Canada has been actively involved in international development at the official level since the government of Louis St. Laurent helped create the Colombo Plan in 1950. Almost 60 years later, foreign aid advocates across the country remain critical of our development and reconstruction efforts.
Successive governments in Ottawa have promised improvements. In the 2005 international policy statement, the Liberals argued that “Canada has the capacity and the history to be among the best in the world in development, and Canadians support this priority.”
In their 2007 budget plan, the Conservatives said: “Canadians take pride in our role in reducing global poverty and contributing to international peace and security. Increasing the amount of resources that we make available for international assistance is a key element of that effort.”
If there is agreement that global poverty is a problem, and if our government is committed to improving the situation, why then do we continue to struggle to be effective?
Part of the answer is straightforward: our official approach has lacked focus and consistency.
The United Kingdom has transformed its Department for International Development in less than a decade through strong, determined leadership, support from the highest levels of government and a clear mandate.
Norway has enhanced the impact of its program dramatically by concentrating the bulk of its aid in just seven main countries.
Denmark has decentralized its aid delivery system, reducing administrative costs while improving policy coherence through greater ground-level understanding of recipient needs.
All three countries have also increased their monetary commitments to the developing world.
Canada needs much of the same: strong leadership at the highest levels, a clear mandate for the Canadian International Development Agency, a concentration of effort in a limited number of countries and sectors, a more rigorous ground-level approach to aid distribution, and a stable financial environment. The sticking point is mobilizing the political will necessary to make the changes.
In spite of the multitude of reasons to act, a lack of effective leadership has prevented successive governments from embracing and then following through on the strategies necessary to succeed.
Real progress will not be achieved without a strong minister able to build firm support among cabinet colleagues and the other parties.
Parliament as a whole must aim for consistency with the spirit of the OECD’s Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, while ensuring that any progress made is sustainable in the face of changes to our political and economic circumstances.
Rather than blaming CIDA for a series of failures for which responsibility should be shared more broadly, the agency might be instructed to institute meaningful, but moderate, internal reforms with the goal of restoring the public and political trust necessary to undertake the bolder and potentially more expensive reforms – such as putting more people in the field – gradually.
Canada must continue to reduce the number of its aid partners significantly and select specific recipients based on their expressed interest in areas of Canadian strategic specialization.
It is easy to declare that global poverty alleviation is a national interest that must be pursued with vigour. Our history of underachievement suggests it is difficult to implement a strategy to do so.
It is time for an empowered minister of international co-operation to step up and be counted.
Adam Chapnick is deputy director of education and research at the Canadian Forces College. This piece is based on his article, Canada’s Aid Program: Still Struggling After Sixty Years, that will appear as part of the Canadian International Council’s Behind the Headlines series in June.