I am doing a series of articles on the book “Rethinking Canadian Aid” (University of Ottawa Press, 2015), and now it’s time for “CHAPTER I: Humane Internationalism and the Malaise of Canadian Aid Policy” written by one of the co-editors, David R. Black.
He takes Pratt’s analysis and identifies three conceptual constructs.
First, he argued that Canadian political culture incorporated a robust and persistent, though eroding, element of “humane internationalism” (HI), defined as “an acceptance by the citizens of the industrialized states that they have ethical obligations towards those beyond their borders and that these in turn impose obligations on their governments” (Pratt 1989, 13). This orientation was, he argued, understood by its adherents to be consistent with the “real long-term interests of the rich countries,” but remained at its core ethical and cosmopolitan in orientation (Pratt 1989, 14).
Put more simply, there is a role to be played if you’re an international actor. I think it would be good if Black went a little beyond aid though — there are ethical obligations for peace-keeping and entries into war, going back to the time of feudal kings. Even if you yourself were not threatened, you had an obligation to aid an ally under attack. In those times it was more self-interested (mutual protection), but it was also the basis for chivalry and knights. It certainly was part of the argument for getting involved in European wars that didn’t directly threaten non-European borders.
The idea of the counter-consensus was Pratt’s second main conceptual contribution to the framing of Canadian foreign policy. It foreshadowed the growing interest in the role and influence of “civil society” and the “democratization” of foreign policy that came to the fore in the 1990s. […] Given what he understood to be HI’s public resonance and firm societal roots, the puzzle was why it had not had greater influence on the policy and practice of Canadian aid, which virtually all scholarly commentators saw as bedevilled by “mixed motives,” among which ethical considerations were typically (though not unremittingly) subordinated to more narrowly self-interested priorities.
One complaint I have with the characterization of an NGO consensus is that it represents a consensus at all, particularly in Canada. Consultations have shown again and again that when NGOs et al are asked what the Canadian government should do about problem X or in country Y or in sector Z, those same NGOs who argue for humane ideals (on which they do agree) are the same ones submitting extremely self-serving and divergent solutions. That’s not completely surprising on one front — if an NGO is focused on famines, they are obviously going to suggest that the world needs to do more on food security. Those who focus on water are going to suggest more needs to be done on water issues. Yet in most cases, it isn’t that “more” needs to be done but rather that there is no consensus as to what the priorities should be. In fact, there is an old joke at CIDA that it should have been renamed ATTAP — all things to all people. No one wants to talk about the old saw that up until about 1992, 80+ percent of all “aid” money was actually spent in Canada on Canadian NGOs. We have a strong history of supply-driven aid, much of which belies a “consensus” on anything more than “help people”.
To explain this puzzle, Pratt elaborated a “dominant class” approach, combining an emphasis on the relative autonomy of permanent officials within the state with an understanding that their conception of the “national interest” showed a persistent bias towards the interests of “capitalism in Canada.” Influenced by structural Marxism, combined in a “non-doctrinaire” manner with international realism and, in later versions, a neo-Gramscian attention to the precepts of neoliberal globalization, Pratt’s emphasis on the enduring influence of dominant class interests provided a basis for understanding the policy choices that were made (e.g., regarding tied aid, the choice of recipients, and the use of aid funds to promote private sector activity in developing countries) under the ethical cover of the aid program.
Yesterday I mentioned one of my complaints (Critique of Rethinking Canadian Aid – Introduction) with academic analysis looking like intellectual masturbation, particularly when it comes to political economy, and this sort of sophistry is where it falls apart for me. The short short short version is that we have a liberal democracy with a capitalist economy. What a shock to say that many of the government policies of the day reinforce the dominant ideals in both domains and that they also influence aid policy. It’s hard to imagine a large-scale government policy that doesn’t reflect the dominant ideologies in most western-style democracies. That’s how they work. It doesn’t create a separate “class” (economic or political) nor is it doing it under “ethical cover”. It doesn’t NEED ethical cover as if it is hidden or subversive. We have identical influences in every department — why would aid be different? And why would the government “apologize” for it?
