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 17: Conclusion: Rethinking Canadian Development Cooperation — Towards Renewed Partnerships?” by David R. Black, Stephen Brown and Molly den Heyer as the three editors. Their conclusion, and the title of the book, is that things are a-changing when it comes to Canadian aid, and whether it is under Harper’s governance or over a longer time period, it is time to rethink Canadian aid as a result. Except I don’t think that is the conclusion I get from a more critical review of the text. Bear in mind that I am not reading it as an academic, I’m reading and critiquing it from the perspective of a manager — does it hold any resonance for me, does it identify the key factors at play, does it ring true? Generally, no. Noting, of course, it wasn’t written for the likes of me.
Note too that I am not disagreeing with their conclusion i.e. that aid partnerships might benefit from a re-think in terms of foundations, international partnerships, partnerships with Canadian stakeholders and intra-governmental partnerships, but rather that this book doesn’t provide the evidence to get us there.
Their main argument is that “aid in Canada has shifted”, either overtime or under the recent Conservative government. In terms of principles, they argue that humane goals (i.e. altruism) have been replaced by self-interested goals (i.e. commercial trade goals). This shows up through the book — introduction, chapters 1, 4, 7, 9, 15 and 16. The sub-argument is that power has shifted, tied aid has gone down but private sector trade interests have gone up. Equally, they argue that specific policies around humanitarian aid (chapter 2), use of force (chapters 8, 13, & 14), gender equality (chapter 11), and Children-in-Development have all turned toward poorer development outcomes. Combined with changed management for whole-of-government approaches and a focus on aid effectiveness (introduction, chapter 1), the conclusion is that principles + policy + management have changed for the worse, and it is time to rethink Canadian aid.
Except, as I said above and my critique of each chapter, I’m not convinced the lines of evidence are there. When it comes to principles, the argument is that it is no longer about humane goals and only about trade — yet Swiss kicks that argument to the curb really well in Chapter 6. Reality backed by hardcore stats, not spin supported by anecdotes and rhetoric.
For policies, some of the analysis is decent but focused on such small sample sizes that even a first-year statistics student could tell you that they were statistically insignificant. Decent premises, but with few facts other than anecdotes, combined with projects representing a tenth of a percent of the overall budget. Pick a different set of projects and you would see “no change” at all.
For management, it is argued that it represents a wholesale change to new factors, but the same factors have always been there. Not as prominently discussed, but equally present. Results, data, short-term focus over long-term focus. Nothing new for CIDA or development pressures. And, more importantly, equally present in domestic organizations as well. The push for clearly demonstrable short-term results is not driven by aid effectiveness changes but rather by the current government’s overall approach to measuring results in any organization. The real question is if this produces a real difference for CIDA, or just run of the mill adaptation.
I think the book could have come to the right lines of evidence if they had tackled slightly different questions. First and foremost, they should have asked “what is development”, both in terms of what it means to Canadians as well as what it means in aid circles. For example, private sector development is a popular target for NGOs who argue that it shouldn’t be done and by the private sector who argues that governments can’t do it. Yet PSD is one of the few avenues that will generate new resources to sustain development gains. New monies have to go into the country, and since aid isn’t sustainable, it has to be the private sector that generates it in the long term. Like through trade. This isn’t to say everyone should do everything possible related to trade and call it development, but rather that a thorough examination of the types of PSD projects and their likelihood of producing strong development results would be a good basis for further analysis. If you want to conclude that Canada is doing it wrong, it would help to first establish that projects of Type A are generally good and projects of Type B are usually less effective and that as a result of ties to Canadian business, ask if Canada is now doing more type B than type A. That analytical framework would work for any of the sub-policies, but you need to show the framework rather than assume the outcomes and cherry-pick projects that support your premise.
Equally, however, if people want to say a “whole-of-government” policy is bad for development, presumably they mean it produces either the wrong results or at least less effective results than other purer policies. Great, if that is true, it should be easy to show which ones work better, why, how they produce better results, and then, to apply to the Canadian context, show how Canada is now choosing less effective projects. Except none of the articles in the book can meet that bar. Instead, it uses rhetoric and spin to say “better to do it another way, worse to do it this way” (with no evidence) and then say “see, they’re doing it the wrong way”.
Finally, if they want to rethink aid, I would expect them to talk about the other things that affect development and don’t get much attention normally. Things like migration, remittances, investment (as mentioned in Chapter 1 briefly). Or redistributive politics within a country (like the BRICs).
If I had evidence of THAT, I might agree there is a need to rethink Canadian aid. But if the principles haven’t changed allocations (as per Swiss), if the policies only change for minor levels of investment or with only anecdotal projects, and if management focus for government changed rather than aid management itself changing, then I think a different measuring stick is needed. I had hoped this book would be it, but it wasn’t. Maybe it never intended to be.