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Canada Must Find Focus Before It Can Be A Global Aid Leader

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By Jacob Winter

Canadian aid is in the middle of an identity crisis. Since the demise of CIDA in 2013, Canadian international assistance has fumbled around in its new mega-department, adding more countries of focus to its programs as funding plateaus.

At the same time, pressures from above demand that Canada align itself to global shifts in rhetoric from New York and Istanbul, while Trudeau's friendly internationalism suggests a shift in the future of Canadian cooperation.

In this rapidly changing landscape, newly appointed Minister of International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau called for a review of Canada's global development cooperation. The stated goal of this review is to refocus Canada's aid in order to 1) target the poorest and most vulnerable as well as fragile states, and 2) align with the 2030 Agenda.

A key part of the review is a public consultation with an extensive online survey accompanied by a 28-page discussion paper. Most NGOs, including the CCIC, welcome the attention to Canada's development efforts, but there are challenges to finding focus in such wide consultations.

First and foremost, the report sidesteps Canada's failure to reach even half of its pledge of giving 0.7 per cent of GNI as aid. The discussion guide records: "Some donors have chosen to meet this goal. Others recognize the goal's importance and look for opportunities to explore new approaches and to increase the focus on results achieved".

Second, the five pre-determined priority areas seem to make consultations perfunctory. The scope of "priorities" is wide, covering everything from children's rights to green growth. In an op-ed, the McLeod Group describe the consultations as "pre-scripted"-- following a long tradition of Canadian aid priorities adapting to political whim.

Finally, the strategies suggested for delivering results give an unrealistic picture of what is "effective" for Canada's assistance. The discussion paper suggests that Canadian assistance must align with domestic policy goals and reflect local needs. Aid must be both "prudent" and "flexible"; "evidence-based" and "risk-taking". Attempting to 'harmonize' Multilateral, domestic and recipient-country agendas is unlikely to produce anything coherent. While $4.5 billion can fulfill multiple priorities, a lack of clarity is what spurred this review in the first place.

The reality that needs to be acknowledged is that policymaking requires tradeoffs. Canada has a relatively scant aid budget and must choose from an overwhelming world of needs and opportunities. This is less like choosing between chocolate or vanilla and more like deciding whether to run over a cat or swerve into a tree. A million dollars spent on youth employment programs forgoing a million spent on maternal health. It is impossible to judge which is more effective.

Where can Canada shine?

From among the hundreds of worthy pursuits, Canada must focus. Drawing on the consultation paper, there are three themes that could give shape to Canadian assistance. Canada could find clarity by prioritizing women, vulnerable states and human rights.

Women
The paper asserts that a "feminist lens will be applied throughout all of Canada's international assistance activities". Canada has long been involved in women's empowerment, from pioneering "women in development" in the 1980s, to Trudeau's famous assertion this spring that "men should not be afraid to call themselves feminists". Making policy and budget choices through the lens of "How will this affect women?" brings coherence in a way that "Is it effective?" or "Is it innovative?" do not.

Vulnerable
In the last few years, Canadian aid has chased investment potential in emerging markets instead of targeting those that need it most.

By contrast, the Sustainable Development Goals emphasize "leaving no one behind". In line with this resolution, the discussion paper emphasizes that Canada's aid should target the poorest and most vulnerable, as well as fragile and conflict-affected states. While this focus brings the risk of aid following in the wake of Canada's military operations, clear criteria for country partnership will be extremely useful.

Human Rights
Perhaps the most significant development is the weight that Global Affairs places on human rights. While ODA legislation requires that Canada's aid be consistent with human rights standards, the review aims to make securing and promoting human rights as a key component of Canada's international assistance. CCIC's Fraser Reilly-King adds that in this approach, rights become both a means and an end of development. Foregrounding human rights could give Global Affairs a clear mandate for their work around the world.

While a policy review of Canada's global development cooperation framework is a welcome opportunity, the process risks yielding only a bloated list of aspirations. Like making syrup from sap, Global Affairs must distill their plethora of opportunities into a single, robust product. As stakeholders invited into this process, our voices will determine what boils off and what sticks.

Jacob Winter is a recent graduate of the University of Waterloo's International Development program. He blogs about development issues at noblenomore.wordpress.com.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of CCIC or its members.

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