03/27/2013 05:45 EDT | Updated 05/26/2013 05:12 EDT

Is the End of CIDA the End of Canadian Development?


In a humid concrete office in Monrovia -- across the tumult of shouts, horns, and dust that stream in from the street below -- I am interviewing the head of LANSA, a Liberian non-governmental organization. "Liberia is a very rich country in terms of natural resources and the population is so small with the wealth that this country has, at least everybody should be able to live at the average level," says Robert Miller. In the midst of our discussion about violence, he stops to muse about Liberia's development. "We have growth, but [economic] statistics are not jobs, or food." Perhaps his tangent is fitting, since the routes towards development are never linear, and always comprised of a numerous complexly interconnected factors.

I thought back to this conversation after learning about last week's announcement to merge the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) into Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT). There are concerning indications that the merger would result in a redefinition of Canadian bilateral aid programming, moving away from CIDA's historical commitment to poverty reduction and humanitarian assistance and towards aligning the agency with Canada's economic self-interest; most notably, its investments in extractive industries.

To be sure, there are gains to be made from extractive industries -- for Canada and for its partners in the Global South. But as Mr. Miller's comments suggest, Liberia offers a counterexample of the limitations of the extractive-based growth model many African countries have adopted. More importantly, the Liberian case cautions of the dangers of conflating international development with economic development, which Canada is increasingly doing. In Liberia, international development and economic development may be complementary, but they are not synonymous.

A decade after fourteen-years civil conflict killed an estimated 250,000, displaced one million others, and decimated the country's infrastructure, Liberia has leveraged deposits of rubber, timber, iron, and diamonds to reach an impressive 9.4 per cent growth rate. Other African countries have followed comparable trajectories. The United Nations' (UN) 2011 Economic Report on Africa forecasted 5 per cent economic growth for Africa for 2012, with regions such as West Africa growing even faster, due largely to extractive sectors.

Yet as in many of these fast-growing African countries, growth in Liberia has not yielded development, in what the UN calls a "jobless recovery." This is because investment that is concentrated in extractive sectors -- such as oil, gold and diamonds -- produces limited "forward and backward links with the rest of the economy" and thus brings few jobs.

Indeed, Liberia continues to have stubbornly high unemployment and poverty rates. Almost two-thirds of the population lives below a dollar a day and 85 per cent of Liberians are without formal jobs. Young men hauling wheelbarrows through the West African heat and women selling agricultural goods in congested markets are centrepieces of Liberia's urban spread. In rural areas, most work their farms, surviving on the food they grow.

Social problems persist as well, including: weak rule of law, widespread corruption, lack of infrastructure, poor health and education, and high levels of violence against women and girls. The latter is a particular problem. Sexual violence and domestic violence still affect hundreds of thousands of Liberian women and girls. This type of violence is driven by patriarchal historical structures that have now combined with the behavioural legacy of a conflict that saw rape used as a weapon of war, and with post-conflict risk factors such as poverty, anemic criminal justice, and substance abuse.

That is not to say that progress is not being made -- it is. Roads are being built, as are hospitals and schools. As a result life expectancy and school enrolment are improving. I have seen this progress firsthand, throughout my more than three years of work in Liberia. I was just back in-country to evaluate a project that worked with men to prevent domestic and sexual violence, promoting equal gender roles and behaviors. The evaluation ultimately found that the initiative produced a noticeable change in the knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors among its male participants.

Programs such as this one require time -- and funds -- to create social impacts. These funds should not be contingent on partnership with the extractive sector, as impacts are measured not in dollars and cents, but in modest victories such the one expressed by one participant's wife. "The men are not beating on [women] much... [and] things are changing small-small." She devoted two hours of her workday to meet with nine other women under a thatched-roof-hut in Northern Liberia to discuss the effects of the program. Based on the positive changes they have experienced in their homes, the women recommended that the program be extended to other communities in Liberia.

Neither trade nor investment in resource extraction can bring about broader social and behavioural changes such as those just described -- not in Liberia, nor elsewhere. Though the nature of Canada's new aid configuration is yet to be determined, Liberia is an example of the complexities of administering aid. It is also a warning that economic development should not be conflated with international development.

If CIDA's new direction means that development assistance will be used to advance Canada's prosperity and security -- rather than focusing on the needs of the poor and marginalized -- it will be a step backwards along the long path towards development, for all women, men, and children living in countries like Liberia.

Ottawa Shuts Down CIDA