A crisis of conscience? – Canadian aid adrift

Development Policy06 Dec 2010Molly den Heyer, David Black

Canadian development has been in crisis since the 1990s. A lack of leadership and policy direction has impelled the development community to generate a series of studies calling for the reform of Canadian aid architecture.

In October 2010, Canada failed to win election to a non-permanent seat on the Security Council for the first time since the creation of the United Nations. It had previously been elected once each decade since 1947-48. While the unsuccessful bid surprised (even shocked) some Canadians, those watching foreign affairs recognized it as a key marker of the country’s declining international status. In the mid-20th century, Canada built a solid reputation for contributions to peacekeeping, international organizations, human rights and international development. However, over the past two decades Canada’s reputation has suffered from inconsistent leadership and eroding commitments. Nowhere is this more true than in official development assistance (ODA), leading many commentators to wonder whether the country is experiencing a collective crisis of conscience.

The underlying debate is grounded in the enduring question of what is (and should be) the principal rationale for international assistance and whose interests it should serve. Like many donors, Canada struggles to reconcile a humane internationalist approach based on an ethical obligation to help alleviate global poverty with a realist approach seeking to deliver aid that supports business and political interests.1

The lack of leadership on key policy issues has accentuated the tension and led to persistent debate concerning aid architecture, partnerships, countries of concentration and Canada’s role in Afghanistan. An uncertain sense of purpose has, in turn, hindered the Canadian International Development Agency’s (CIDA) reputation and effectiveness.

The total volume of Canadian ODA has remained relatively consistent, despite criticism that CIDA ‘has lost its way,’2 as Chris Brown and Edward Jackson write in their 2009 essay ‘Could the Senate be Right? Should CIDA be abolished?’ Canada tends to place in the middle to low ranking of donors who are members of the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Whereas net ODA for OECD countries was .48% of gross national income (GNI) in 2009, Canadian ODA was .30% of GNI, having grown slightly from .28% of GNI in 2002. In current prices, the percentages translate into an increase from an estimated US$2004.16 million in 2002 to $US4012.5 million in 2009.3 Canadian officials have made much of the fact that Canada was one of the few Group of Eight (G8) governments to meet the objective of doubling the absolute volume of its aid between 2001-02 and 2009-10. But these numbers only reveal a small part of the story.

From policy to paralysis

Canada’s aid programme originated in the 1950s when the country was a global ‘middle power’ without overseas colonies. Canada had a growing array of international commitments at the time and no obvious basis for adjudicating among them. As a charter member of the Western alliance, it was concerned with the political and developmental trajectory of the rapidly decolonizing countries of Africa and Asia.

Meanwhile, Canada was also a committed member of the Commonwealth of Nations. It had both the incentive and opportunity to address conditions of poverty in the new member states of that organization, beginning with the Colombo Plan in 1950, an initiative by Commonwealth countries to improve the economic and social development of member countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

And as an officially bilingual country and member of la Francophonie, a network of 70 countries who share the humanist values of the French language and culture, Canada extended bilateral aid to former French colonies as a means of internationally expressing its ‘French fact’ – the presence of French Canada as a vital cultural force within the Canadian federation. This motive gained urgency in the face of a growing nationalist challenge from the French-speaking majority in the province of Quebec.

Aid grew steadily for the next couple of decades, reaching a peak of 0.53% of GNI in 1975-76. It levelled off thereafter, but was still 0.49% of GNI in 1991-92. The aid programme enjoyed broad public support and earned the government considerable goodwill in much of the ‘Third World’.

This support came despite criticism from the non-governmental and academic communities for its uneasy mix of commercial, security and developmental motives, and a comparatively high level of tied aid. CIDA was a trendsetter and intellectual leader in a handful of issue areas, such as women’s and gender development, and ‘responsive programming’ through partnerships with NGOs.

The agency’s decline in fortunes began in the early 1990s, particularly under Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government elected in 1993. The government saw aid as a soft target for cuts as a result of a ballooning budgetary deficit. ODA declined by 33% in real terms between 1988-89 and 1997-98 – far greater than any other area of government expenditure4 – and the aid to GNI ratio plummeted to 0.25% by 2000.

