Canadian aid not common cents

Government has reduced foreign aid spending, abandoning the world’s poor

Canada has been cutting its foreign aid to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Oxfam.
Canada has been cutting its foreign aid to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Oxfam.
Credit: 
Supplied by Oxfam East Africa

Anisha Visvanatha, ArtSci ’14

The well of Canadian aid has not run dry: it’s stagnant.

In the past two years, the Harper government has made substantial changes to the administration of Canadian foreign aid. The demand for aid from the country’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) continues to rise as the poorest of the poor are being pushed further into debt, poverty, ill-health and conflict due to economic inequalities within the global system.

Instead of using Canada’s foreign aid money to support crucial development projects and to assist in humanitarian crises, the Conservative government has chosen to cut ODA spending, leaving development projects across the world crumbling.

Last fiscal year, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) didn’t spend over 13 per cent of its foreign grants and contributions budget (that’s close to $419 million). This means initiatives that expected funding — for example, Haiti disaster relief programs geared toward health, education, housing and infrastructure, were denied funding and forced to shut down.

Unsurprisingly, this unspent money goes straight into the government’s general coffers to be redistributed through its overall budget as needed. As ex-Minister of International Cooperation Julian Fantino puts: “we don’t fund NGOs for life.”

CIDA failed to spend its budget mainly due to its merger with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) to create the new Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD).

DFATD emerged last March as part of Canada’s Economic Action Plan 2013, with its main goal being to “facilitate a more coherent approach to Canadian international policy, support the achievement of Canadian international goals, as well as provide improved outcomes for Canadians through more efficient, effective and targeted programming.” With this merger, Canadian aid has to meet a tougher criteria: it must be aligned with national interest. This makes it easier for CIDA to neglect spending on projects, leaving much of its budget unspent. DFATD combines two contradictory objectives — foreign aid and national interest — under one umbrella.

Canada’s ODA is now directed through a framework geared towards Canada’s benefit, while neglecting the needs of countries whose citizens live in extreme poverty.

Increasingly, aid is being shifted to private extractive companies, mostly mining and exploration corporations in Latin America, to “provide developing countries with the support they need to manage and govern their natural resources,” as Fantino said earlier this year.

This shift in focus from Africa to Latin America shows where the Conservative government’s interests lie. Forging strong connections with powerful extractive companies ensures Canadian control over developing countries’ non-renewable resources, while causing undeserved consequences for those countries — namely, environmental damage, indigenous land theft and human rights violations.

In 2007, 13 Mayan Guatemalans sued HudBay, a Canadian mining company, and its Guatemalan subsidiary, Compania Guatemalteca de Niquel, for rape, murder and assault. These victims also claimed HudBay had occupied their land and had illegally used their resources. As of 2011, HudBay is no longer operating in Guatemala, despite enormous support from the Canadian government.

Establishing stronger ties with corporations reinforces foreign aid as an avenue to project Canada’s diplomatic and trade interests through a mega-department that ignores the real aid issues at hand. We need to coordinate with recipient governments, keeping their vision for development in mind when deciding how to administer ODA.

Let’s not get carried away thinking that bilateral (government-to-government) aid is all it takes to solve development problems. Often, it can cause more problems than it can even attempt to solve.

The global power dynamics of aid reinforce an “us versus them” and a “have versus have-not” world system. Aid money is not simply donated to poor countries, it can often be contingent on conditions imposed by donor countries.

Competing self-interests of donors pose threats to the autonomy of recipients, creates dependency relationships and encourages a “race to the bottom,” where developing countries relax their labour and environmental laws in order to encourage transnational corporations (TNCs) to do business there.

This is evidenced by the fact that Canadian corporations don’t have to abide by Canadian labour and environmental regulations when undertaking operations in developing countries. This would attract Canadian aid based on our not new, but newly-stated aid objectives. Canadian TNCs do not need additional “aid” money to carry out their for-profit affairs.

At least the Conservative government is no longer hiding its true motives in regards to aid. National self-interest overrides international solidarity in the Harper government’s obvious ploy to fund mining companies and cut out NGOs.

I urge Canada to follow the lead of other nations with comprehensive development agencies, such as the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), that focus on delivering humanitarian aid based on the recipient country’s ideas for needs-based development.

While the Canadian government has the funds to spend on worthwhile humanitarian ODA, it chooses to release those funds to the general budget to be used by other departments.

The DFATD merger makes it clear that to our Conservative government, foreign aid is foreign policy’s cat’s paw.

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