The Cost of Ad Hoc Aid

David Hornsby on how uncertainty and inconsistency are undermining Canada's aid policy.
By: /
April 22, 2013
Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Assistant Dean of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

Canada has a strong record of providing assistance for combating poverty and underdevelopment. Particularly in Africa, Canada maintains a positive reputation on the continent as a partner in development with no colonial legacy. In a region where traditional colonial relations are still apparent and sensitivities exist, this makes Canada an influential force. Indeed, Canada’s role on the continent is impressive. In 2011 Canadian official development assistance (ODA) reached every Sub-Saharan African country with the exception of Mayotte, St Helena, Seychelles, and Mauritius (the 2012 data is not available yet via the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)). But recent policy approaches surrounding ODA threaten Canada’s current position. 

Recent decisions to focus our aid into a set of priority countries, and merge the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) have caused a great deal of concern. Not because the merging of institutions or focusing aid is necessarily bad, but because many are uncertain of how the Harper government prioritizes foreign aid and development assistance. Uncertainty in a time when a whole whack of emerging donors are coming onto the scene is the exact opposite of what Canadian aid policy needs.

Indeed, it appears the Harper government's typical approach to the distribution of aid  is ad hoc, quick, and often unexpected. The decision toremove Canada from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, a treaty which sought to address a key root of poverty and underdevelopment and cost the government only $200,000 per year to be part of, is a case in point. The seemingly constant change in ‘countries of focus’ for Canadian ODA causes confusion and uncertainty. Now with the recent announcement that Canada will donate $5 million in support of the worthy G8 initiative to eliminate sexual violence in conflict zones, many are wondering where Canada is going with its approach to aid and how this fits with current priorities.

Canada’s ODA envelope currently sits at approximately $5 billion. This is an impressive sum on its own, but taken as a portion of our Gross National Income (GNI) it only represents 0.34 per cent and falls far short of the UN goal of 0.7 per cent. Canada is an under-performer amongst other middle powers like Sweden, whose ODA represents 1.02 per cent of GNI in 2011, or Norway who sits at 1.00 per cent. Amongst fellow G8 countries, Canada is in the middle of the pack or thereabouts, with the U.K. committing to achieve the UN target this year and Japan falling way back at 0.18 per cent of GNI according OECD figures (the U.S. sits at 0.20 per cent). Unfortunately, however, it looks like Canada’s middle-of-the-pack status amongst the G8 won’t be maintained, and that its importance as a middle power donor relative to others will almost evaporate. In a CCIC analysis of government budget plans, it is noted that the ODA allotment will drop to 0.21 per cent of GNI by 2015-16. This will put Canada in the region of Japan and Italy, moving us further away from the U.S., France, and the U.K. This just simply does not make practical sense and will most certainly affect the ability of Canada to advance its own economic interests abroad in the future.

Why is this the case? Why is the government letting an important part of its international reputation slip? Why is an integral part of Canada’s foreign economic diplomacy being disregarded? What ever happened to Canada’s commitment to the Millennium Development Goals? It seems that this approach is part of the Harper government's grand plan. Indeed, the writing was on the wall back when the Update on Economic and Fiscal Projections was released in 2010, when it was decided to cap ODA at 2010-11 levels for the foreseeable future. This set the stage for the declining numbers as the buying power of the funds allotted from our GNI effectively decreases as inflation grows.

To justify the cap, buzz words like ‘aid effectiveness’, and ‘countries of focus’ have been thrown around – they are meant to suggest that when a level of efficiency and prudence is applied, Canadian tax dollars will go farther and do more for development. But it really seems that the opposite has been true.

This doesn’t mean that the Harper government has not made worthwhile attempts to demonstrate its sense of international obligation; many can remember the prime minister's announcement at the 2010 World Economic Forum in Davos of a commitment to maternal, newborn, and child health. Also during Harper's tenure, aid has been ‘untied’ and dollar amounts to Sub-Saharan Africa have increased. 

But these achievements fall flat when ad hoc political intervention ends up constraining and impairing Canada’s ability to meet established obligations and commitments to poverty reduction in general. 

For example, such prime ministerial interventions as the one over the aforementioned maternal, newborn, and child health when announced have not come with additional funds but rather at the expense of Canada’s committed priorities to address poverty. This announcement caught many at CIDA by surprise and left officials scrambling to figure out how to address the gap. In the context of the ODA cap at 2010-11 numbers, this effectively means, as David Black notes, that “effort to make progress on maternal and child health comes effectively at the expense of a broader commitment toward poverty reduction, and thus the systemic underpinnings from which both maternal and child-health failures arise and on which sustainable progress needs to be built.”

This is a real problem and a source of fear for those interested in Canadian development assistance activities as the ad hoc initiatives are done at the expense of, not in addition to, our international development assistance efforts. One only hopes that Canada’s recent commitment to the G8 initiative to eliminate sexual violence in conflict zones doesn't conflict with existing priorities, and comes with new money for Canadian aid so as not to further dilute our poverty reduction efforts.

In an era when Canadian aid value is declining, policy needs to be targeted, effective, and transparent. Careful planning is thus required. To achieve ‘effectiveness’ in development assistance, commitment and consistency – not ad hoc interventions – should be the norm.

Also in the series


The 0.7% Promise

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The Plumpy’Nut Story

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Trade Has a Place in Canada’s Foreign Aid Policy

Danielle Goldfarb on why Canada's aid policies need to better reflect the global economic reality.

A Guide to the Post-2015 Debates

Confused about who wants what in the sustainability debate? John McArthur considers the many dimensions of the discussion.

Look South for the Future of Aid

Robert Muggah and Jennifer Welsh question the accepted development assistance formula, and look south for answers.