Why does Canada's foreign aid policy keep stumbling?

The killing of civilians has cast a pall over the government of Abiy Ahmed, the world's biggest recipient of Canadian aid. So far this century, Canada has already backed two countries as its top aid recipients — Haiti and Afghanistan — that are now seen as aid failures. We look at the five countries that have received the most Canadian money since 2000.

Claims of 'atrocities' in top aid recipient Ethiopia a setback for aid program that's placed some losing bets

Cpl. Brian Keene, of the force protection team at the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team, chats with an Afghan boy at the Teacher Training College in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Wednesday, July 22, 2009. (Dene Moore/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's last overseas trip before the pandemic struck was to Africa.

His first stop was Ethiopia, the top recipient of Canadian aid in the world. There he praised Nobel Peace Prize winner President Abiy Ahmed, citing his "leadership," the reforms he had brought forward and the way the PM saw the president "pulling Ethiopians together."

This month, Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau had to call his Ethiopian counterpart to express "Canada's deep concern regarding credible reports of human rights violations and abuses" in the Tigray region.

Far from "pulling Ethiopians together," Abiy now stands accused by human rights groups of allowing his army and his Eritrean allies to kill hundreds of Ethiopian civilians.

Three billion dollars in Canadian foreign assistance has flowed to Ethiopia since 2000 — more than any other country in the world has received, apart from Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walks with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as he gives him a tour of Unity Park in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Haiti, Tanzania and Bangladesh are the top five destination countries for Canadian aid in the 21st century.

The government of Canada is hoping that Ethiopia won't repeat the debacles that plagued the two nations that stood at the top of Canada's aid table for much of this century: Afghanistan and Haiti.

Optimistic beginnings

"I went to Afghanistan in 2003, when our first embassy started its operations," said Nipa Banerjee, who now teaches at the University of Ottawa.

"Maybe we should've had more people. We didn't have any intelligence. We were very optimistic, and there were only four of us. There was an administrator, who didn't have much to do with anything outside, there was a political officer, I was the aid person, and the ambassador was Chris Alexander."

Foreign donors were still setting priorities that were to be coordinated at an international conference in Germany.

"After the Bonn Conference, everything blossomed," said Banerjee. "What we didn't know was that in the background, the Taliban were planning the insurgency."

"Tremendous progress was made" over the next few years, she said. "At the same time, I realize now that there were weaknesses that we didn't pay enough attention to.

"I think the decline started around 2006."

Afghans out of the loop

In the early days, Canada sent much of its aid money through the Afghan government, which coordinated with district councils.

"It got projects done much faster," said Banerjee. "And secondly, it was providing legitimacy for the central government.

"This is one of the better ways to do local development, rather than having the schools built by contractors with no monitoring and you never really know what happened."

Nine-year-old Sultan Mohamad peers out from behind the gate of an orphanage in Kandahar City as Capt. Dave Muralt and other Canadian soldiers arrive with candy, toys and school supplies on Oct. 26, 2006, in Afghanistan. (Sue Bailey/The Canadian Press)

But when western countries shifted to a strategy of Provincial Reconstruction Teams and Canada took on the Taliban heartland of Kandahar, Banerjee said, the Afghan government found itself cut out of the development of its own country.

"The Afghan government was completely out of the planning process," she said. "There was not even a memorandum of understanding with the Afghan government ...

"There is endemic corruption. The donors have to do something, but cutting funding is not the solution to that."

The 'signature' project

Banerjee said something else got in the way of Canada's efforts: pride and the desire to show off.

"There was a tendency in Afghanistan, among all donors, to show how great they were doing," she said.

In 2008, former foreign affairs minister John Manley's Independent Panel on Canada's Future Role in Afghanistan reported that too much Canadian money was flowing through others' hands — Canada wasn't getting enough credit for its generosity.

"More than half of CIDA funding in Afghanistan flows through multilateral agencies, and another 35 per cent is channeled through national programs administered by the central government in Kabul," the report said. This "left little … for 'signature' projects readily identifiable as supported by Canada."

Canada began to build larger schools using contractors. "The funds they spent on building up one school were almost equivalent to what we spend here," said Banerjee. But size didn't produce better results, she added. "I have visited one-room schools that had classes going on in one room, and these were huge buildings that were empty."

As the insurgency gathered pace and security worsened, more and more of Canada's "signature projects" fell into hostile territory.

When the Toronto Star's Paul Watson made the dangerous journey to one such "signature" school in the remote village of Baqi Tanah in 2012, he found it abandoned and forlorn.

Today, school enrolment in Afghanistan has gone backwards.

Burnishing credentials

Banerjee said Canada would have done better by focusing on burnishing the reputation of Afghanistan's government in the eyes of its people, rather than trying to burnish its own.

