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Canadian government

Is the Harper government changing the aid game?

Last Updated March 21, 2007

Two almost throwaway lines in the new federal budget have Ottawa's foreign aid community in a tizzy and appear to signal a new direction for how Canada's now $4.1 billion in annual development aid will be delivered abroad.

One was the statement that the Conservative government intends to focus traditional bilateral aid on fewer countries where "we will aim to be among the largest five donors in core countries of interest."

The other was the pledge to "put more of our staff in the field, allowing us to be more responsive and make better choices on the ground."

Of the two, the second may be the more surprising and follows strong criticism recently of the Canadian International Development Agency — that it has too many of its administrative staff in Hull rather than out in the field, which has been the trend of late among some of the more aggressive European nations such as Britain.

Both the Senate foreign affairs committee last month and a C.D. Howe Institute study a year ago took CIDA to task for being overly administered and overly centralized. The Senate committee, for example, noted that nearly $12.4 billion in Canadian aid has been sent to sub-Saharan Africa since the late 1960s, but that fewer than 20 per cent of the CIDA staff members devoted to these programs are actually on site to administer the funds.

But if sending more CIDA officials off "into a lot of sweaty capitals in the Third World" is an unexpected policy twist, focusing Canada's aid on a much smaller group of countries will be the more substantive, notes development expert John Richards of Simon Fraser University in B.C., where he is a professor of public policy, and one of the authors of the C.D. Howe report.

The previous Liberal governments had already signalled a shift to a more concentrated foreign aid approach: It had narrowed the list of Canada's main so-called development partners to 25 countries and was planning to increase the amount CIDA spent on these countries from 42 per cent to 66 per cent of its budget by 2010.

Canada's development 'partners'

in order of aid received

  • 1. Bangladesh
  • 2. Ghana
  • 3. Mali
  • 4. Mozambique
  • 5. Ethiopia
  • 6. Tanzania
  • 7. Vietnam
  • 8. Indonesia
  • 9. Ukraine
  • 10. Senegal
  • 11. Pakistan
  • 12. Malawi
  • 13. Bolivia
  • 14. Burkino Faso
  • 15. Kenya
  • 16. Honduras
  • 17. Guyana
  • 18. Zambia
  • 19. Rwanda
  • 20. Niger
  • 21. Sri Lanka
  • 22. Cambodia
  • 23. Cameroon
  • 24. Nicaragua
  • 25. Benin

Have the Conservatives changed this list of 25 partners? It's not clear. They haven't spelled anything out yet and CIDA's president Robert Greenhill is not commenting at the moment. An official with International Co-operation Minister Josée Verner said the minister would be willing to answer questions later in the week.

But the aim to be "among the largest five donors" in certain countries could signal a fairly substantive shift in priorities, some suggest, and Richards says the Stephen Harper government looks like its being "a lot blunter about this than the Paul Martin people."

150 countries eligible for Canada's help

At the moment, Canada's international aid budget is on a roll, part of the Liberal-initiated plan to double it, in nominal terms anyway, by the end of this decade. It rose by 17 per cent this year and is to go up by a further seven per cent to $4.4 billion in 2008-09.

But that amount still only represents about half the 0.7 per cent of GDP that activists like singing star Bono and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have been urging Canada to take on. What's more, what aid money does go out is spread among an unusually large number of recipients.

The 25 "partners" receive somewhere in excess of 42 per cent of Canada's international aid budget (it's difficult to judge at the moment because large chunks, $100 million last year alone, have been hived off for Afghanistan). But according to CIDA's website, in excess of 150 countries are eligible for Canadian aid, though in practical terms the number is closer to 70 or so. And of course all have their political constituencies here to press their case.

When the Senate foreign affairs committee held its hearings, groups questioned why Canada was giving development money to China, one of the emerging powerhouses of the world, instead of their favoured recipients, or Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons.

Even the list of 25 has its political component: Ukraine is on it, for obviously political reasons, observes Richards, and the 14 African countries are almost equally divided between English- and French-speaking nations.

The big question, however, is whether this list will change given the now-stated ambition to be "among the largest five donors" in the countries Ottawa hopes to help. No one has crunched the numbers yet, perhaps not even CIDA. But from what has come out in earlier studies, Canada is only among the top five in a handful of countries it tries to support.

Among them are Haiti and Afghanistan, two countries not on the list of 25 partners.

Tracking donations important

Targeting donations is clearly the emerging trend among donor nations. The Brits do it. So do the Scandinavian countries, which can focus on about a dozen or so countries.

"You have a negligible impact if you're just dribbling out your aid," says Richards. "The rationale for aid is not just to dole out money but to have influence over the host countries. It sounds a bit neo-colonial. But if Canada wants to be any kind of actor in this game, it has to step up and become a significantly important donor."

Giving more money, however, also means tracking its use more carefully. Are the teachers really teaching in that school you built a year ago? Are doctors making the rounds of the clinics as they promised?

This is one of the rationales for having more development officers on the ground in the host countries. But it's a much more expensive proposition for agencies like CIDA.

It experimented with decentralization, as it is called, a decade or so ago and the result was that administrative costs soared, fuelling a reputation that has stayed with the agency even today.

One of the goals of this shift is to bring administrative costs down, the finance minister said in passing. That could be hard to do if you are sending people out to the field.

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