, when, as in Bangladesh, over a third of children under five are physically and cognitively stunted? In Pakistan, 45 percent of children are stunted, and as World Bank President Jim Yong Kim says, “inequality is baked into the brains of those children.”

"Canada cannot be back, and we cannot be feminist, if we aren’t willing to prioritize the health and rights of women and girls."

Contraception is another smart investment, and key to women’s economic and political emancipation. Planning and spacing children is at the heart of women’s ownership of their own bodies and futures. It is also vital to the ability of their children to survive and thrive. At a time when Canada is promoting GBA+ at home and around the globe — as Justin Trudeau will no doubt be doing next week in New York — it is alarming to see Morneau omit the impact on women and girls of aid investments, and the potential for aid to generate significant and crucially more equitable economic growth.

As a start, I urge Minister Morneau to meet with development economists and practitioners, and with global women’s advocates, to better understand why aid is a smart, catalytic investment in Canadian foreign policy, as well as a moral imperative.

I then urge the Liberal government, before Budget 2018, to set a stable, predictable, fiscally responsible timetable for Canada to meet its international obligations and deliver on its feminist agenda. If a Conservative government did it during a recession in the UK, Canada can do it. There is no excuse. Considering Canada’s public discourse on gender recently, the world’s women and girls expect — and deserve — nothing less.