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Why Aid?

Dominic H. Silvio explores the extent to which Canadian attitudes toward foreign aid influence government policy.

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16 September, 2013
By: Dominic H. Silvio

There is now a rich vein of polling information, going back at least three decades, on what Canadians think about foreign aid. While many of the findings appear somewhat contradictory or ambiguous, there is good evidence that a majority of Canadians support development aid programme as has been demonstrated by this study. This general support and its specificities fluctuate somewhat, depending on feelings of confidence in the economy and according to trends and issues in the news, but in the main, support is steady and relatively high. Overall, despite the severity of the economic crisis, public support for development cooperation and the need to increase Canadian ODA remains high; around 61% of Canadians still believe development is important; while about 50% still believes in honouring or going beyond existing aid commitments to the developing world.  As Noel et al (2004) noted, the fact that public support for more generous levels of foreign aid is lower than the support for the very principle of development assistance is to be expected, since the commitment evoked in the budget increase question is more explicit and important. The gap between these two questions, however, indicates that the Canadian consensus over foreign aid is weaker and more fragile than what is often suggested.

In fact, there appears to be no correlation at all between public support for development aid and actual government ODA expenditure, which has shown some modest increases since 2009, although not to the expected rate. In agreement with other authors (e.g. Smillie) noted, two possible conclusions might be drawn from this apparent problem. The first is that public opinion means very little to governmental policy formulation where ODA is concerned, perhaps not surprisingly in light of Canadian public opinion, which consistently gives the government a high performance rating on the aid file, while assigning it the lowest priority among both domestic and foreign policy issues. Another is that public opinion, while widely supportive of issues such as development assistance, is not, in reality, very strong. Little protest has followed the frequent budget cuts. This might not have made any difference however. In recent years ODA has had to compete with large cuts in educational spending and health care in Canada, where protests have been loud and organized, and equally ineffective. However, the decision of the government to eliminate roughly 7.5% or $377.6 million from international assistance envelope by 2015 will water down all these marginal achievements. In short, I find no decline in the level of support for both Canadian aid programme and the volume of ODA. Further, there is a general sense of positivism towards development aid.

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


Noël, A., Thérien, J. P., & Dallaire, S. (2004). Divided over internationalism: The Canadian

public and development assistance. Canadian Public Policy/Analyse De Politiques, 30(1), 29-46.

Smillie, I. (1998). Canada. In I. Smillie, T. German, J. Randel & H. Helmich (Eds.), Public

attitudes and international development co-operation (pp. 55-59). Paris: OECD.

(1998). Optical and other illusions: Trends and issues in public thinking about

development co-operation. In I. Smillie & H. Helmich, (Eds.), Public attitudes and international development co-operation (pp. . Paris: OECD.

(2003). Canada. In I. Mc Donnell, H.S. Lecomte & L. Wegimont (Eds.), Public opinion

and the fight against poverty (pp. 73-80). Paris: Development Centre of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

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