McLeod Group Blog

Out of Focus: Canadian Aid Merry-Go-Round

Out of Focus: Canadian Aid Merry-Go-Round

McLeod Group Blog, July 4, 2014

To the extent that any of them take Canada seriously as an aid donor, our ‘focus’ countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America must be tearing their metaphorical hair out. Long criticized by the OECD for spreading Canadian aid too thin and over too many countries, the Harper government cut the number in 2009 from 25 to 20. Out went eight very poor countries in Africa and two in Asia. Perhaps thinking nobody was watching, the government also added two new countries, Peru and Colombia, neither of them anywhere near the definition of poor. But hey, we have commercial interests in both places and at the time we were looking to sign free trade deals with both of them.

After five years of ‘focus’, the deck has been shuffled again. Out goes Pakistan—probably too difficult. And out goes Bolivia—probably too uppity. Burkina Faso and Benin, dropped in 2009, are inexplicably back. And a few more have been added: Philippines, Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar (a.k.a. Burma), Jordan and Mongolia. Mongolia?? Of course, Mongolia. Although not a very poor country, Mongolia hosts a whack of Canadian mining and exploration companies. CIDA Minister Bev Oda (our lady of the orange juice), was sent there to do a little mining in 2011 and Governor General David Johnson went on a state visit in 2013. The arrival of a Canadian aid program was pretty much a sure bet after that.

The word ‘focus’ is used 13 times in the brief government press release announcing an increase by 25% in the number of countries where Canada will now, um, focus. The problem with all this focus—or rather defocus—is that if you want to do anything serious with the money, it takes time to develop the kind of programs the Harper government keeps talking about. You know, the ones that deliver real results. Impact. Good projects can be shut down lickety-split—as in Burkina Faso and Benin five years ago—but starting up an effective development partnership that is country-driven isn’t so easy. And then there’s the issue of our rapidly declining development cooperation budget. The jam was going to be spread thinner across the old list of countries; now it will be even thinner.

Then there’s the problem of situational ethics. Not only did Mr. Harper refuse to attend the last Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka because of that country’s human rights record (he cut off the aid program there in 2009), he slashed funding to the Commonwealth Secretariat for not doing something about it. (Note: ASEAN, NATO and the Moose Jaw City Council have also done nothing about it.) Mr. Harper did go to the 2012 Francophonie summit in Kinshasa, however. He expressed Canada’s ‘grave’ concerns about human rights violations there, and that must have worked, because now DRC is on the A-List. Having vast natural resources of interest to Canadian companies can’t have hurt.

The B-List, what are called ‘development partners’ (formerly known as ‘countries of modest presence’), has been enhanced by the addition of Iraq. Whew! Lucky Iraq. And not a moment too soon.

None of this is to say that DRC, Benin, Burkina Faso and other poor countries shouldn’t receive well-directed, well-managed Canadian assistance. But given Canada’s merry-go-round, roller-coaster approach, it’s hard to see how that will happen, especially when it’s so painfully obvious that the Harper government is doing exactly what it promised to do last year when it launched its Global Markets Action Plan: ‘ensur[ing] that all of Canada’s diplomatic assets are harnessed to support the pursuit of commercial success by Canadian companies and investors.’

The reality is that when you use the aid program to grease commercial wheels, any kind of idiosyncratic project will do.

Given the constantly changing list of ‘priority’ countries, whatever projects DFATD comes up with this time should probably have shortish time frames so the money can be diverted to our next bunch of new best friends in another few years.