Ironically, the Chrétien government spent its last couple of years at the start of the new millennium leading the G8 charge for a renewal of interest in Africa, beginning with the Africa Action Plan adopted at the 2002 Kananaskis Summit in Alberta. The Chrétien administration also promised steady increases in foreign aid, along with other members of the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC). However, these increases have failed to recoup the ground lost during the 1990s. The radical and highly disruptive cuts of this decade had a deeply demoralizing effect on CIDA, demonstrating the shallowness of social and elite political support for aid.

The degree to which Canadians were divided by their partisan orientation went largely unrecognized, despite shallow public support. Those on the right of the political spectrum, typically aligned with the Conservative Party, were significantly less supportive of a generous foreign aid policy than those in the centre and particularly on the left.5

Not surprisingly then, when the minority Conservative Party government of Stephen Harper was elected in 2006, a new period of scepticism and uncertainty began. Unlike previous Canadian governments, the Harper conservatives had no discernible ‘humane internationalist’ element in their caucus or cabinet.

They were, on the whole, sceptical of the usefulness of aid and of multilateral entanglements. Their approach was more forthrightly ‘realist’ and instrumental, inclined to place aid at the service of security and commercial objectives. Few members of the government had any depth of knowledge or interest regarding international development.

They were also viscerally partisan and therefore anxious to distance themselves from policies they considered liberal. This meant distancing themselves from policies to do with human security and the re-engagement with Africa.

A period of drift

The end result was a protracted period of drift in Canadian aid policy, as CIDA was left without clear policy direction or leadership. All that was left was an insistence on greater accountability and ‘results’, and vague indications that the government intended to chart a new course.

One positive change was the announcement in April 2008 that Canada would phase out tied aid altogether by 2012-13. However, it was not until May 2009 that the direction of the new aid policy course began to emerge, with the government’s announcement of new countries of concentration and thematic priorities.

In May 2009, when Bev Oda, the minister of international cooperation, finally announced three new thematic focuses that were to guide CIDA’s work going forward:

  • Increasing food security
  • Stimulating sustainable economic growth
  • Securing the future of children and youth

The new priorities were arrived at with minimal consultation. They are both broad and vague, and the brief strategy documents released later in 2009 and in 2010 for each new thematic focus did little to clarify how they will be enacted.

Whether they will help to alleviate the atmosphere of policy uncertainty that has pervaded the agency remains to be seen. They have already been used, however, to justify the termination of long-standing partnerships with Canadian civil society organizations whose programmes have been deemed to fall outside the new priorities.

The uncertainty over Canada’s policy direction has sent mixed messages abroad. In some cases, Canadian development policies can seem relatively progressive, especially compared with the policies of its G8 peers. The government has shown leadership in G8 initiatives over the past decade, such as the Africa Action Plan in 2002, and most recently the Muskoka Initiative on maternal, newborn and under-5 child health at the G8 Summit it hosted in June 2010, pledging C$1.1 billion towards what it hopes will ultimately amount to a US$10 billion effort.6

The government has also supported G8 debt forgiveness efforts and extended tariff-free access to the goods of 48 Least Developed Countries, with the exception of a small list of ‘supply managed’ agricultural products (a step which involved negligible costs, given the small volume of Canadian trade with these countries). The modest cumulative effects and soft commitments of these initiatives, underscored most recently by the announced ‘flatlining’ of aid funding in the federal budget of March 2010, reflect an underlying pattern of consistent inconsistency, with internationalist flourishes partially masking persistent limitations.

But what are we to make of a country that, in related arenas, celebrates peacekeeping but has sunk to 50th on the list of contributors to UN peace operations? Or a country that claims to be concerned with the environment but has abandoned its Kyoto commitment and earned a reputation for recalcitrance at international meetings like the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen? The mixture of residual humane internationalist and hard-nosed realist policies has become increasingly jarring.

A weak institutional position

The ebbs and flows of ODA in Canada reflect in part CIDA’s weak institutional position within the federal government. Three factors diminish CIDA’s ability to define and defend consistent aid policies. First, while CIDA is a nominally autonomous agency, it falls under the legislative authority of the minister of foreign affairs and was only granted a cabinet-level junior ministry post in 1996. In the following 14-year period, the post was filled by a succession of eight low-profile politicians.7

Second, the ‘central agencies’ of the federal government are extremely influential. In particular, the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat acts as a key gatekeeper for CIDA, developing terms and conditions for international assistance, including macro-management frameworks, delegated authority and any exemptions to Canadian standards that may contradict development goals.8

Finally, Canadian ODA is organized in an international assistance envelope that is divided across the following five issues:

  • Development
  • International financial institutions
  • Peace and security
  • Crisis
  • Research and development

The responsibility for the issues are split among a number government departments and agencies. In fact, CIDA managed only 68% of ODA spending in 2007-08.9 These divisions of authority undermine the coherence of Canadian aid and CIDA’s capabilities as the principal provider of development assistance.