Not that Black is wholly embracing of the Pratt analysis, noting that
[…]such ideal-typical contrasts have important analytical utility. However, they also have certain risks and ramifications when applied to the “real world” of policy. First, the ethical clarity of purpose associated with the “pure” articulation of HI is virtually impossible to approach in practice.[…] On the other hand, a discussion of development that does not embed a forthright and sophisticated discussion of ethical purpose will be an impoverished one. A policy domain that is centrally preoccupied with addressing the causes and consequences of global poverty will be infused, inevitably, with conceptions of and arguments about obligation and justice. What is needed, therefore, is a discussion that better captures the dilemmas and ambiguities of ethical purpose, without (implicitly or explicitly) discounting it as somehow “too hard” or too naïve.
I agree with the intent but not the direction. Black wants to take the NGO claim to “true” ethical concerns while tossing out “wrong” concerns for Canadian interests — but there is no normative basis to say that a Canadian government official that is appointed to work “for Canada” is somehow morally corrupt because they are interested in Canadian interests. The pillar of self-righteousness assumes the moral high ground, but with no ethical basis to do so. Person A wants to help foreigners, Person B wants to help Canadians — that isn’t an ethical dilemma that can be solved through rhetoric or solved at all. In fact, there are a lot of people who think that Person A is actually “wrong” in their approach and that the “right” or “true approach” that will work is self-interest. With equally compelling “ethical” arguments going back to Kant and Rousseau. The fact that one is more “attractive” to the NGOs doesn’t make it “the one true way”, like a religion.
I’m going to digress here for a moment with more of a personal revelation. Despite the fact that I work for the government, and support its policies and programs in as non-partisan fashion as I can, I think the NGOs are correct that our aid policies and practices should be primarily if not exclusively based on altruism and serving developing country interests. However, having studied ethics, political economy, philosophy, human rights, and law, I also believe that there is a limit to normative views and that on some levels, when consensus is not “self-evident”, relativism has to invariably creep in. Person A may have an absolute belief in self-interest or at least “national self-interest” (to be more precise), but they have no greater or lesser claim to normative roles for government than the altruist unless one of those “beliefs” eventually rises to the level of a human right. Only at that point does it become normative; up until then, it’s all choices.
David Morrison, in his landmark 1998 history of CIDA, noted that “while polls have consistently shown humanitarian sentiment as the leading reason people give for supporting aid, they have also revealed scant general knowledge about the nature or extent of Canadian development assistance — and, except for a small minority, a low ranking in comparison with other public goods” (Morrison 1998, 440). Noël, Thérien, and Dallaire (2004) used publicly available polling data to elaborate on this point, and further noted that there was a deep divide between a soft majority of Canadians who were broadly supportive of aid and a substantial minority who were deeply sceptical or even hostile towards it.
I don’t think this type of analysis actually moves the yardstick forward. What is actually needed is a more nuanced survey that also asks what people (including Parliamentarians) think development actually IS. That sounds pedestrian, doesn’t it? Asking them what development means? Yet even the NGOs can’t agree. In OECD terms, there’s a division between humanitarian assistance, transition programming, and regular development. Yet when CIDA engages with the NGOs and more importantly the average Canadian, they ask about “development”, yet the support from Canadians is for humanitarian assistance. It’s why the average Canadian talks about earthquakes, and floods, and tsunamis, and does stupid things like shipping a box of used shoes around the world to “help”. The level of understanding and the broad support that NGOs claim exists is a very large but extremely shallow puddle.
Let’s take a practical example. If you ask most Canadians if food and shelter are development, they’ll say “of course”. (Note, it’s probably not, just humanitarian aid that acts as triage on a gaping wound – the patient stays alive, but they’re not living.) If you ask them if organizing a meeting of NGOs to talk about the country’s needs is “development”, about half say yes. The other half say no because they don’t see it as doing anything — just talk. Yet the governance people would cry “of course”!
