Beyond the Echo Chamber

Liam Swiss on why a real "new Canadian aid conversation" will be one that grows to include critical voices from across the political spectrum.
By: /
August 1, 2013
Assistant Professor, Memorial University

John McArthur’s call for a new Canadian aid conversation clearly outlines the common myths, past experiences, and a well-articulated way forward for Canadian aid at a critical juncture in time.  In particular, the third part of McArthur’s series lays out an ambitious set of aims to help “Canadian society to tackle the country’s long-term global development responsibilities more seriously.”  This is a laudable goal.  Most would agree that Canada needs to think more on how it engages on issues of development. Such discussions should extend beyond the traditional confines of development aid, and McArthur rightly highlights some features in his slate of shifts and opportunities that show the extent to which we must think outside the aid box. If Canadians from many sectors pull together and have the sort of conversation McArthur convokes, I have little doubt that a more constructive, effective, and strategic Canadian approach to development could emerge.  Where my doubts grow, however, is when we consider the question of whether an inclusive conversation is likely to happen anytime soon in Canada.  More to the point, what will prevent it from being yet another echo chamber conversation among the usual suspects of the Canadian development scene?

As most development enthusiasts and professionals well know, it is not difficult to bring together a group of like-minded individuals and organizations in Canada and arrive at conclusions that might closely parallel the aims and objectives that McArthur outlines.  There may be some debate on the finer points of strategy and mechanics of Canadian development engagement, but, on the whole, support for a refined form of Canadian development engagement would likely emerge. 

To achieve a revolutionary shift in how Canada and Canadians engage the developing world, such an in-group conversation is insufficient.  A true dialogue, inclusive equally of aid enthusiasts and critics, cross-partisan politically, and incorporating voices of Canadians who might not deal with development issues in their day-to-day lives would be more desirable to achieve the sorts of important shifts that McArthur outlines in his series.

Is an open and engaging dialogue of this sort possible?  When Canada’s current government has sidelined its critics in the development sector by cutting their funding, has been less-than-forthcoming about the decision-making around such decisions, and has taken Canadian development assistance down a path which has garnered only narrow support from the Canadian development community, it is difficult to see how an open and honest dialogue about key changes to Canada’s development engagement might occur.  Likewise, when the entirety of the Canadian official aid architecture is being remolded with little open consultation about the motivations and or means by which it is to be reshaped, the likelihood of fostering a transparent and constructive dialogue about the future of Canada’s aid and beyond seems low at best.  Even if Canada’s aid community comes together and produces the best possible strategy for Canadian engagement on development using the most cutting edge analysis and evidence, its odds of falling on deaf ears with the current government seems high. 

Likewise, without bringing in groups and individuals outside the usual development community, a discussion which starts to generate momentum for broader meaningful change on Canada’s part about how it engages on development issues is likely to face significant challenges.  Without revisiting issues around subsidies, trade regulations and restrictions, labour conditions, arms trade, human rights, and environmental standards, Canada cannot begin to consider a more responsible approach to supporting development globally.  This means that Canadians with interests affected by these and other issues must be at the table for any sort of truly inclusive new conversation on Canadian aid and beyond. What incentives can be offered to bring these people to the table?

Arguably, Canadians must do a better job of understanding how all we do has development implications in a globalized world and then demand a more responsible and strategic engagement with development from our governments, corporations, and other groups in society.  The political will generated by such demands appears lacking in Canada currently.  No recent government and few corporations appear willing to make taking greater responsibility for supporting development a plank in their platforms or work. Making development a central concern of Canadian society’s relationship with the rest of the world must extend beyond simply using development assistance to shore up Canadian interests and certainly requires something more than an enlightened self-interest that argues we protect ourselves by helping others.

I do not have the answers about how best to catalyze a shift within Canada such that broad support for a strategic and constructive approach to development could emerge from a conversation of the sort McArthur is advocating.  I do not know how best to bring the right people into the conversation. But, without broadening the scope of those involved and ensuring that all the key players are genuinely willing to work towards a common aim, I fear that such a conversation will fall on deaf ears if it fails to move beyond the echo chamber.

Also in the series


Sustaining Development

OpenCanada talked to Nina Munk about Jeffrey Sachs, the Millennium Villages, and measuring the effectiveness of aid.

Rethinking Canadian Aid

An introduction to the "Rethinking Canadian Aid" symposium, a conversation about foundations, contradictions, and possibilities for Canadian aid.

A Healthier Approach to Canadian Aid

Prabhat Jha on how Canada can do more to help save lives around the world.