They also help to account for the limited impact of the government’s intention to foster greater ‘whole-of-government’ coordination, notably in ‘fragile’ conflict-affected countries. Like other OECD governments, Ottawa has formally accepted the need to more systematically coordinate development with defence, diplomacy and related capacities in such challenging settings.

It has not succeeded, however, in developing a regularized means of doing so. Although a Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force has been established within the department of foreign affairs with the stated aim of leading these efforts, in practice intra-governmental coordination continues to be pursued in a relatively ad hoc manner through discrete task forces, such as those for Afghanistan and Sudan. Moreover, given its political weakness and limited policy capacity, CIDA cannot advance the sort of robust ‘development voice’ that should be present in a truly whole-of-government effort.

Inside CIDA

Canadian politics in the early 2000s was marked by financial scandals, a high-profile public inquiry and, as a consequence, a new Conservative government fixated on accountability. One of the first acts of the Harper government was to pass the Accountability Act in 2006.

While it tightened financial controls, the act also had a number of harmful unintended effects. The prosecutorial nature of the reforms sent a chill through the government. The act actually undermined accountability and responsiveness by focusing on quantitative indicators and checklists rather than a genuine dialogue regarding effectiveness. At CIDA, it intensified the agency’s tendency towards risk aversion.

Meanwhile, the 2007 DAC Peer Review noted that CIDA’s centralized decision-making structure was an impediment to aid effectiveness. Of the 1852 employees in 2007, 84% were stationed at CIDA headquarters. Delegated authority is tightly controlled. Spending ceilings for country directors are C$500,000 and anything over C$5 million must receive ministerial approval. Programmes exceeding C$20 million must be submitted to the treasury board for approval.10 While these low ceilings are designed to ensure financial control, they increase the time and effort required to initiate and implement programmes.

Complex and lengthy decision-making processes further bog down CIDA’s centralized administration. A recent review by the auditor general of Canada revealed that the average project approval process involves 28 documents and takes about 3.5 years.11 The red tape is even more debilitating when one considers that aid effectiveness requires field staff to work with other donors and recipient governments in administering pooled funds. CIDA’s delays become their partners’ delays and frustrations in these situations.

Shaky partnerships

Policy drift has led to uncertainty among many of CIDA’s traditional partners. Other donors find it difficult to coordinate activities, recipients complain about the unpredictability of Canadian aid, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) worry about their funding. The concerns of the first two groups are highly problematic in the context of an international ‘aid effectiveness agenda’ stressing donor harmonization and alignment with recipient priorities.

Meanwhile, the growing distance between the agency and the development NGO community in Canada has sparked controversy at home. In a number of cases, bureaucratic delays and policy confusion ultimately ended with deep (or complete) funding cuts to some long-standing and well-respected partners, including the umbrella Canadian Council for International Cooperation (CCIC).

The Harper government has remained characteristically quiet in the face of these controversies, leading many in the development community to speculate on their motivations. One clear implication of the new domestic partnership policy announced in mid-201012 is a more instrumental approach favouring NGOs that focus on service provision in line with the government’s new priorities, at the expense of those engaged in advocacy and policy work.

Furthermore, many in the NGO community believe that the cuts send a clear signal that those who speak out against government policies will lose funding.13 Yet, it remains to be seen whether these changes will further weaken the Canadian development NGO community, or potentially persuade those that have lost government funding to be more vigorous in their advocacy.