"It was the Afghan government that suffered from all this. It's not only us," she said. "The entire international community have been using Afghanistan as an experiment, almost. One day it's the [Provincial Reconstruction Teams], next day it's the counter-insurgency program, and then it'll be something else.

"Closing of the schools has continued to happen because of insecurity. And girls hardly go to school. It's one of the countries with the lowest gender parity in education.

"Development funding has been going down, and it can go down even further post-peace settlement. The government of Afghanistan does not have the money, even for operational costs."

Canada's annual aid to Afghanistan has fallen by nearly half since its peak in 2008. Canada's pledges at a donor conference last November suggest that it will fall still further during the next three years, as a fearful country awaits the return of Taliban.

Focus shifts to Haiti

One of the deadliest earthquakes in human history struck Haiti just days into the second decade of the century.

Haiti's desperation coincided with growing disillusionment over Afghanistan — and suddenly Canada had a new focus for its biggest efforts.

A couple surveys the damage to homes in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Saturday January 16, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Then-ambassador Gilles Rivard recalls that in the first couple of years, Canada was spending upwards of $4 million a week on projects in Haiti.

"We were the most generous country in helping Haiti following the earthquake, definitely," he said.

But disillusionment set in even faster in Haiti than it had in Afghanistan.

"We made a difference in rebuilding roads, rebuilding hospitals, trying to rebuild agriculture, the export system, the economy, even the justice system that is still an issue today'" said Rivard. "The problem — and I think it's still the case today — is the governance system.

"You can build a beautiful hospital, but if you don't have the governance structure with a number of doctors to operate it, a Department of Health to manage it, you won't be able to help the population. You can train police officers, but if the officers abandon their career after six months because they're not well paid, we've wasted our money."

Haitians had their own complaints about the foreigners who seemed to spend vast sums on SUVs, foreign consultants, and security to protect both, rather than hiring Haitians and putting them to work. Frustration built on both sides.

'One day Canada will leave you'

Rivard came to know Haiti's president Rene Preval well.

"I remember myself telling the president, there's a fatigue and eventually donors will look elsewhere," he said. "There are tragedies around the world and if we don't see decent results in Haiti, we're going to look elsewhere. You have to seize the moment while it lasts."

Rivard gave a similar talk to the next president, Michel Martelly. "I said, 'One day Canada will leave your country. Your justice system is rotten, and the only thing that costs nothing to Haiti is to improve this system. And Canada will help you to train judges, train police, and rebuild penitentiaries.' We delivered on that, but the justice system remained the same.

"It's discouraging for Canada."

Haiti, the top recipient of Canadian aid a decade ago, is now no longer in the top ten. 

"Now, the government (of President Jovenal Moise) is governing by decree, the House and the Senate are not functioning," said Rivard. "I think the government has to take their own responsibility and assume that failure at this point in time."

Unsavoury leaders

Canadians want their aid money to promote democracy — but democratic countries hold elections which sometimes put unsavoury characters in power.

That happened in one of the top five aid recipent countries — Tanzania — when the autocratic John Magufuli came to power in 2015. His government soon began encouraging police and citizens to attack the country's gay people. Critics and opponents suffered torture, or even turned up dead.

When COVID-19 struck Tanzania, Magufuli denied it. This week, news reports suggested he'd been the first national leader to succumb to the illness he claimed was exaggerated (although his government insists his heart did him in).

A man reads a copy of the Daily Nation morning newspaper reporting the death of neighboring Tanzania's President John Magufuli on a street in Nairobi, Kenya Thursday, March 18, 2021. (Khalil Senosi/AP)

Canada did not cut off aid to Tanzania during Magufuli's tenure. Development aid is a long-term proposition, and experts say little would get done if Canada opened and closed the taps in response to every government action it doesn't like.

Ethiopia's harsh military campaign in Tigray may not derail the country's progress if it can swiftly move on. If fighting and abuses continue, Ethiopia could become the latest nation to find itself suddenly out of favour. 

Bangladesh rises, and dollars flow

One of the five main recipients of Canadian aid has distinguished itself as a model of peaceful progress. It's the country Henry Kissinger wrote off at its founding as an irretrievable "basket case": Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has lifted millions out of poverty over the past 20 years. Over those two decades, it has received over $2 billion in Canadian aid. It has seen its share of Canada's aid budget rise in recent years to surpass that of its neighbour Afghanistan.

Nipa Banerjee worked in both countries.

"In Bangladesh, things were done pretty quietly," she said. "Even though we spent a lot of money, we didn't get a lot of attention."

A thread that connects the success of Bangladesh with the stagnation of Afghanistan and Haiti is that aid is most effective when it is low-key, and least effective when it seeks the limelight.

Aid works best when it works through and with national governments, building their credibility with their own people — rather than supplanting them or trying to create prestige for Canada.

And if the recipient nation doesn't seize the opportunity that aid provides, the dollars will soon flow elsewhere.


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.