Now, go one step further, and say the NGOs have got together and agreed that the people need a water irrigation system for their crops. And look, there’s a Canadian company with the technology and time and availability to do it. Can I hire them to do it, maybe even using local labour to install and run it? And is it development? The locals say of course; the Canadians would say about 80% yes; and the NGOs in Canada would scream “No, that’s self-interest, you can’t do it.”
While I hesitate to go Machiavellian and look more to the end than the means, the definition of development is fairly clear. A development activity that aids a developing country. It doesn’t care WHY we did the development activity, as long as there were benefits to the developing country. How and Who benefits, not an ethical debate of motive.
If one wants to go down that rabbit-hole, there is a much bigger and simpler ethical dilemma that the NGOs can`t answer. Is it better to do something that aids Canada and helps a developing country grow and survive, yet has a moral taint according to the NGOs, or to risk doing nothing for lack of domestic support and let them remain unaided in poverty, yet Canadian consciences can remain calm that doing nothing was for the right reasons? NGOs would argue that the question is a strawman that wrongly frames the question, and I don’t disagree. But if the NGOs want to stand on high ground and claim ethical normativism, then their position has to be able to answer these types of questions unequivocally, not just reframe them to make it an easier one.
I have to confess that Black loses me when talking about CIDA forming alliances with other departments.
It meant, as well, that development analysts and practitioners were less attentive than they might have been to opportunities for forging strategic relationships and alliances with people and branches in other government departments, so as to enlarge and strengthen the constituency for development assistance within government. It would be naïve to think that this could be easily or widely achieved, but it could potentially broaden the range of opportunities and support for development issues within the apparatus of the state.
So, going back to what I said above, I don’t think CIDA reflecting “government of Canada priorities” is any different from any other department. Yet, for some reason, it is assumed that forging alliances with those other departments (who by their nature are even more domestically and nationally oriented than DFAIT) would help entrench more human internationalism. Having worked in CIDA and DFAIT for 12 years, I cannot think of a single time when interacting with other government departments didn’t have the officials at CIDA arguing for more poverty reduction focus and less national interest focus demanded by the other partners.
Nevertheless, the increasingly pressing question for many aid sceptics, on both the right and the left, was whether aid was doing any good at all for those it ostensibly sought to assist. Would, for example, a more generous aid program translate into better life prospects for poor people and communities? Would the gains made be sustainable, or would they deepen distortions and dependencies? Would the good work undertaken by aid agencies be effectively undermined or even negated by macroeconomic policies or foreign investments (e.g., in the extractive sector) promoted by other arms of the Canadian state?
Ultimately, when you take out the normative claims, results are pretty much all you are left with, which still sounds quite Machiavellian, although the ethical argument is about motive, not actually the means. Which approach produces better results? Evidence is extremely mixed on a good day, and involve a lot of assumptions of relative value. Some who operate on purely capitalist ideology would argue that if the standard of living goes up, everything is good — they may not care about rule of law, gender equity, the environment, human rights, or social mobility. If a culture is destroyed but the patient lives, the operation was a success. Others obviously have different measuring sticks. Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen debated the proper “stick” at length when ul Haq was creating the UNDP Human Development Index, and even they couldn’t agree (including on what eventually became the Millennium Development Goals).
In doing so, however, Canadian development scholars and analysts arguably neglected a series of critical trends in migration, remittances, investment, ecology, and the like. To be sure, they (or rather we) did not ignore these important trends. Nevertheless, given the ongoing emphasis on the study of Canadian aid policy and the debate about its underlying motivations and purposes, less attention was given to the interconnections between development assistance and these broader trends than their importance warranted.
While I disagree with some of the conclusions and approaches of Black throughout the chapter, I love this last section. I’m hoping others pick this up in more detail in the rest of the book, but with not much foreshadowing here in his text, I have my doubts. Development includes many things, and aid is but one; even in considerations of development “flows”, and financing, there are some sources that eclipse aid dramatically. I have hopes that someday we will see a full framework enunciated by someone that talks about the various flows in a coherent fashion, including knowledge, people and resources, and stops assuming it is only about resources.