Transparency and Canadian Foreign Aid

08/01/2011 02:07 EDT | Updated 10/01/2011 05:12 EDT

It has always been hard to get timely information on Canada's foreign aid. Now, thanks to the new "Open Government" initiative, data are easier to access on the Canadian International Development Agency's website. With this, CIDA promises "Increasing Transparency and Accountability Through Open Data." For the first time, downloadable data sets are made available to the public on annual disbursements of all forms of Canadian aid to all recipient countries. This is a great first step.

Some of this information is presented in an interesting new format. For instance, by clicking on a link, one can access an Excel file on "Key Government of Canada Commitments for the Allocation of the Aid Budget". In it, one finds a list of promises that the government has made in recent years regarding aid to specific sectors, countries or regions, as well as the greater concentration of aid. Below each promise are the figures by fiscal year, followed by an indication if the target has been met or is on track to being met, or not. Impressively, all 20 promises have been kept or will be, though some new spending targets in practice often simply repeat past commitments.

Closer examination, however, reveals some other fudging of the data. In 2005, the (Liberal) government promised to double aid to Africa between 2003-04 and 2008-09. Technically, the (Conservative) government did do so -- but only after the baseline figure was adjusted downwards, allowing the government to fall $700 million short of the initial pledge without technically breaking it, at least according to its interpretation of the promise.

Perhaps the oddest misrepresentation of the data relates to the commitment made in the 2007 budget: "We will aim to be among the largest five donors in core countries of interest". At the time, Canada had top-five donor status in 10 countries. In 2008, the figure remained 10. In 2009, it dropped to eight. How can this be interpreted as "on target", especially since CIDA has a list of 20 core countries of focus? Moreover, this "promise" was and remains an odd one. What difference does size matter, unless you intend to throw your weight around? It begs the more important issue that is missing in all this: the quality of aid.

The current CIDA data is mainly about inputs. They tell us how much the Canadian government has spent, but reveal nothing on how the money was spent. Was it disbursed through the recipient country government, a Canadian NGO or a UN agency? What was it actually spent on and what did it achieve? The CIDA website Project Browser provides some of that information, but it is clunky and often out of date. One has to open each individual project to get further information and most of the data presented relate to its initial goals, not the results that CIDA Minister Bev Oda says are so important, not even intermediate indicators or milestones. Also missing is the specific link to legislation that requires all CIDA funds to contribute to poverty reduction.

None of this is of any help in answering rather simple but important questions, such as what have the hundreds of millions Canada has spent in post-earthquake Haiti actually achieved? Has the money actually been spent on the ground or is it merely sitting in some multilateral trust fund, parked there to meet a disbursement target? In Afghanistan, how effective were the $1.6 billion in Canadian development assistance over the past decade, about half of which went to Kandahar province? How much stayed in the country and how much went to foreign contractors?

If the government wants to show it is fully committed to aid transparency, it will join the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). This would involve much more than quantitative information on some very selective inputs -- it would also require more complete data on participating organizations, activities and budgets, as well as public access to actual documentation, downloadable from the CIDA website. Even the World Bank and regional development banks have for the last few years published online every board policy paper the day it is approved (often accessible earlier for e-discussion on the draft), along with project documents and evaluations. CIDA has a long way to go before it meets this standard.

So some kudos to CIDA for this first modest step in providing more information on foreign aid flows. But the public should expect more. It is high time, especially in view of the Harper government's mantra of transparency and accountability, for Canada to join the IATI. Twelve other donor countries have already done so, including the United Kingdom, Sweden and Germany, as well as international organizations such as the World Bank, the European Commission and the United Nations Development Programme. Or does our government still not really know what we have achieved with these billions of taxpayer dollars?

Stephen Brown is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Ottawa. John Sinclair is a development consultant. Both are members of the McLeod Group.

This material was originally published in Embassy, July 27, 2011, p. 8.