Commentary from Colin Robertson

How Canada should rethink international assistance

by Colin Robertson

The Globe and Mail
May 26, 2016

As the federal government rethinks its international assistance policies, it should heed the call from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for transformative change to global humanitarian relief.

This week’s Istanbul humanitarian conference has put the spotlight on the current state of the global relief system and the effort to reform how the world responds to humanitarian crises.

Disasters, natural or man-made, are increasing. So is the number of conflicts as well as failed and failing states. And the current system of international aid is underfunded and overstretched. The UN estimates that 125 million people need humanitarian relief. The need for smarter relief and development assistance is urgent and immediate. Rethinking our international assistance is timely and sensible.

Officials at the Istanbul conference pointed to the breakdown of international norms on asylum, the need to localize aid and frictions between those who provide relief and those who do not. The conference will provide some much-needed context for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other Group of Seven leaders, who are looking at aid accountability as part of their broader summit discussions this week in Ise-Shima, Japan.

While the UN is often criticized as nothing more than a talk shop, in recent months it has concluded a global climate accord and set new sustainable development goals – all of which will factor into Canada’s assistance review. The review, running from May to July, promises broad consultation with planned events around governance, pluralism, diversity and human rights as well as peace and security.

The future direction of Canadian assistance is clearly stated in the government’s discussion guide. International assistance is to advance the UN 2030 Sustainable Development agenda while applying “a feminist lens” to help “the poorest and most vulnerable people.” But to expect more money would be “unrealistic … in the current fiscal context.”

While the overall direction has yet to be determined, the differences between the previous Conservative government’s approach – an emphasis on environmental sustainability, gender equality and governance – are likely to be more tonal than substantive.

Nor is former prime minister Stephen Harper’s framework – with its emphasis on untied aid and a selective country focus – likely to change. The Liberal government has also decided, wisely, to maintain the consolidation of diplomacy, trade and development.

Much of Mr. Harper’s signature program, to improve maternal, newborn and child health, also fits into the Liberal paradigm. The government will continue supporting this initiative, but with more support for family planning and greater attention to the root causes of maternal and child mortality.

The success of the government’s development review will hinge on a number of factors.

First, investing more money. Canada currently sits in the bottom half of the members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development when it comes to development assistance. While the Liberal government is right to oppose “throwing buckets of money indiscriminately,” more money, well-spent, makes more impact.

As a recent report assessing Canada’s engagement gap put it, we meet the definition of “free riders” when it comes to development and defence. If Britain can devote 0.7 per cent of its gross domestic product to development assistance and 2 per cent to defence (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization standard), shouldn’t we at least aspire to this goal?

Second, Mr. Harper was right when he underlined the importance of accountability in development. But let’s do it with a lighter touch, practise risk management and recognize that civil society organizations (CSOs) need multiyear commitments to demonstrate results. Governments insist that CSOs bring their overhead down, yet they drown them in paperwork.

Third, we can’t boil the ocean so we need to focus. Our projects will always reflect our values, but there is nothing wrong with choosing those that also complement our trade and investment interests. In Africa, for example, our development assistance should work in tandem with our resource industries’ investment to demonstrate best-in-class corporate social responsibility.

Fourth, we need to improve and develop Canadian expertise by investing in Canadian CSOs and in youth exchanges. Programs like Canada World Youth gave generations of Canadians their first international experience while giving their foreign counterparts an appreciation of Canada that has opened doors in diplomacy, trade, education and migration.

Finally, donors – especially in the West – are fatigued and skeptical about aid’s effectiveness. The Liberal government should use these consultations to reassure Canadians about the efficacy of development assistance.

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice-president and fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.


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