McLeod Group Blog

The International Assistance Review: What They Heard

The International Assistance Review: What They Heard

McLeod Group Blog by Stephen Brown, December 19, 2016

After completing its large-scale consultations as part of its International Assistance Review, Global Affairs Canada (GAC) recently published online a summary entitled “What we heard”. The review was a welcome opportunity for interested parties across Canada and around the world to express their views. GAC engaged over 15,000 people and organizations in 65 countries and received over 10,000 contributions. The task of collating all the information they received was colossal—and it is particularly praiseworthy that they took the unprecedented step of making a summary of the recommendations available to the public.

The document contains a very comprehensive list of suggestions, the vast majority of which the McLeod Group wholeheartedly embraces. To name a few: the adoption of a human rights-based approach to development and the use of a feminist lens, the decentralization of decision-making to the field, and a dramatic increase in the official development assistance budget to reach 0.7% of gross national income.

It is important to remember, however, that this document sums up what the government heard. It does not necessarily reflect what it intends to do. For instance, the consultation discussion paper tried to pre-empt the debate by calling the 0.7% objective “unrealistic”, so we can’t expect that recommendation to be followed. More likely is a symbolic but noncommittal return of this goal for the long term, which has been the position of every single Canadian government since 1970, except for the Harper government in its latter years. Many terrific ideas will not find their way into the actual policy, which is expected by the end of March.

What follows are some of the issues we found problematic, underspecified or missing. We hope that by raising these issues we can encourage the government to give them greater consideration and ensure that they are addressed in the final policy document.

A major concern is that the relationship between international assistance and other policy areas is far too vague. Several mentions are made of the need “to build greater complementarity among Canadian policies and initiatives in the fields of defence, trade, diplomacy, security and development.” It remains unclear, though, if development concerns will have a significant influence on the other areas, or whether aid will continue to reflect Canadian political and commercial self-interest, a major problem since the 1950s. The government has other means to advance other agendas and should not use development assistance funds for such purposes.

The mentions of the private sector, new finance mechanisms and the extractive sector are particularly worrisome in that respect. They could well have been written by the Harper government and surely do not reflect what the majority of submissions argued or the strong concerns that were undoubtedly expressed. These are worrisome hints of “business as usual” in this area.

Part of the problem is that the government is conducting its international assistance review without a broader foreign policy review. Without greater guidance on how aid and development fit into an overarching vision of Canada’s role in the world, development assistance remains too vulnerable to hijacking for other purposes.

The discussion paper and recommendations emphasize a “Made in Canada” perspective. But Canadian efforts to fight poverty and inequality can only be effective if they are aligned with developing countries’ own priorities and carried out in conjunction with other actors. The world cannot hope to come anywhere close to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals if countries like Canada are fixated on flying their own flag. We hope the final policy document will better reflect these principles and also address multilateral aid, which makes up about one third of the government’s aid spending, yet is mentioned only once in passing in the account of what they heard. Similarly, Canada should do more to ensure that the voices from the Global South—including from civil society—are heard on issues related to development, humanitarian assistance, and in international organizations.

We were also struck by how frequently the summary refers to aspirations for Canadian leadership—from water and waste management to building and sustaining peace. More humility is required. GAC and its predecessors, CIDA and DFAIT, were severely and systematically deskilled and under-resourced over the past decade. To be blunt, the government has lost a lot of expertise through retirements, attrition and budget cuts. It is unrealistic to assume that Canada can burst forth onto the international scene and claim leadership without first rebuilding, relearning and re-engaging. Claims to the mantle of leadership will also lack credibility if we refuse to lead by example and continue to be laggards when it comes to providing the necessary finance.