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 7: Continental Shift? Rethinking Canadian Aid to the Americas” by Laura Macdonald and Arne Ruckert.
I really like the start of the chapter:
One of the defining features of the Harper government’s development assistance program, and of its foreign policy more broadly, has been a strong rhetorical shift towards an emphasis on Canadian economic interest in the promotion of foreign ties and in the delivery of foreign assistance. The Americas as a region has tended to serve as a proxy for this shift in focus. The higher levels of economic development of the region as a whole and growing Canadian trade and investment interests in the region, particularly in the mining sector, mean that increased aid to the Americas is commonly portrayed as a response to cold, hard Canadian self-interest, as opposed to the soft-hearted benevolence of assistance to Africa.
Swiss’ analysis in the previous chapter (Critique of Rethinking Canadian Aid – Chapter 6 – Mimicry and Motives) shows that self-interest claims are indeed mainly rhetorical and about how it is portrayed, but without much meat behind the mainly NGO rhetoric. Sound bite policy, not aid delivery policy.
Canadian development assistance to Latin America thus represents a good test case for the proposition that we have seen increased emphasis since 2007 on the economic self-interest of Canadians and Canadian firms, and less on the longer-term promotion of development and the well-being of the world’s poorest citizens.
And then they lost some of my interest. Because it assumes you can’t do the two simultaneously, when in fact the why is still about development, but the choice of “how” and “what” could still be about Canadian self-interest. For example, if we had a lot of tied aid (as we did before 1995 or so), it was heavily geared toward regional economic interests in Canada (particularly before 1990), yet it was still “development”. The real test should be not whether something is “for development” or not as all of it is development but whether we choose projects that align with Canadian interests that are less effective than projects that don’t align with Canadian interests. In other words, if the recipient country needs were basic health care first, governance second, social development third, and business development fourth, with the expected benefits matching those priorities (i.e. they would see the best gains first in health care), but Canada says “hey, we’ll help you, but we want to work on business development first”, then the results would be less than they could have been. Still development, still helping, but not effective or efficient. Put differently, the problems with tied aid are that (a) donors might offer something that recipients don’t need or want and (b) it’s not the most effective or efficient use of aid. In short, supply-driven distortion rather than the purity of a demand-driven needs analysis.
However, the Liberal governments of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin downplayed Canada’s role in the Americas in both foreign and development assistance policies. The International Policy Statement (IPS) issued by Martin’s government in April 2005 explicitly committed Canada to focus on Africa in its development assistance, including a commitment to double 2003–04 levels of ODA to that region by 2008–09 (Cameron 2007, 231).
I have a small cautionary concern in this analysis which is back to sound bite policy explanations vs. the policy analysis behind it. It looks, at first blush, like a focus on geographic regions and one might think therefore that it is blatant and real regionalism.
But if you look at the list of “least developed countries” by the UN, it has three criteria — low GNI, low human resource weakness based on nutrition/health/education/adult literacy, and economic vulnerability. In other words, the ones most in need of aid, and unlikely to progress without it. It sounds like the humanitarianism call for assistance. Yet, again, if you look at the list of countries, only one (Haiti) is in the Americas, 15 are in the Asia-Pacific region, and, wait for it, 34 are in Africa.
Suppose as a donor you decided to go with this list of 50 countries, the bottom 50, how would you explain it in shorthand? Those “most in need” of aid? Well, of course, but all aid is supposed to be about that. So politicians as well as policy analysts look for paradigms to act as proxies for explaining an intersection of income + capacity + vulnerability, and look, two-thirds are in the same economic region. So, people start saying “the focus is shifting to Africa” which is geographically true, and a nice way to frame a sound bite, while also avoiding complaints of racism at UN conferences if the funds shift the other way (that isn’t a theoretical construct, people complained when $$ moved away from Africa or even within Africa that such a change reflected racism against black people).
Yet the reason I raise this caution is not simply because of false regionalism, but that it might avoid the real analysis behind that change (focusing on LDCs and need) vs. a decision later that is focused more on the division of labour (other countries are investing elsewhere with less money in Americas by other donors) and on the choice of types of programming (you can do different types of development programming in the second tier of 50 countries more so than the bottom tier because both partners have more of a capacity base to build upon, also doubling as a proxy for aid effectiveness with a slightly different weighting of sub-factors, which I’ll come back to when talking about Peru). That doesn’t negate the possible subsequent analysis, but at times the regionalism is just a proxy for the other frames and not always the obvious ones.
