Contribution to foreign aid falls short

Canada continues to fall short of the 0.7 per cent GDP benchmark for foreign aid set by Lester B. Pearson’s Commission on International Development in 1969, and last week’s announcement that Canada will freeze its foreign aid budget for the next five years suggests that the Pearson benchmark will not be met in the foreseeable future.

“The benchmark has been around since 1969 and no government in Canada has ever come closer than just over 0.5 per cent of GDP, so this government is just carrying on a long line of failure,” noted Professor David Black, the director of the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at the University of Dalhousie.

While Black emphasized that a malaise in foreign aid spending is not unique to Harper’s conservative caucus, and that “the most Draconian cuts in the history of the Canadian aid program came under the Chretien liberal government in the early to mid 1990s”, he believes that current Canadian leadership is particularly disinterested in foreign development.
“I think one thing that is a bit different about this government is that on the whole I would say that they are relatively skeptical about the utility of foreign aid; they tend to think that for the most part it has limited or even negative effects,” said Black.

It is a skepticism which has begat a series of policy reforms in Canada’s approach towards aid assistance with an increasing emphasis on accountability and transparency in spending. Under the leadership of Conservative member of parliament (MP) Beverly Oda, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) introduced an “effectiveness agenda” which stressed a focus on immediate and measurable results.

In a 2009 press address, Oda commented on the importance of efficiency saying, “Aid can — and must — work better. With greater efficiency, focus and accountability, our government’s new approach to Canadian aid will be even more effective.”

A prioritized emphasis on focused initiatives has seen a marked commitment towards specific and often short-term aid goals. Ottawa sent over $400 million in aid to Haiti earthquake relief in early 2010, $40 million towards Pakistani flood relief and during this summer’s G20 summit, Stephen Harper introduced a maternal and child health initiative, pledging $1.1 billion over the next five years.

With a frozen budget, it is money which will likely come from existing commitments.

The initiative has been met critically by those such as David Black.

“In itself, it’s a laudable thing, but if it’s done in the context of the flat lining of aid overall then the impact of maternal and child health spending is going to be significantly compromised.”
Black argued that the recent prioritization of “effectiveness” may actually be a counter-productive strategy, when the demand for measurable short-term results sacrifices long-term, sustainable development.

“Our obsession with being able to track where specific Canadian dollars go makes it more difficult for CIDA to co-operate effectively in multi-donor arrangements” he said, referring to the importance of co-ordination in international aid efforts.

“There’s a way in which the current preoccupation with accountability in the narrow Canadian sense may actually be at odds with the broader efforts of the [international] aid community to coordinate more effectively.”

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