Canada's aid program: still struggling after sixty years.

Author:Chapnick, Adam

Canada's official development assistance program is now almost sixty years old, dating from our participation in the Colombo Plan in 1950. It has been the object of a great deal of well-meaning advice, and in recent years of scathing criticism. Adam Chapnick examines the reasons for our failure to develop an effective program, and proposes remedies. Much recent criticism has been directed at CIDA. While commenting on problems in the agency's administration of aid programs, Chapnick emphasizes the absence of strong and consistent political leadership, which has led to an extraordinarily diffuse program and has left CIDA without a clear mandate. Apart front providing emergency disaster relief he recommends concentration on a strictly limited number o[: countries and sectors, and adoption of the principles of the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, particularly the recommendation to align support with the development strategies of recipient countries and ensure that they are fully involved in its management.

Le programme officiel d'aide au developpement mis sur pied par le Canada a presque soixante ans aujourd'hui. Il remonte a la participation du pays au Plan Colombo de 1950. Ce programme a fait l'objet d'un grand nombre de conseils bien intentionnes mais, depuis ces dernieres annees, fait face a de cinglantes critiques. Adam Chapnick examine les raisons pour lesquelles nous n 'avons pas reussi a elaborer un programme efficace et propose des solutions. Parmi les critiques recemment exprimees, bon nombre d'entre elles visent l'ACDI (Agence canadienne de developpement international). Tout en commentant les problemes d'administration des programmes d'aide par l'Agence, Chapnick souligne l'absence de direction politique forte et coherente, ce qui a abouti a un programme particulierement diffus et a laisse l'ACDI sans mission clairement definie. Outre l'offre de secours d'urgence en cas de catastrophe, il recommande de centrer les efforts sur un nombre strictement limite de pays et de secteurs ainsi que d'adopter les principes de la Declaration de Paris sur l'efficacite de l'aide promulguee en 2005, particulierement en ce qui concerne la recommandation d'aligner les mesures de soutien sur les strategies de developpement des pays beneficiaires et de faire en sorte que ces derniers participent pleinement a sa mise en oeuvre.


In an age of increasing global prosperity, over one billion people still live on less than $1 per day, 100 million children do not attend school regularly, and diseases like AIDS and malaria take the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of men, women, and children in developing countries every hour. These conditions have spurred the international community to action. In 2000, at the United Nations Millennium Summit, world leaders agreed to establish benchmarks to improve the plight of the poorest states--the Millennium Development Goals. In 2005, based on years of research into best practices, the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness added a Series of indicators of progress--concrete steps to be taken by donors and recipients to maximize the impact of development projects. The indicators are grouped in five categories: (1) giving developing countries ownership of their policies and plans; (2) aligning donor support with recipient countries' strategies; (3) harmonizing donor contributions to limit redundancy and reduce delivery costs; (4) managing activities with a focus on results; and (5) promoting mutual accountability between donors and recipients. Considered together, they provide a clear way ahead: aid works when it is recipient-driven and effectively managed. Thus far, however, in spite of signs of real progress in some areas and in some countries, the results have been mixed. Since 1960, the international community has spent over $1.6 trillion on public aid to less fortunate states, and yet the rich and poor divide between and within countries still grows.

Canada has been actively involved in international development at the official level since the government of Louis St. Laurent agreed to participate in a Commonwealth assistance program, the Colombo Plan, in 1950. Almost sixty years later, foreign aid advocates across the country continue to express frustration. For example, the 2007 report of the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade that dealt particularly with sub-Saharan Africa challenged the credibility of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and of Canadian aid policy more generally. Even more recently, the Independent Panel on Canada's Future Role in Afghanistan was harshly critical of Canadian reconstruction efforts. In the face of these and other criticisms over the years, governments in Ottawa have promised improvements. In the 2005 International Policy Statement, the Liberals argued that "Canada has the capacity and the history to be among the best in the world in development, and Canadians support this priority." In their Budget Plan 2007 the Conservatives said: "Canadians take pride in our role in reducing global poverty and contributing to international peace and security. Increasing the amount of resources that we make available for international assistance is a key element of that effort."

If there is agreement that global poverty is a problem, and if the government is committed to improving the situation, why then does Canada continue to struggle to be effective, and what can be done about it? Part of the answer is straightforward: Ottawa's approach has lacked focus and consistency. The United Kingdom has transformed its Department for International Development in less than a decade through strong, determined leadership, support from the highest levels of government, and a clear mandate. Norway has enhanced the impact of its program dramatically by concentrating the bulk of its aid in just seven main countries. Denmark has decentralized its aid delivery system, reducing administrative costs while improving policy coherence through greater ground-level understanding of recipient needs. All three countries have also increased their monetary commitments to the developing world. Canada needs much of the same: strong leadership at the highest levels, a clear mandate for CIDA, a concentration of effort in a limited number of countries and sectors, a more rigorous ground-level approach to aid distribution, and a stable financial environment. The sticking point, as it has been for years, is mobilizing the political will necessary to pursue a series of bold and demanding changes to Ottawa's official development assistance (ODA) strategy. Little can be expected without that cabinet-level commitment.

This paper investigates why Canadians, who pride themselves on their tolerance and support for the less fortunate, have lagged significantly in the global campaign to alleviate poverty in the developing world. How can a cause that appears to be so entirely consistent with national values and interests remain marred near the bottom of Ottawa's priorities? And what can be done about it? It concludes that, even though making a substantial difference in reducing global poverty is and should be part of the national strategy to promote security and prosperity world-wide, the immediate incentives to undertake aggressive political action are limited. As a result, the most promising way ahead is likely to be more cautious than many would prefer. It would begin with a small set of clear and attainable objectives along with a long-term commitment to funding and achieving them. The most significant changes, the hard choices the Canadian government will have to make to achieve real focus, must be accompanied by an evolution in national thinking that could take time.

The rest of this paper is organized in four sections. It begins by reviewing the challenges that must be overcome. It then proposes a series of preliminary steps to begin the process of change. The next section identifies possible national priorities that might help to move the development program forward. The conclusion summarizes the recommendations as they relate to Canada, to the Paris Declaration, and to the actions of other countries.


There is a clear and convincing argument to be made that alleviating global poverty is not just an ethical imperative but also a significant Canadian national interest. Nevertheless, the immediate incentives for a government to choose international development as an area of strategic focus and investment (as opposed, for example, to national security, the domestic economy, or the environment) are hardly overwhelming, particularly in terms of the approval--at home or abroad--that such initiatives might bring. The strategic challenges are fourfold: there is a lack of national momentum available to drive the reforms forward; there are a limited number of immediately measurable opportunities for international acclaim in this area; the strategic focus and policy coherence available upon which to base future programs is missing; and it is difficult to demonstrate the immediate results often necessary to sustain support at every level.


Canadians are rightly proud of their generosity towards the less fortunate both at home and around the world. Indeed, it is this perception of national good will that makes the history of poor performance in official development assistance so baffling. There is a difference, however, between Canadians' sense of obligation to the world's poorest, as reflected by their personal remittances overseas and response to disasters, and their political commitment to an effective ODA policy. Polls have noted that Canadians have typically ranked foreign aid last when considered against other federal spending priorities. In the words of public policy analyst Jean-Sebastien Rioux, "For better or for worse, ODA is often perceived by the public...

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