Despite these changes in justification for aid decisions and in aid recipients, as well as the greater rhetorical emphasis on the Americas, overall levels of ODA channelled to Africa did not decrease (see Figure 1). Latin America and the Caribbean did receive a greater share of Canada’s aid budget, with the main loser being Asia, due mainly to the scaling down of aid to Afghanistan.
Which is one of the challenges with regional analysis — some people might stop here and think “no difference, meh”, which is why I’m happy to see the further analysis on Peru, Honduras and Haiti (although I suspect Haiti is too complex of a humanitarian crisis to draw much in the way of conclusions regarding actual developmental programming).
Peru arguably represents the best example of Canada’s incremental shift in aid engagement in the Americas towards privileging private sector investments. Canada has significant mining interests in Peru, with Goldcorp, Barrick Gold, Candente Copper Corp, and various smaller companies operating in the country. In 2009, as part of CIDA’s aid effectiveness agenda, Canada designated Peru as one of its twenty focus countries, despite its status as an upper middle-income country. […] The programming focus of Canada’s newfound engagement with Peru lies in the areas of education and sustainable economic development, with the latter becoming the central focus in 2012. In fact, a quick scan of DFATD’s project browser reveals that almost all projects (six out of eight) approved in 2012 and 2013 focus on private sector development and corporate social responsibility (CSR) in the mining sector (DFATD 2013b). The government describes the overall goal of this engagement as “fostering the sustainable development of the extractive/natural resources sector to benefit all segments of the population and increasing government capacity to reduce social conflicts” (CIDA 2011a). This focus is part of the larger reorientation of aid policy under the Harper government towards CSR as a central area of concern, with initiatives that, DFATD claims, will contribute to sustainable economic growth, creating jobs and long-term poverty reduction (DFATD 2011b).
That’s a really long quote that I wanted to include in its entirety because it reflects a solid line of thinking that rests on an initial premise that may not hold. The argument is best laid out as:
- Canadian companies have mining interests in Peru;
- Peru was chosen, but wasn’t a low-income country;
- Sound bites talked about domestic interests;
- Aid increased;
- The focus in Peru was education and the private sector, particularly mining interests.
Ergo, we are doing mining projects because Canadian companies have mining interests in Peru. A nice logic chain through five steps. Except, and I’m not being naive as I say this, what if steps 1-3 are connected (call it Group A) and steps 4-5 (Group B) are connected, but A is not connected to B. How could this be? Let’s see.
Group A (1-3) probably falls to (potentially) just #1 and 2, since we’ve seen the sound bites and spin are indeed rhetoric. And when the current government rebalanced regionally with less focus on Africa, and they had to thus choose some more countries in Americas, Canadian interests in Peru might have swayed Peru to make the list, although not necessarily as crassly as most assume. If Canadian companies are operating in Peru, and thus we have ties and awareness in Peru, and those same companies complain to the government that “Peru has capacity issues and needs help”, is it inconceivable that politicians might start to think Peru needs help? Put a little differently, if NGOs argue for help in Guyana and no business people do, but some NGOs + some business people say Peru needs help, politicians start to hear twice as much support for helping Peru. Add in the great likelihood that Peruvians can afford to send delegates to Canada to advocate on their behalf and the Guyanans can’t, that could be three groups asking for help in Peru. To use the analysis of the paper, multiple frames converged on selecting Peru, and absolutely some of them were likely commercial, but not the only ones.
But once that decision is made, and CIDA is told “Go work in Peru”, what does a development program in Peru look like? Do they need basic sanitation or health care? Nope, they’re a middle-income country. The basic work that you would do in Africa is irrelevant to Peruvian needs — they’ve grown past that level of help. Basic education? Nope. In fact, on most factors of Human Development, they rank high. Governance? Sure, particularly in terms of things like CSR, training public officials, eliminating rent-seeking behaviour by officials (aka corruption). The environment would certainly be likely, particularly with extractive industries going on. But if you look at needs analysis with most middle-income countries, they’ve got the foundations built and are looking for growth. Less social development focus, more economic development focus overall. And not only is the sole sustainable growth source the private sector, in Peru, but it’s also currently extractive industries. (Shhh, don’t tell anyone, it is also what we’re doing domestically in B.C. and the North — because the basic social needs are met or are being met in other fashion, ergo focus on PSD, and ergo focus on the businesses that are growing currently i.e. extractive industries).
