Julian Fantino’s challenge as CIDA’s new Minister for International Cooperation is to put Canada’s aid policies and priorities in simple language that ordinary Canadians can understand.

Let’s start with Fantino’s main clients, the Canadian public. Polls show that public support for overseas development assistance (ODA) is shallow rather than deep. Canadians are a generous people and the public supports assistance to the poor and needy, especially in times of crisis. However, those same surveys show that Canadians harbor real doubts about the effectiveness of aid with some believing that it does not make much of a difference to poor countries and others believing that it is used for self-serving purposes.

Over the past four decades, there has also been steady erosion in the importance assigned to ODA as a top international priority, from 60 percent in the 1970s to slightly above 20 percent in the last decade. To quote Ian Smillie, one Canada’s aid gurus, the perception is that aid “is being wasted by bureaucrats and dictators alike.”

Why is public support not what is once was? Is it simply aid fatigue? I think not. The real reason is that CIDA — and its OECD development agency counterparts — have lost the bigger political narrative about aid effectiveness.

CIDA’s own description on its website about where aid dollars get spent is neither convincing nor compelling. It fails to answer the big question: Are countries where Canada spends ODA succeeding in terms of basic indicators such as GDP growth, per capita income, trade and investment, and social development?

ODA has become an easy target for aid critics because it does not address the big picture. CIDA may be winning skirmishes as it champions the success of specific projects, while helping particular constituencies and members of vulnerable groups, but it is losing the war for the hearts and minds of Canadians.

Lower Income Countries (LICs) are understandably the target of ODA, but in foreign policy terms some of the most politically troublesome and unstable states are Middle Income Countries and Lower Middle Income Countries where there are wide disparities in wealth and income between different regions, lack of state control over areas where there are local insurgencies, and chronic corruption and enduring state failure. These countries, many in the Muslim world, are generally ineligible for development assistance according to basic poverty-level benchmarks.

The poverty alleviation narrative is also less persuasive as the actual number of LICs continues to shrink. China and Índia, which on a per capita basis aren’t major aid recipients, have lifted themselves out of the poverty trap by their own bootstraps and opening their markets to the global economy.

Changing development fashions also contribute to the confusion.

In the 1960s and 1970s, development was about “spanners,” supporting major infrastructure programs in developing countries so that they could attain the “takeoff” speed for growth.

In the 1980s it shifted to “spoons,” providing assistance to the poor, addressing the needs of especially vulnerable groups (women and children), and focusing on the delivery of basic public services (e.g., health and education).

In the 1990s, the wheel turned to “spigots,” i.e., public sector outputs and the requirements of good governance, hence the focus on improving systems of public finance in developing countries, providing budgetary support, and strengthening systems of accountability, ending corruption, and promoting democracy, and the rule of law.

At the beginning of this century, donors began to pay much greater attention to “springs,” namely, how to make things happen through the multilateral system via improved donor coordination, stronger partnerships between donors and recipients, program-based approaches, and greater coherence between aid and non-aid policies in trade, investment, and technology transfer.

In the second decade of this century, the wheel is spinning again with the introduction of “new” concepts such as “inclusive and outcome-oriented development,” “productive employment”,” growth poles,” and “structural transformation.” To ordinary Canadians this is gobbledy-gook. Novelty and academic fashion has replaced common sense.

CIDA will be pegged with the moniker of failure unless Mr. Fantino can explain why we are spending billions in simple language and concepts that Canadians can understand.

Fen Osler Hampson is a Distinguished Fellow and Director of Global Security at The Centre for International Governance Innovation. He is also Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University. He is the author of nine books and editor/co-editor of more than 25 other volumes on international affairs and Canadian foreign policy.


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