Countries of concentration

Policy uncertainty has made it difficult for CIDA to deal with the perennial issue of reining in the number of aid recipients. Canadian bilateral aid in 2004-05 was dispersed among 142 countries around the world. In a 2005, international policy statement published by the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, the then-Liberal government announced that it would concentrate two-thirds of bilateral aid in 25 core development partners, 14 of them in Africa. The exercise turned out to have a negligible effect in reducing the overall pattern of diffusion.14

Then in 2006, the new Conservative government put these priorities on hold, while announcing that it intended to refocus Canadian priorities from Africa to the Americas. Finally, in February 2009 minister Oda announced that CIDA would focus 80% of its bilateral resources on 20 countries – only six of them African.15

These frequent shifts contribute to policy uncertainty and could potentially cause political fallout. Downgrading Canada’s links with African countries provoked a furore, as did the complete absence of prior consultation, either with the Canadian development community or with affected governments.

Indeed, many suspect that a loss of support from African countries contributed to Canada’s defeat in the October 2010 Security Council election. It is still too early to determine if the latest effort at concentration will be durable. It is also unclear what the implications will be for aid to Africa, which was doubled between 2003-04 and 2008-09. Will overall funding levels be sustained as priorities shift and the aid budget is frozen in the post-financial crisis context of fiscal restraint?


Reuters / Chris Wattie Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper listens to an explanation of the details of the development aid being provided to Afghanistan, Kabul, Afghanistan, May 2007

The one programme in which there has been a rapid and decisive shift in approach over the past decade is Afghanistan. Canadian ODA ballooned from roughly C$10-20 million in humanitarian aid prior to 2001, to C$280 million in 2008-09 – the largest bilateral programme in Canadian history.16

The agency’s massive Afghanistan effort was reflected internally by the creation of a discrete Afghanistan Task Force as part of a broader ‘whole-of-government’ effort. The task force was led by a CIDA vice-president – the first time in history that a country programme has been led by such a high-ranking official.

The context for this effort is, of course, Canada’s military commitment to the NATO operation in Afghanistan. Initiated under the previous Liberal government, it was decisively embraced by the Conservatives and has now become Canada’s largest combat operation since the Korean War. Some 3000 troops are deployed in the volatile Kandahar region in the south, and they have sustained more than 150 fatalities – a disproportionate share of NATO losses.

Clearly then, the Afghan programme has been driven by the instrumental imperatives of Canada’s military commitment – reflecting the broader trend toward the securitization of development. Even here, however, the agency has been sharply criticized for the slow pace and low visibility of its efforts, and thus its limited impact in ‘winning hearts and minds’.

The extent to which this effort will be carried forward following the announced ending of Canada’s combat role in 2011 is one of the many sobering questions that lie ahead as Canadians take stock of this costly decade-long commitment.

Revitalizing Canadian aid?

The good news is that widespread concerns over CIDA’s organizational maladies, as well as the Conservative government’s general disinterest and abrupt changes of direction in Canadian aid policy, have stimulated a flurry of studies, proposals and publications.17 The discussions encompass Canada’s wider foreign policy performance and the structure of overseas development assistance.

Among the prominent voices engaged in this discussion is Robert Fowler, a distinguished career diplomat and ‘Sherpa’ to Jean Chrétien at the 2002 G8 summit in Kananaskis, and African Personal Representative during the negotiations for the Africa Action Plan. More recently, he was taken hostage by an Al-Qaeda cell in Niger for five months in 2008-09. He delivered a powerful speech in March 2010 criticizing the Liberal and Conservative parties for squandering Canada’s international reputation by taking short-sighted positions based on domestic political gains.18

The main debates on revitalizing Canadian aid swirl around the a question posed by the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade: should of whether CIDA be abolished in its current form?19 The proposed remedies for the agency generally fall into four categories: fixing the existing organization, folding CIDA into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, creating a stand-alone department, much like the UK Department for International Development, or (more defensively) concentrating aid efforts in an arm’s-length Crown corporation.20

The Canadian development community tends to support the third or fourth options in the hopes of making CIDA a more robust organization with a stronger independent mandate. Recommendations for improving CIDA can be found in a number of policy papers, including the Macleod Group’s proposal to fix foreign aid, the Walter and Gordon Duncan Foundation’s project on re-imaging Canadian aid, the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute’s working paper ‘Reinventing CIDA’, the C.D. Howe Institute’s commentary on improving Canadian aid, and the Canadian International Council’s proposal for a global positioning strategy.25