Does a government like Canada know that by choosing Peru we’re going to have to do work on PSD? Absolutely. Does it maybe create links between Group A and B? Sure. Just not entirely sure that it’s 1:1, and that the frames in Group A (the why) are the same frames in Group B (the what and how).
In January 2013, then Minister of International Cooperation Julian Fantino announced that funding for new development projects in Haiti would be frozen pending a review, expressing a frustration with the lack of progress in the country: “Canada expects transparency, accountability from the government of Haiti in exchange for future commitments” (Blatchford 2013). The reason for this decision is unclear, but in addition to concerns with lack of development progress and corruption, the Conservatives may have decided that they have little chance of gaining electoral benefits from increased assistance to Haiti in ridings with a large Haitian presence, particularly in Quebec. However, it could also be seen as a sign of a closer alignment of aid flows with commercial interests in the region.
I’m confused. The paper accepts claims from the government in commercially viable countries when they say it’s about commercial interests, but when they say the opposite in a commercially-irrelevant country, they must have suspect motives?
A better frame might be a greater focus by the Harper government in all programming areas (domestic, foreign, social, economic, etc) on clearly defined results, often short-term. That doesn’t happen in failed and fragile states. It’s partly why they remain failed and fragile for long periods of time. There are no magic wands, and no path to sustainability — if you want to think of it as a military metaphor, you send in millions of combat resources with only minor battle victories, but no guarantees that you’ll ever win the war and no clear exit strategy except more battling for years. If the rhetoric is true, and that there is less humanitarian values driving the choice of frames, repeated lack of demonstrable results would produce the outcome Fantino announced. Having nothing to do with electoral results or commercial interests, other than likely getting results somewhere else rather than no results in Haiti. And many would decry that thinking, maybe even going so far as to say, “Who is Fantino to decide that Haiti isn’t progressing fast enough?”. Except the answer is simple. He was the Minister. He gets to decide where the money goes, and if he’s not seeing the results he wants/expects, it would be a pretty odd day for that Minister not to redirect those funds elsewhere, particularly if it coincides with concerns of corruption.
Personally, and since the paper offers no evidence to make me think otherwise, I suspect it is a lack of depth of commitment to humanitarianism, not a changed commitment to other frames in Haiti’s case. Very few Ministers of any party have the stomach for long-term humanitarian assistance that shows little signs of improvement, and even signs of imploding.
The wave of electoral successes of left-of-centre parties all over Latin America throughout the 2000s has meant that Harper has been increasingly isolated politically in the region and was looking for new partners in the hemisphere, which he found in post-coup Honduras. Nevertheless, the high rates of violence in the country and widespread human rights violations, as well as the questionable manner in which the Lobo government came to power, reveal the lack of emphasis on the democracy pillar in the government’s Americas Strategy. The Honduran experience thus shows Harper government’s political and economic interests conflicting with its espoused commitment to promoting democracy.
Okay, I’m lost again. Earlier in the paper, it basically said that it didn’t matter whether politicians were right or left, there was the same level of support, just different frames at play. Yet, here again, no analysis is done, no evidence presented, just a conclusion that it must be because they are both right-wing, that must be the reason? Plus, it says that if there are Human Rights abuses and violence in the country, interest in democracy must be suspect. It reminds me of an editorial cartoon back when Susan Whelan was Minister, and it showed her announcing partners that had a strong commitment to good governance and democracy, respect for human rights, etc., and concluded with the punchline that our first country of concentration would be Switzerland.
Going back to the issue of Ministers not having the stomach for pouring money into failed states with no immediate results apparent, here’s a shock that often hits politicians in development work. If you care about human rights and democracy, you have to engage those who don’t care about them. If you only talk to those who have it “right”, you’re never improving either. So couldn’t I use the same line of evidence to say “Hey, Honduras was politically isolated from the rest of the Americas, so the US and Canada threw them a lifeline because they saw them about to sink into violence and Human Rights abuses”? Do I think that’s true or accurate? Probably not. But it has the same evidence as the paper did, namely none when it came to the opposite conclusion.
Overall, this is the weakest paper so far. I like some of the upfront framing, but by the end, it feels like I’m reading a hatchet job done by an opposition party. Even on CSR, it reads like “If you don’t do CSR, you’re evil; if you do CSR, you obviously don’t mean it”. I expected more evidence, more analysis, and less filler.