Results, Risk, Rhetoric, and Reality

Ian Smillie on why when it comes to development assistance, Canada needs to plan smarter rather than just plan more.
By: /
September 16, 2013

Nobody should be surprised that foreign aid hasn’t done a great deal to reduce deeply entrenched poverty. Most of the money hasn’t been spent on that. Andrew Natsios could have been referring to Canada’s aid program when he wrote, ‘The command and control system for foreign aid programs is out of control… it is uncoordinated and undisciplined; driven by a set of dysfunctional regulatory incentives that focus oversight on the wrong issues; done in a highly politicized setting; and has become a major impediment to aligning good development practice with the best research on good development theory.[i]

There is plenty of evidence, however, from projects where poverty reduction is front and centre, that aid can and does work. The answer to change will not be found in submitting development planning to ever-more draconian planning. Some of what needs doing—by front-line practitioners and policy makers alike--is simple common sense:


  • Observe the ODA Accountability Law. If the objective of the aid program is to reduce poverty, ODA must focus on poor people in poor countries and on things that will make a difference in their lives. If private sector development is deemed to be a solution, then whatever plan is developed should include verifiable indicators that will show it is delivering the intended results. If Canadian companies need help abroad, use trade promotion budgets, not ODA;

  • Deal with risk, embrace failure and learn from it. The problem here lies not so much in developing countries as it does with the media, politicians and the voting Canadian public. Many Canadians no longer believe the hype, the endless success stories and revisionist data. Far too many think that ‘aid doesn’t work’ or ‘the money never gets there.’ It’s time to start treating the media, politicians and the public like adults, finding ways to explain how inherently difficult development is, and letting them in on the importance of, and the difficulty in ending poverty;

  • Decentralize. When he was President of CIDA, Marcel Massé tried decentralization, but it was costly; a lot of senior managers at headquarters wouldn’t go, and they wouldn’t let go either. When she was CIDA minister, Bev Oda promised to decentralize but she tightened the hatches until the pips squeaked. If you can’t put decision-makers close to the shop floor, the product will always look like it came from Gosplan;

  • Get off the tarmac. This is an old Robert Chambers idea.[ii] If decision-makers want to understand something about development—and especially about poverty—they have to get away from cities and paved highways; they have to get out to where the problem is; they have to understand, and they have to empathize. It’s a bit like decentralization, but it is the necessary extra mile;

  • Build knowledge. Some of this will come from getting people into the field and off the tarmac; reward people who can think; encourage discussion and debate; make development the priority rather than the command-and-control audit culture;

  • Remember. Knowledge is only useful if it is remembered and applied. Far too many people in the development business think the world began the day they arrived. Aid administrators have an obligation to learn from experience and to build on it;

  • Expand the time horizon. Serious development efforts take time. Do more ex post facto evaluations; re-evaluate some ‘successful’ projects a few years after completion; think five years instead of two; ten years instead of five;

  • Cut the paper work. Even the Auditor General—responsible for many of the problems inherent in the passion for results—has criticized CIDA for the incredible weight of its bureaucracy;[iii]

  • Speed it up. Reduce the paper work (worth repeating), cut the levels of decision-making; increase the spending authority of people on the front line.

Most of this is simple common sense, but in a world of development assistance where so little common sense is available, even some would go a long way.

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


[i] Natsios Andrew , ‘The Clash of the Counter-bureaucracy and Development’, Center for Global Development, 2010, p. 68

[ii] See Robert Chambers, Rural Development: Putting the Last First, Longman Scientific & Technical, Burnt Mill, 1983; especially the section on ‘Practical appraisal for outsiders,’ p. 198

[iii] In its 2009 report on CIDA, the Auditor General had an entire section devoted to how ‘Burdensome administrative processes hamper effective decision making.’ See http://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/internet/English/parl_oag_200911_08_e_33209.html