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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Brett House and Désirée McGraw

Our shaky hand on African aid Add to ...

The timing of Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon's announcement that Canada won't commit to any more African aid until his government can take stock of how previously disbursed aid has been spent is curious.

Last month, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said maternal and child health would be the new centrepiece of Canada's development assistance and a priority for this summer's G8 summit in Muskoka. The 2009 United Nations report on the Millennium Development Goals shows that maternal and child mortality statistics are most dire in sub-Saharan Africa - implying a need for more assistance to the region, not less.

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Canada's freeze on increased aid to Africa also comes as the very accountability structures that Mr. Cannon says he seeks - such as the New Partnership for Africa's Development and its African Peer Review Mechanism that were set up at the 2002 G8 summit in Kananaskis - are starved for resources.

The Harper government's sudden interest in aid accountability arrives after years of fractious relations between the Canadian International Development Agency and Canada's Auditor-General. Sheila Fraser's recent probe of CIDA's books found so many shifts in accounting processes that her office could not deliver a full report on CIDA's activities. Moreover, her conclusions did not provide any indication that CIDA is implementing Canada's own Aid Accountability Act.

Mr. Cannon acknowledges that his government cannot tell us how our aid money is being spent and is now trying to pin the blame on our African counterparts. But Africa is a strange place to demand greater accountability. At the same time the Auditor-General found CIDA's books so inscrutable, African governments wrote thousands of accountability reports to their donors on aid received.

Mr. Cannon's claim of an accountability deficit in Africa seems particularly disingenuous when data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development show that donor efforts to streamline the existing reporting burden have largely failed. Moreover, the bulk of Canada's bilateral aid is targeted to 20 "countries of focus" (including eight in Africa) selected by Mr. Cannon's government precisely because they have established governance and other structures to ensure that aid is used effectively.

Sub-Saharan Africa received only about a fifth of Canada's development assistance in 2008. Since then, the Harper government has decided to divert assistance from low-income African countries such as Rwanda to middle-income Latin American countries such as Colombia to serve foreign policy and trade interests. A search for greater accountability has never been provided as a rationale for this shift.

Let's be clear: If there's an accountability deficit on aid, it lies with Canada and other G8 countries that have been long on talk and short on action when it comes to supporting Africa. By some estimates, the G8 has made 55 commitments on international development in recent years. The follow-through has been abysmal.

At the 2005 Gleneagles G8 summit, heads of government promised to raise annual global development assistance by $50-billion (U.S.) over five years, with half of this increase earmarked to "more than double" annual aid to sub-Saharan Africa. Only about half of this increase has been delivered by G8 governments, and only a sliver of it directed to Africa.

Mr. Harper, Mr. Cannon and International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda claim that Canada met its individual Gleneagles commitment to Africa ahead of schedule. If this were true, it would only be so because this government revised the commitment to make it less ambitious than the promise made by Paul Martin's government at Gleneagles.

The 2005 budget committed Canada to double its annual aid to Africa from an expected 2003-04 base of $1.4-billion to $2.8-billion by 2008-09. As a former finance minister, Mr. Martin knew the 2003-04 aid numbers were preliminary and would be revised when actual aid disbursements were tallied - and so, at Gleneagles, he publicly reiterated Canada's commitment with $2.8-billion as a minimum target, regardless of the baseline. By the time his government left office, Canada was on track to achieve the $2.8-billion target.

In the event, actual Canadian aid disbursed to Africa was $1.05-billion in 2004. Rather than sticking to Mr. Martin's Gleneagles pledge, the Harper government used this revised baseline to justify lowering Canada's target for African aid.

With development assistance to Africa now at $2.1-billion, the Harper government has indeed raised our aid flows to Africa, but its claim that it has met our Gleneagles commitment is false. In fact, Mr. Cannon and his colleagues have done more than freeze future increases in aid to Africa - they have cut some $700-million from the original Gleneagles commitment and hoped that Canadians and our development partners wouldn't notice. If this is Mr. Cannon's idea of "accountability," he seems to be advocating the classic "Do as I say, not as I do" to our African counterparts.

Mr. Harper and Mr. Cannon are right to make "accountability" a hallmark of the Muskoka summit. But "accountability" should not be used as a front for further delays, freezes or cuts in development aid. Instead, G8 countries should be held accountable for the commitments they have already made. When G8 development ministers meet in Halifax this April, Ms. Oda should ask her counterparts to lay out credible, time-bound plans to deliver on their unmet promises - with Canada first in line.

Brett House is senior economist with the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Désirée McGraw served as senior policy adviser to Canada's minister of international co-operation (2003-06) and currently lectures in international development at McGill University.

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