Dariusz Dziewanski Headshot

Is Canada's Foreign Aid Just About Looking Good?

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International public opinion surveys suggest two main motivations for giving foreign aid: morality and national benefit. In Canada, a 2004 public opinion poll indicated that approximately twice as many people saw Canadian foreign aid as an altruistic moral imperative, rather than an extension of national interests.

Six in 10 Canadians said that helping people in need, the moral obligation to help, and the duty of a rich country to help poorer countries should be the main reasons for Canada to have an aid program. By comparison, three out of 10, said that aid should contribute to Canada's reputation or economy, or to international peace and stability.

Since 2004, Canada's foreign aid strategy has experienced a noticeable move along a spectrum from morality to national self-interest. This move has been punctuated by recent increases in support for projects directly tied to the activities of Canadian mining companies. For example, in 2011, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) announced that it was partnering with Barrick Gold, matching $1 million in funding for a World Vision-administered project to provide loans for small businesses and to foster capacity-building for local leaders. The partnership is part of the firm's operations in in Quiruvilca, Peru, near Barrick Gold's Lagunas Norte mine. According to International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino, Canada's foreign aid agency should play an active role in promoting the country's economic interests abroad, through Canadian companies such as Barrick Gold, rather than limiting its activities to only poverty reduction.

As the international balance of financial power is redistributed towards the global south, expanding economic engagement with previously underdeveloped markets has become a national imperative. Questionable, however, is CIDA's role in promoting such an engagement. It is an aid agency first, with a primary mandate for poverty reduction. And while Minister Fantino memorably claimed that CIDA is not in the business of subsidizing non-governmental organizations, there is a credible argument to be made that CIDA's partnerships with mining industry projects amount to an indirect subsidy for these companies.

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Whether you call it a tipping point or a crisis, the shift in Canada's aid policy poses some fundamental questions of us as Canadians; for instance: why do we give foreign aid? And what does it say about us as a nation? Answers to these questions are representative of the values that we choose to project globally through our aid portfolio.

Canadians generally perceive themselves as generous and enlightened, with an international reputation as peacekeepers and problem-solvers. It is an identity that is inferred from Canada's historical role as middle power and champion of multilateral international movements in peacekeeping, mine action, and the responsibility to protect. The Official Development Assistance Accountability Act -- which governs how aid is delivered and administered -- formally defines the relationship between Canadian aid and Canadian values. The Act mandates that poverty reduction efforts must be provided in a manner that is consistent with Canadian values that, amongst others, include: global citizenship, equity, and environmental sustainability.

Our lofty rhetorical commitments notwithstanding, it is the nature of Canada's international engagements that defines who we really are, and what we truly value. These values, in turn, determine not only the types of foreign initiatives pursued, but also their effectiveness, by means of Canada's international standing and influence in the world. Thus, the time has come for Canadians to consider why we give aid, and whether or not our foreign aid priorities are a reflection of our national hopes and aspirations. Though overall public support for development assistance remains high in Canada, rather than exporting citizenship, equity, and sustainability, Canada is increasingly focused on maximizing the value of national exports and investments. Should this trend continue, in absence of critical self-reflection, it is inevitable that the international community will begin to reappraise the merits of Canada's foreign policy. But at what cost to Canadians? And at what cost to the international community?