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Mockingbird or Maverick?

Liam Swiss on why comparing Canada to other donor countries over a longer time period may reveal the motives of Canadian aid.

By: /
16 September, 2013
By: Liam Swiss
Assistant Professor, Memorial University

There is no consensus over the first principles of Canadian foreign aid. If anything, ideas about the principles of Canadian aid have become more fragmented in the recent past. Does Canada provide aid to help the neediest? Is Canada simply trying to ensure access for its multinational firms abroad? Is Canadian aid little more than a blunt tool of foreign policy?

These questions are at the heart of our understanding of the first principles of Canadian aid.  Indeed, the motives that underpin Canadian foreign aid have garnered significant attention in the media and the research literature in recent years.  Gone are the days when Canada would be identified as one among many states operating based on some moral vision of humanitarianism (Lumsdaine, 1993).  Running the gamut from humanitarian solidarity to the most capricious forms of national self-interest, Canada has been lumped into every category of donor depending on the perspective of the critic or author and the various incidents or cases studied (Brown, 2007; Morrison, 1998; Pratt, 1994b; Sumner, 2012; Swiss, 2011, 2012a, 2012b).  A common feature of these sorts of studies has been their use of comparative cases to situate Canada among other donors (Action Aid, 2010; Gulrajani, 2010).  By examining how Canada compares to other donor countries – often to the perceived ‘leading’ donors – analysts and critics alike point to positive behaviours or ‘best practices’ for Canada to emulate (Gulrajani, 2010; Pronk, 2001).   These comparisons have largely adopted qualitative, small-N, and cross-sectional (stationary in time) approaches to research, yielding recommendations for Canada based on a limited set of comparators and a short period of time.  From the perspective of trying to shape policy, these approaches are warranted, but what of larger questions of how and whom Canada resembles and/or emulates as a donor over time and what that tells us about Canadian motives for aid?  

This paper undertakes an exploratory analysis to examine that question using a novel quantitative approach with a large-N sample of bilateral aid flows over a fifty year time period.  By examining patterns of aid allocation longitudinally, I hope to reveal new information about where we can best situate Canada among other donors and discuss the implications of these findings for our understanding of the first principles of Canadian aid.

The jumping off point for this analysis is that by examining the allocation of Canadian aid we learn something more about the motives and first principles that underpin it.  By following the flow of money, and not just the press releases, policy statements, or country strategies developed by donors, we can use a macro perspective to learn how a donor allocates funds on the global level and what this indicates about a country’s aid.  In the case of Canada, this paper will use aid allocation patterns to do two things: (1) discern which other donor countries Canada’s aid allocation most closely resemble over time to identify which countries and, in turn, motives Canada may be emulating in its aid practices; and (2) examine several key factors underpinning the provision of aid to recipient countries on a dyadic basis to highlight the motives which drive Canadian aid relationships over time.

Mockingbird or maverick?

Is Canada a maverick in terms of the factors it prioritizes when identifying aid partners? Or does it simply mimic the rest of the donor herd to decide upon its aid allocation?  Arguably, my findings suggest that though the donors which Canada has most closely resembled have varied over time, it still has patterns of aid allocation that make it more of a mockingbird than a maverick.  Indeed, in recent years, the extent to which Canada’s aid network closely resembles other donors is on the increase. Thus, although there was a point in time when Canada’s aid allocation was most similar to the so-called like-minded donors, that era seems to have passed and in the most recent years it has returned to the UK and USA as donors with which its aid allocation is most aligned.

This finding suggests a possible shift in the first principles of Canadian aid away from helping the neediest in an altruistic fashion to a more self-interested and commercially driven form of aid. Yet, in my cross-national analysis of the criteria most closely associated with the provision of aid by Canada the self-interested factors seem less central.  Only in the full Canadian sample over time does trade appear to significantly increase the odds of receiving aid from Canada.  When broken down into decades, this pattern dissipates, and the effects of total trade are no longer significant.

This raises a possible contradiction or limitation within my study.  The assumption that I can discern motive or principles from Canada’s aid allocation based on which countries its aid network is most similar to takes for granted that Canada would be aiding recipient countries for the same motives as other donors in each case.  This may not be the case.  Perhaps Canada provides aid to country X not because of a past colonial tie or a high level of trade between countries, and instead is doing it purely out of need.  These sorts of contradictions are more difficult to discern at the macro level and require a more detailed country-by-country micro-level analysis to flesh out specific motives.  Still, I believe my study, exploratory though it is, sheds new light on Canadian aid allocation over time and how we can use that allocation to begin to better understand the first principles of Canadian aid. 

Though it is not a satisfying conclusion in terms of identifying any one principle underpinning Canadian aid, I would argue that this paper provides definitive empirical evidence of the shifting and varied nature of the first principles of Canadian aid over time.  Rather than simply assuming that Canada’s aid might have a constant first principle, my findings here suggest that Canada can be both mockingbird and maverick at different points in time by emulating certain donors and allocating aid based on different criteria than the rest of the donor community at other points in time.  The value of a long period of study with a larger number of data points like that I have employed in this paper is that, rather than the short term cross-sectional approach more common to the Canadian aid literature, we can come to realize that there is very little constant about Canadian aid.  It is this ever-changing aspect of Canadian aid programs and allocation that I would argue require future researchers to continue to undertake crucial empirical analysis – even of the exploratory kind – using a wide array of data over a long period time.  Only by examining Canada’s aid programs over the long term can something that might appear static be recast as a phenomenon that is dynamic and changing. Indeed, only through this sort of research will we learn that the frequent shifts and changes that we witness from year to year in policy, programming, and priorities for Canadian aid are just as likely to alter the first principles of aid as to make them persist.

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


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Swiss, L. (2012b). Gender, Security, and Instrumentalism: Canada’s Foreign Aid in Support of National Interest? In S. Brown (Ed.), Struggling for Effectiveness: CIDA and Canadian Foreign Aid (pp. 135-158). Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

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