Canada's Selective Approach to Development

An interview with Ian Smillie about the paternalism and commercial interests that underlie Canada's recent aid initiatives.
By: /
June 2, 2014
Global Journalism Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto

Ian Smillie has spent decades observing and critiquing international development and foreign aid. He’s the author of nine books on those topics including The Charity of Nations: Humanitarian Action in a Calculating World and Blood on the Stone: Greed, Corruption and War in the Global Diamond Trade. Smillie founded the Canadian NGO Inter Pares, currently consults on development for The McLeod Group, and is chairman of the Diamond Development Initiative. reporters Alia Dharssi and Rachel Browne spoke with Smillie on Canada’s role in development after a panel discussion at the Ottawa Forum on May 24, 2014.

At the conference, you said Canada used to be a leader on gender and development, but that is no longer the case. Could you explain what happened?

In the 1970s, the women’s movement was really growing. It was on fire in North America and Europe. It became an issue in the field of international development and CIDA became a prominent leader on women’s rights. There was a women and development unit in CIDA where they tried to mainstream the issue and making it a priority within CIDA. It was about gender, it wasn’t just about women in development or women and development. It was really about gender and development and the rights of women, not treating women as victims or as people to be helped, but as people who can help themselves and whose rights need to be understood and properly respected. Canada became a bit of a nag on this issue in a lot of places. I remember hearing people in Africa and Asia saying, “Oh my god, here come the Canadians again, they’re going to push on this gender issue.” We were in the forefront of that, we had a lot of say, and I think we were good at it. This has all vanished in the last seven to eight years. Certainly this government has no interest in it. They don’t want to hear about gender anymore, they want to call it “relations between men and women.” What it has meant is that the gender unit has vanished. In one sense it’s been mainstreamed, so you could say you don’t need it anymore. But often when things get mainstreamed, they just get forgotten.

Can you provide an example of how Canada’s approach toward gender and development has changed?

You can see it in the Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health summit. The theme is “Saving Every Woman Every Child.” That’s an old-fashioned approach to the whole issue. That really is a charitable approach—that it’s up to us to save them. We’ve lost sight of the business of women’s rights and how they can actually work to save themselves. We’re not talking about rights anymore; we’re just talking about saving people who are in trouble.

Has Canada reverted to a paternalistic approach to development? How so?

The idea of saving every woman, every child…we’re not interested in the 18.5 million women in developing countries who experience an unsafe abortion every year, or the 50,000 who die in the process. So it’s not saving every woman and it’s not saving every child. You have young girls who have been forced into marriages and who are now at risk because they are pregnant and we’re not interested in them either. Or women who have been raped. Our approach does smack of selective paternalism. What do Canadians understand about development assistance? Is aid only about helping people in trouble? Or is it in Canada’s long-term self-interest to make sure that people can help themselves?

We get vast amounts of information about developing countries when there’s an emergency, a war or an earthquake. After that, information comes not so much from the media, but from NGOs that are raising money. How many NGOs say, ‘Give us $29 a month and we can take care of it for you?’ Child sponsorship works because you shorten the distance between the giver and receiver; it’s much easier for people to understand. But it’s 100% paternalistic. Where are the parents in this? The child is the symptom of the problem; the problem is the parents. They don’t have a job, don’t have land, don’t have education, don’t have health, can’t take care of the kids, or have been killed. We’ve really got to have a more adult conversation if you want a government that doesn’t do the exactly the same thing with its foreign aid program.

Looking ahead, where do you think Canada’s resources should be dedicated and where is Canada positioned to have the most impact?

The question is where are we spending our core funds. How do we pick these countries? Is our choice based on their need, or ours? Canada recently chopped aid to a lot of very poor countries in Africa.

At the same time, we opened new aid programs in Peru and Colombia—two middle-income countries where, coincidently, we’ve got a lot of mining interests. I think we have to be a little bit smarter about foreign aid than that. Canada can’t be like China. We’re not going to advance our commercial investments by throwing candy around. In any case, we don’t have the kind of candy that China does. Our companies abroad are going to do well based on the quality of what they do, the quality of their behaviour, not on whether Canada has an aid program to assist them.

The government talks about using the aid program to advance Canada’s strategic interests but they seem to limit their idea of strategic interests to economic interests. Do we have no interest in peace and development in very poor countries? I think we do. But we’ve ignored that and we focus primarily on the short-term imperative of making sure that we get ahead in the next quarter or the next year in Peru and Colombia.

If not Peru or Colombia, where should we be investing our resources?

I think we should be investing in some of those African countries we pulled out of; fragile states, like Sierra Leone, where we’ve never really had an aid program. We made a huge investment in Malawi, set up an embassy, and developed relationships and programs and then we cancelled it. Gone. We have no interest in Malawi anymore, nothing to say.

We leave it to NGOs and, even then, there’s no money these days for NGOs and certainly not for a country like Sierra Leone. We’re not really interested. We tend to crowd into what are called the “better performers,” the “aid darlings.” All the donors crowd into Ghana and Mozambique. Who’s paying attention to the fragile states like the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and Sierra Leone? Some of these places are desperately trying to claw their way out of 20 or 40 years of disasters. And we’re just not there.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.