How Canadian foreign aid has changed over a decade of Conservative government

When measured as a percentage of gross national income, foreign aid is now lower than when the Conservative government came to power. It is barely a third of the target to which Canada committed in 1970.

For a while, security interests seemed dominant. Afghanistan became the largest Canadian aid recipient ever. Under a new “whole-of-government approach,” the government increasingly linked aid with other elements of foreign policy, including diplomacy and especially defense. The result was disappointing on all levels.

Ottawa is now emphasizing Canadian commercial interests. Using aid funds to promote Canadian businesses has a long and shameful history of failure. And yet the current government wants to do more of the same.

Nowhere is commercial self-interest more evident than in the use of aid funds to support Canadian mining companies. The government set aside tens of millions of dollars to support stand-alone projects that benefit communities affected by Canadian mines, helping buy local support and thus indirectly contributing to the companies’ bottom lines.

The government’s choice of “countries of focus” for Canadian aid also clearly reflects commercial interests in countries like Peru, Colombia, Mongolia, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. To make way for them, many poor African countries were unceremoniously dropped from the list.

The devaluing of Canadian non-governmental organizations’ contributions mirrored the rising place of the Canadian private sector in the government’s development policy. NGOs’ funding increasingly depended on aligning with government priorities — and not criticizing government policies. Those that refused to toe the government line found their applications for funding renewal denied or were suddenly faced with onerous audits by the Canadian Revenue Agency.

If we want to re-establish Canada as a reputable player in the field of international development, the next government, whatever its political stripe, should take immediate steps to restore greater autonomy to Canada’s aid program, significantly increase its budget every year, re-engage with NGOs as partners rather than subcontractors, decouple aid from Canadian commercial interests and focus instead on fighting poverty and inequality, as well as align its strategies with developing countries’ own long-term priorities.

[Stephen Brown, political science professor, writing in the Toronto Star]

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