The civil society umbrella organization CCIC has also been advocating a transparent mandate for overseas development assistance. In 2008, CCIC campaigned for the passage of Bill C-293, or the ODA Accountability Act. The act states that the purpose of ODA is to reduce poverty, incorporate the perspectives of the poor and uphold human rights. Initiated as an opposition Private Member’s Bill in parliament, it was supposed to strengthen the aid agenda but has had limited traction within government. Two years later, CCIC reports that the government ‘technically meets the reporting requirements of the Act, but … fails to fulfil the Act’s spirit and intention’.26

The recent events touched on in this article indicate that Canadian development efforts are in a period of uncertainty concerning purpose, direction and structure. The most hopeful feature of this ‘crisis of conscience’ is the groundswell of studies and proposals demonstrating the depth of concern that exists for revitalizing Canada’s aid programme. Many Canadians, it turns out, remain committed to an active and constructive role in the politics of international aid.


    1. Pratt, C. (1994) Humane Internationalism and Canadian Development Assistance Policies, in Pratt, C. (ed) Canadian International Development Assistance Policies: An Appraisal. McGill-Queen’s University Press.
    2. Brown, C. and Jackson, E. (2009) Could the Senate be Right? Should CIDA be Abolished? in Maslove, A. (ed) How Ottawa Spends, 2009-10. McGill-Queen’s University Press.
    3. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (2010) Statistics Portal, 7 October. The statistical database can be accessed at
    4. Morrison, D. (1998) Aid and Ebb Tide: A History of CIDA and Canadian Development Assistance. Wilfred Laurier University Press, p. 413.
    5. Noel, A. et al. (2003) Divided over internationalism: The Canadian public and development assistance. Canadian Public Policy, 30(1). View PDF
    6. See http:/
    7. See the Parliament of Canada’s virtual library
    8. Lalonde, J. (2009) Harmony and Discord: International Aid Harmonization and Donor State Influence: The Case of Canada and the Canadian International Development Agency. John Hopkins University, Doctoral Thesis.
    9. Development Assistance Committee (2007) Canada: Peer Review. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
    10. Office of the Auditor General of Canada (2009) Report of the Auditor General of Canada to the House of Commons. Government of Canada.
    11. Office of the Auditor General of Canada (2009) Report of the Auditor General of Canada to the House of Commons. Government of Canada.
    12. See
    13. Berthiaume, L. (2010) Cutting out the development NGO ‘heart’. The Embassy Magazine, June 9.
    14. Stairs, D. (2005) Confusing the Innocent with Numbers and Categories: The International Policy Statement and the Concentration of Development Assistance. Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.
    15. The new countries and areas of focus are: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bolivia, the Caribbean, Colombia, Ethiopia, Ghana, Haiti, Honduras, Indonesia, Mali, Pakistan, Peru, Senegal, Sudan, Tanzania, Ukraine, Vietnam, and the West Bank and Gaza.
    16. See
    17. Berthiaume, L. (2010) CIDA revamp models coming fast amidst fear, anger over Tory plans. The Embassy Magazine, 19 May. A more academic manifestation of this trend is found in a forthcoming volume: Brown, S. (ed) CIDA and Canadian Aid Policy: Taking Stock and Moving Forward.
    18. Ibbitson, J. (2010) Robert Fowler attacks Ottawa’s inaction in Africa. Globe and Mail, 28 March.
    19. The Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade (2007) Overcoming 40 Years of Failure: A New Road Map for Sub-Saharan Africa. Government of Canada.
    20. Brown, C. and Jackson, E. (2009) Could the Senate be Right? Should CIDA be Abolished? in Maslove, A. (ed) How Ottawa Spends, 2009-10. McGill-Queen’s University Press.
    21. The McLeod Group (n.d.) Why and How the Federal Government Should Fix Foreign Aid.
    22. Johnston, P. (2010) Modernizing Canadian Foreign Aid and Development. Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation.
    23. Carin, B. and Smith, G. (2010) Reinventing CIDA. Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.
    24. Goldfarb, D. and Tapp, S. (2006) How Canada Can Improve its Development Aid. C.D. Howe Institute, Commentary No. 232, April.
    25. Canadian International Council (2010) Open Canada: A Global Positioning Strategy for a Networked Age.
    26. Tomlinson, B. (2010) A Review of the Second Report to Parliament on the Government of Canada’s Official Development Assistance 2009-2010. A CCIC Briefing Note, October.