New budget: same story. No new money for foreign aid. A “five-year freeze” goes into a sixth year, and Canada’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) is now at its lowest level in more than a decade.
Reporters were quick to point out that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) placed Canada’s 2014 aid spending at 0.24 per cent of GDP, far below the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent. By contrast, the United Kingdom (also governed by a Conservative party) has met the 0.7 target two years in a row.
It’s not that I think spending more money will resolve all the problems of what passes for global development these days. Worse, I think, than failing to meet the ODA target is ongoing meddling with the intent of such aid, which is defined in the 2008 ODA Accountability Act as having the specific goal of reducing poverty in developing nations.
In years past, governments would use about one third of their aid budgets for multilateral agencies (like those of the United Nations for refugees, agriculture and children). Another third would go to the government’s own bilateral programs in developing countries. And a third would go to Canadian non-governmental organizations (NGOS) that partnered with the government. A lively community of government and NGO development practitioners met frequently and respectfully debated aid priorities—always learning from different approaches. The development sector today is a very different place.
In Canada over the past decade, our government has cut funding to several NGOs—the ones that spoke out on behalf of women, communities affected by mining, or Palestinians who struggle against the Israeli military occupation. Or asked why poverty persists, or about the impact of investor protection on workers and human rights.
More recently, the government has begun to tie public aid to private investment.
Different visions of development are in conflict.
Latest news is the announcement in the federal budget of a new Development Finance Institution (DFI). DFIs apparently work with the private sector to promote development and investment in developing countries. But the Canadian Council for International Cooperation (CCIC), made up of about 75 non-governmental organizations (NGOs), expressed concern in a news release.
“Although this can be a good idea in principle, the experience of DFIs in Europe has been underwhelming,” warned Julia Sánchez, president-CEO of CCIC. “Developing countries and the local private sector are often the last to benefit, with funds going mostly to support donor country exports and financial intermediaries.”
Oxfam Canada’s Caroline Marrs told Canadian Press that there are real risks associated with DFIs. “Oxfam’s recent report on the World Bank’s private sector arm documented tremendous abuse involving sexual violence, land grabs and other very disturbing outcomes of private-sector development projects that were neither accountable nor successful by any measure,” she said.
“Matchmaking” site for foreign aid
Another interesting innovation from Canada’s government is to try to bring together various groups that share an interest in development, including for-profit companies, non-profit organizations, governments and international agencies.
International Development Minister Christian Paradis launched the idea during global finance meetings in Washington in mid-April. In an interview with Canadian Press, he cited a possible example: “a mining company opens a mine, governments contribute to nearby infrastructure such as roads and wells and NGOs work on farming projects that would allow the surrounding community to feed itself.” (Sadly, the government has made mining an important part of its development strategy in recent years.)
The idea was met with skepticism—and some amusing comparisons with dating websites. It may be another way of feeding “aid money” to private interests. Legal systems need to be strengthened so that Canadian mining companies operating overseas may be held accountable for human rights abuses and ecological damage. They do not need public money or NGOs that side with their interest instead of those of local communities. Check out this campaign: Let’s Make Canada Open for Justice!
The CCIC’s We Can Do Better 2015 campaign is calling for greater leadership from Canada in this pivotal year, with specific focus on addressing three key global challenges:
- growing inequality
- the impacts of climate change
- advancing women’s rights.
In the long run, winning support for those efforts will bring better results than using development budgets to assist corporations in their community relations.