Refashioning Humane Internationalism in 21st Century Canada

Adam Chapnick on how to better integrate the spirit of altruistic humanitarianism into Canada’s international policy.
By: /
September 16, 2013
Deputy Director of Education and an Associate Professor of Defence Studies at the Royal Military College of Canada

The recent merger of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) with what will now be known as the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development has been framed by Canada’s Conservative government as an effort to better align international development policy with Canadian national interests (Savage 2013).  Praised by some within and outside of Ottawa as long over-due, the decision has been criticized by others for its apparent dismissal of the moral or ethical obligations that many typically associate with foreign aid (Gulrajani 2013).  Indeed, even before the changes to CIDA were announced, one leading analyst had noted that, “Given the Canadian government’s growing focus on self-interest, rather than recipient countries’ priorities… it is not surprising that Canada has been slow to implement the more altruistic [italics added] elements of the aid effectiveness agenda” (Brown 2012, 8).

Balancing altruism with national self-interest has been a focus of critics of Canada’s official development assistance (ODA) policy for decades.  The political economist Cranford Pratt is one of many to have depicted the management of these potentially divergent priorities as a conflict between humane internationalists who understand the obligation of developed nations to help the poor help themselves in primarily ethical terms and international realists who maintain that states have to promote and protect their own interests at all costs regardless of whether their behaviour is consistent with ethical norms.  (Pratt 1989; Pratt 1990; Pratt 1994; Pratt 1999; Pratt 2000). 

Scholarship about the debate continues to proliferate, but only the humane internationalists seem to take it seriously.  To the international realists, one might infer, there is no conflict (nor has there ever been one), since the Canadian government’s foreign aid policy has always been more realistic than altruistic.  Even For Whose Benefit? The Report of the Standing Committee on External Affairs and International Trade on Canada’s Official Development Assistance Policies and Priorities, a 1987 document heralded by development activists as one of the most progressive assessments of Canadian policy in the post-Vietnam era (Pratt 1994), defined the national interest in not just humanitarian, but also political and economic terms (Winegard et al 1987).  And in the over twenty-five years since what has come to be known as the Winegard Report was released, Canadian international policy has rarely diverged from its more conservative inclinations (Chapnick 2005).  Nonetheless, the one-sided discussion endures.  As recently as 2010, academics David Black and Molly den Heyer (2010/2011, 20) wrote of a Canadian struggle “to reconcile a humane internationalist approach based on an ethical obligation to help alleviate global poverty with a realist approach seeking to deliver aid that supports business and political interests.”

There is no question that the humane internationalists are sincere, and that their case is, at one level, compelling.  But decades of failure to convince Canadian policy practitioners to inject a greater sense of altruism into the national attitude towards official development assistance begs the question of whether their campaign will ever be effective.  The answer, it appears, is probably not.  For one, the premise of the argument – that a humane internationalist / international realist dichotomy of views indeed exists – is misleading.  Second, by conflating two distinct elements of the Canadian aid agenda – emergency relief and development assistance – humane internationalists misrepresent the views of the realists.  In short, then, if the dispute isn’t legitimate, then surely it cannot be won.

There are four plausible motivations for framing the divergences in Canadian attitudes towards foreign aid in binary terms: Proponents of the idea could believe that the dichotomy is real; the strategic infrastructure of the humane internationalists’ advocacy programs could encourage such thinking; personal gain could be at stake; or the Canadian political atmosphere could condition such a black and white approach.  However credible or reasonable, not one of these explanations alters the basic truth: the Canadian public continues to demonstrate a poor understanding of foreign aid and therefore remains incapable of appreciating the importance of investing in poverty alleviation abroad; its support for development assistance is particularly fickle and shallow, leaving popular thinking more inclined to the realist framework; and the broader national commitment to poverty reduction efforts continues to rise and fall based on the strength of the Canadian economy rather than the needs of recipient states, once again running counter to best international practices.  While making no claims to the perfect solution to the humane internationalists’ challenge, this essay concludes with three actions that might better integrate the spirit of altruistic humanitarianism into Canada’s international policy.

This is an excerpt from a paper to be presented at the symposium “Rethinking Canadian Aid: Foundations, Contradictions and Possibilities”.


Black, David and Molly den Heyer. 2010/2011. “A Crisis of Conscience?” The Broker 23: 20-23.

Brown, Stephen. 2012. “Canadian Aid Enters the Twenty-first Century.” In Stephen Brown, ed., Struggling for Effectiveness: CIDA and Canadian Foreign Aid. Montreal and Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press. 3-23.

Chapnick, Adam. 2005. “Peace, Order and Good Government: The ‘conservative’ Tradition in Canadian Foreign Policy.” International Journal 60, no. 3: 635-50.

Gulrajani, Nilima. 2012. “Improving Canada’s Aid Performance as a Bilateral Donor: Assessing the Past and Building for the Future.” In Stephen Brown, ed., Struggling for Effectiveness: CIDA and Canadian Foreign Aid. Montreal and Kingston, ON: McGill Queen’s University Press. 53-78.

Pratt, Cranford. 1989. “Humane Internationalism: Its Significance and its Variants.” In Cranford Pratt, ed. Internationalism Under Strain: The North-South Policies of Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press. 3-23.

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Winegard, William et al. 1987. Or Whose Benefit? Report of the Standing Committee on External Affairs and International Trade on Canada’s Official Development Assistance Policies and Programs. Ottawa, ON: Queen’s Printer for Canada, May.