I can often be harsh when reading various academics’ take on the government and what it “ought” to do, or even sometimes what it “has” done. Rather than the longitudinal view inspired by political economy, most of the decisions made are more about short-term politics, operational and management issues, and, hiding in the background, a general belief as to “how government works or ought to work”. Sometimes it is in response to pressure, sometimes it is jumping in front of a parade. But rarely does it rise to the rhetoric or analysis that academics have the time and luxury to concoct to explain what should happen or has happened.
I’ll give you an example. There was an article I read some time ago about HRDC and the spending “scandal” that hit the papers in the late 90s. The article did this great longitudinal political economy analysis of how this was a result of Weberian bureaucracy interacting with Keynesian economics, and how there was this eternal disconnect, etc. There were a couple of other high-flying paradigms thrown in, and it was basically academic intellectual masturbation. By contrast, I read a decent public admin article (written by ex-public servants) talking about how there had been a strong pressure to disburse money quickly and efficiently, with no counterbalancing controls to focus on documenting transactions for audit purposes. Hence, when the audit came, tons of papers were “missing” (i.e. they hadn’t been printed, they were saved electronically but not in the files) and although the scandal said “millions missing”, the result after printing and tracking everything properly, there was a discrepancy approximating a rounding error. While an academic prof of mine explained the difference as “sometimes political economists ask questions where the public servants leave off”, I can guarantee not a single public servant could validate the political economy article as representing anything they had seen or experienced on the ground.
For me, it is the paradigm of the professional government manager and policy analyst that I use when reading these articles — do they accurately reflect what is happening on the ground, do their assumptions match with operations or are they assuming things that only them and other academics would find remotely true, and can their conclusions lead to anything practical for a government or is it just sophistry to justify publishing?
Stephen Brown, Molly den Heyer and David R. Black have edited a new doc called “Rethinking Canadian Aid” (University of Ottawa Press, 2015), and I confess that I’m of two minds in starting to read it.
First of all, one of the articles is written by a friend who knows what he’s talking about and whom I respect, which leaves me hopeful, and a number of the sections are written by ex-public servants who worked inside the government machinery and saw its workings. Second, by contrast, my general suspicion of academic papers regarding government is multiplied almost exponentially when they write about how governments do aid.
Nevertheless, I’m “in” for the long haul on this one and I hope to read each of the articles over the next six weeks or so.
The opening intro raises some fundamental questions, and I’m hoping their analysis goes to more than their initial assumptions. It starts by noting:
There has been no shortage of recent calls for “reinventing” or “reimagining” Canadian foreign aid to respond to the litany of problems that emerged over the forty-five-year lifespan of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), including excessive bureaucracy, slow delivery and frequently shifting priorities (Carin and Smith 2010; Gordon Foundation 2010). Yet there was general surprise in March 2013 when the Canadian government announced its institutional solution: merging CIDA with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, creating in June 2013 the new Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD).
Everybody in the department will argue that there is excessive bureaucracy; those in the OAG would likely argue otherwise, as they have when they do audits and don’t find enough controls in place. Similarly in finance (not Finance with capital F, just finance people in general, i.e. the beancounters), enabling services in general, and even the OECD who likes to argue for streamlining and effective aid while ensuring performance measurement tracking and comparable statistics on spending. Even the Senate committees are in favour of reduced bureaucracy yet ask more and more detailed questions about metrics.
Slow delivery is probably a valid concern, but note that in most cases, the bureaucratic processes and slow delivery models are based in comparison on donors with completely different governance models (a valid criticism in its own right) or the private sector and NGO sectors that have none of those pesky constraints called the constitution or taxpayer reporting. Put differently, many of those complaints reduce to simply that CIDA is a part of a complex government structure that slows it down. Every department has programs with identical complaints, by the way. When I worked at CIDA, you could find a fairly large number of people working there who would actively argue very straight-faced that “CIDA isn’t really government, we’re separate”, and thus all the constraints grated even harder. Not sure if they ever looked at the logo on their paycheque, or were just simply in denial that they were now “the man” that they wanted to rage against.
However, the “problem of shifting priorities” issue is not as settled as the editors would have us think. Ministers haven’t seen it as a problem; Prime Ministers haven’t seen it as a problem either. In fact, they’re the ones who shifted them. More importantly, up until about 1999 or 2000, one could make a pretty good argument that the bureaucrats didn’t even see it as a problem because they were really good at ignoring the priorities of the day. The problem was that starting in 2000 and continuing through to 2008, the technical and administrative priorities for operations (aid effectiveness, country concentration, sectoral concentration) DIDN’T change, the pressure didn’t alleviate, and CIDA actually HAD to change, whereas in the previous 30+ years it just waited out a change in Minister or a change in government, while merrily doing exactly what it had been doing the year before.
But to argue that the decision to merge the two departments was an institutional solution to those problems is almost completely false. I don’t doubt there was some spin to take some of the credit against those reasons, but the Government decision-makers didn’t see those issues as actual problems, except in the general sense of CIDA priorities not adequately matching broader Government of Canada priorities. The solution to merge was really about three issues just as it has been about the same three issues in just about every donor that has done the same or any time it has even come up as an option in Canada — bolstering the weight of Foreign Affairs abroad (they now not only have a single “self-interested” voice, they have money to back up their presence); solving the supposed incoherence between narrow development policy and broader macro foreign policy; and achieving efficiencies of scale (many of those popular donors abroad that are integrated also have lower costs because they have 1 set of enabling service providers, not 2 or 3 or 4). The OECD used to publish a guide to “managing aid”, and it listed those as pros of the model adopted.
However, I do think the editors are absolutely right about their conclusions:
A more fundamental “rethinking” is required, linked to a national conversation on the topic. Why do Canadians provide foreign aid? What is its role in the international arena? How is Canadian aid delivered and who benefits from it? How does, and should, aid relate to other foreign, security, economic, and commercial policy priorities? Where and how has aid been successful in improving development prospects? Conversely, what persistent weaknesses are associated with aid policy and practice? To what extent can these weaknesses be identified, addressed, and corrected?
NGOs have said the same thing repeatedly, as have many activists on the social scene. The part that is lost in that “wish” is that once opened, that can may not contain the worms everyone expects.
For example, as I expect the subsequent articles will address, the link between altruism and aid is not as obvious a conclusion as one might think and I look forward to that section the most. Often the NGOs only preach to the converted and thus think there is widespread support for altruistic aid. Then when the rubber hits the road, such as a national consultation on aid effectiveness, they find that most of the people tell the Minister that “change is needed” as long as it doesn’t affect their specific funding. DFAIT and the broader government priorities for greater attention to commercial interests did not spring out of nowhere, there is a strong and vocal group, particularly out west, that supports that direction quite heavily. It is also more in line with some of our like-minded non-Nordic partners like the U.S., Britain or Australia.
At any rate, I’m hoping the individual analyses is more illuminating than the above sections quoted, but regardless, it will at least be interesting reading. I don’t have the luxury of the detailed research that they have, so my views are more potshots from the cheap seats, but at least I’ll be candid while giving an alternate perspective.