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What Does Openness Mean For Canadian Development Assistance?

12/04/2015 05:12 EST | Updated 12/04/2016 05:12 EST
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Per Unheim and David Baron recently suggested that Canada might regain its development influence abroad under the Liberals by emphasizing three themes: investment, innovation, and effectiveness.

While we continue to read the tea leaves for policies the Liberal government might actually pursue, they have given us some indications and those point to a theme that's missing in Unheim and Baron's argument and desperately needed in development assistance: openness!

Openness and transparency permeates the mandate letters issued to members of cabinet by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and is a recurring theme in statements by his government. In fact, it is the only theme next to climate change so far.

But what does openness mean for development assistance? Currently, CIDA and now development assistance within Global Affairs Canada makes its decisions about funding projects in camera. Proposals are either called for or accepted as unsolicited proposals and then examined by development assistance officers. This in-house decision-making is justified by the need to maintain an arms-length relationship between Global Affairs Canada and development projects. Since millions of dollars are involved, that distance is necessary for decisions that are made in the interest of beneficiaries of development projects. Decision-making does not happen in an open or transparent fashion.

But how do those beneficiaries have a voice on what might benefit them? This is not a new question and one that Canadian development assistance has incorporated into legislation (ODA Accountability Act) and the proposal process. Typically, views of affected populations are included in decisions through statements by governments or other stakeholders that welcome the proposed project. But obviously, those letters can be produced without input from affected populations. Often, letter writers stand to benefit from the approval of projects materially or in terms of pet projects they may be pursuing, so it is in their interest to highlight the extent to which a proposal meets real needs. The need for a given proposed project is typically not established through open communications.

Of course, decisions at Global Affairs are made by well-intentioned professionals, so they know that letters of invitation are not the only way to address the question of establishing needs. Another approach is that officers develop country (or thematic) strategies that are based on interactions with affected populations. Long experience in the field of development work as many officers possess it, gives them some ability to discern such needs. And, country strategies are published, though often not very soon, and not in any detail. Again, details are avoided as they might give some bidder for contracts an unfair advantage, but this means that this part of the decision-making also does not happen in an open or transparent manner.

But it is not only decisions about projects that are made in camera. Any populations who stand to benefit from a project are hard-pressed to learn anything about that project. Formally, Global Affairs offers information about projects through its "International Development Project Browser". But give that a try some time and tell me whether affected populations will be able to learn much from these "3,100 profiles of international development projects funded by the Government of Canada". Global Affairs announces project openly, but not in a way that would make it transparent to purported beneficiaries.

Most development organizations are not particularly focused on sharing information about their projects, in part because that is not demanded nor particularly encouraged by Global Affairs. Some of the reporting requirements for development projects are so extensive (for the important reason of establishing accountability in the spending of tax dollars), that many organizations on their own are not likely to embrace an openness about their activities that would make these more transparent to affected populations or to the Canadian public, for that matter.

If "openness" is a theme in Liberal ambitions that is actually meant to transform the work of government, I cannot see how this would not also extend to development assistance. I would fully endorse Unheim and Baron's call for more innovative and effective activities that are better funded, but I expect and also hope that a transformation of development assistance towards more transparent decision-making and more transparent projects is something that will precede those investments.

Openness and the creation of mechanisms for direct engagement between the donor and beneficiaries of development assistance? That is something that would help Canada regain its influence, especially as an element of a broader, more strategic embrace of Digital Diplomacy.

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