Aid policy is being revamped yet again — to give it more relevance or resonance and presumably help justify its expense. Canada’s Minister of International Cooperation Julian Fantino has just announced that CIDA will deliver some of its aid in partnership with Canadian mining companies who do business overseas.
Although this is precisely what other nations, like Britain, are doing already, there has been a predictable chorus of outrage by critics who believe that the delivery of foreign aid should be “untainted” by any association with business.
As with many things, Canadians tend to be more idealistic about foreign aid in principle than they are about paying the freight to sustain it. Those who want to ‘bring more Canada to the world’ support the concept of development assistance without question and without much thought about the effectiveness of what we’re doing abroad, let alone the relevance to our interests of what we do. There also is an inevitable contradiction between the values we espouse in the world and the question of how, or whether, what we do serves tangible Canadian interests.
This circular and inconclusive debate notwithstanding, development assistance should be designed and implemented as an instrument of Canadian foreign policy. Determinations of what we do and where we should do it ought to be made on the basis of what we do best, where it can be effective and whether it is consistent with the basic objectives of our foreign policy.
To the extent that closer links to the private sector engender better performance and more objective evaluations of effectiveness, they should be applauded. Giving Canadians tangible evidence of what works, and what does not, can only bolster public support and confidence in the development assistance enterprise which, as polls consistently show, only has tepid support among Canadians.
Canadian officials and those responsible for aid delivery would do well to examine other models of aid delivery. The Gates Foundation, among others, has established an enviable record for the most part with the kind of programs it supports and, more importantly, with the extraordinary discipline, rigour and focus it exercises in the delivery of its assistance programs in the developing world. The Foundation’s commitment to innovation, program integrity and dialogue is also instructive.
There is a perennial debate on allocations between multilateral and bilateral programs. In 2002, CIDA joined other donors in formally committing Canada to structuring development assistance around program-based approaches in order to improve coordination, avoid duplication of effort and achieve greater efficiency. The idea that donors should work together through multilateral channels to allocate aid, identify and select countries where it is needed most, and develop programming priorities seemed a good way to depoliticize development assistance and ensure that programs are locked into long-term partnerships and commitments. This new thrust enjoyed the support of the Department of Finance, which has the whip hand on basic development assistance allocations.
But what seemed good in theory has had an uneven record in practice. International institutions have varying degrees of competence when it comes to delivery and administrative overhead. Promoting effective coordination among different donors is like herding cats. With these allocations, there also has been less direct accountability, less precision on effectiveness and even less relevance to Canada’s national interests — unless, of course, support for multilateralism is viewed as an end in itself rather than a means to an end.
On bilateral aid programming, much emphasis has been placed of late on “capacity building” — the theory being that better training yields better governance. If only it were that straightforward. In Afghanistan, a major recipient of Canadian aid for the past decade, the record is decidedly mixed. Corruption there is endemic and can be cancerous when it comes to dispensing economic assistance, no matter how detailed the procedures.
In most receiving countries, corruption is regrettably a chronic fact of life. We should not shy away from rigorous conditionality or withholding our assistance if local authorities fail to clean up their act. That, too, is a clear lesson from the Gates Foundation.
The key goal of development assistance reform should be to keep it simple. Education, health, and the alleviation of poverty offer an umbrella under which Canadian assistance can be tailored, concentrated and measured, as we have seen with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs should be the bedrock of our development programming. They are also areas in which Canada has real expertise and where our private sector’s skill set can be a bonus.
To sustain public support for the programs we sponsor, CIDA must, above all, show that it is providing tangible benefits to aid recipients reflecting both our values and our interests. That is the real measure of Canada’s aid effectiveness.