We keep hearing it like a broken record: It's the economy, stupid. As election speculation grows, Canada's political parties are trying to convince voters they're the only ones who can solve our economic woes. Words such as "strong fiscal management" and "putting your tax dollars to work" are being thrown around like confetti at a wedding.
Funny, then, that none of them has made a point of investigating the effectiveness and efficiency of the $4.5-billion worth of foreign aid that Canada shells out annually ($3.5-billion is given through the Canadian International Development Agency). For a country of 33 million, that's not chump change; yet, we've hardly heard a peep about maximizing the value of Canada's aid program. Ask most MPs about the impact of these dollars and they'll probably tell you some heartwarming story about helping the needy and putting kids through school - short for "I have no idea."
At a time of budget austerity, Canadians should be deeply concerned over the government's glaring lack of transparency in justifying these aid programs. Instead, the political leadership has spent a lot of time arguing about whether or not International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda should be turfed for her conduct in the document-altering scandal that has dogged her for the past three weeks.
The problem isn't that Canada is spending $4.5-billion on aid; in fact, we give less than many other rich nations, ranking 14th out of 23 OECD countries. The problem is that none of us can assess the worth of Canada's aid because we have very little information to judge its impact.
Searching the CIDA "project browser" website for information about Canadian aid investments reveals how little information is available. For instance, in the past five years, CIDA has funded Engineers Without Borders to the tune of $2,629,000; yet, a quick search on the CIDA website accounts for only $133,835. Additionally, the information listed is wholly inadequate, providing only the most basic details while leaving out any evidence that would reveal the impact and cost-effectiveness of these investments.
For government and opposition politicians who claim to be focused on the economy, it's hypocritical to be so blatantly unconcerned with the efficacy of aid.
With today's technology and the growing global movement toward open government, this kind of secrecy doesn't cut it. In a recent assessment by the international coalition Publish What You Fund, Canada ranked a dismal 23rd out of 30 countries for aid transparency. If transparency and accountability are important to the government, why not have Canada join 18 of the world's leading aid donors and sign the International Aid Transparency Initiative, which sets a global standard for aid transparency?
Joining IATI will reduce bureaucratic overhead and save taxpayers money due to reduced information and reporting requests. This means we'll spend less time dealing with paperwork and more time delivering services that will transform people's lives.
Transparency alone won't fix Canada's mediocre aid program, but at least it'll shine a light on an industry that often gets a free pass based on goodwill. If Canada truly wants to make the most of our billions in aid, we need to start by having an honest conversation about what works and what doesn't.
Bashing Bev Oda might make good political sense for the opposition, but it does nothing to improve the quality and value of our foreign aid. The politicians should quit their posturing and invest some of their time into ensuring Canada's aid program is as effective as possible. If they were truly serious about fiscal responsibility, they'd be asking for greater transparency in how our country delivers aid.
James Haga is director of advocacy for Engineers Without Borders Canada.