U.S. president Harry Truman pleaded, "Give me a one-handed economist! All my economists say, 'On the one hand … on the other.' " Truman would be frustrated with the Canadian public's three-handed response to development assistance.
On the one hand, according to a 2004 Environics survey, 78 per cent of Canadians support their country's foreign-aid efforts. Additionally, the survey suggests that twice as many people see aid as a moral obligation rather than a matter of national interest.
On the other hand, a 2007 Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute poll indicated that Canadians are divided on whether aid should go to countries with the greatest need (49 per cent) or to those embracing Canadian values - free elections, a free economy and a willingness to curb corruption in government (45 per cent).
On the third hand, Environics found that an overwhelming majority (82 per cent) believes that much aid never gets to the people who need it most, and, when compared with other spending areas, foreign aid is not seen as a priority.
Canadians' skepticism about the usefulness of development assistance is warranted. A swarm of critics have promoted their conviction that Western aid efforts are ill-directed, ineffective, unfair and even actively damaging to developing countries.
It is a fact that, despite the undoubted goodwill of individuals, governments and prominent entertainers from the developed world, income per person in the poorest countries in Africa has fallen by a quarter in the past 20 years - this at a time when rapidly growing countries such as China and India are moving millions of their citizens out of abject poverty through their own success exploiting the opportunities presented by the globalization of technology, trade and investment.
So what is a well-intentioned donor country such as Canada to do?
Our conclusion is that the main instrument of Ottawa's aid policy, the Canadian International Development Agency, needs to be reinvented. Our prescription for change has four dimensions.
First, the government should task CIDA with developing strategic objectives, e.g. "poverty reduction through economic growth" or "effective and legitimate governance." Focus should not be defined in sectoral terms (trading off health against education or gender against environment) or in terms of priority countries. Instead, CIDA should have the flexibility to support the most promising ideas, regardless of sector, to reduce poverty and improve governance.
Second, the government should announce a limited number of key goals for the next three years (along with spending-allocation criteria), and establish a separate budget and responsibility centre for humanitarian aid (as opposed to longer-term development assistance). The government should then empower the "new" CIDA as a Crown corporation with its own legislation. It should be given the flexibility to allocate funding among the most effective delivery methods.
Third, the government should encourage CIDA to adopt approaches emphasizing the provision of incentives and greater competition among those delivering assistance. It should become a competitive "wholesaler," providing financing on a competitive basis for executing agents with a proven capability. Anyone should be eligible to compete for CIDA projects: Canadian government agencies, multilateral institutions, private voluntary and non-governmental organizations in Canada or other countries, universities, co-operatives.
Fourth, CIDA will face a number of obstacles to meaningful reform, including:
• Contractors and executing agents dependent on the continuation of the current practice;
• Department of Foreign Affairs opposition to concentration, insisting on remaining present in as many countries as possible;
• Insistence by government central agencies on excessive investment in prudential safeguards and performance measurement where results are inherently hard to measure;
• Multiyear financial commitments, which mean that any change in priority takes time to implement, but reaps immediate criticism and opposition; and
• The lack of an informed domestic constituency that would support fundamental changes to aid programming.
The government will need to develop a sophisticated, multiaudience, multimedia communications strategy to persuade the general public, government, contractors and well-meaning NGOs of the necessity for change.
Without such an effort to inform, the political will to try new methods is unlikely, and CIDA will remain as Monique Landry, a former cabinet minister responsible for the agency, characterized it in 1991: a "giant in chains," unable to do the good that Canadians expect it to accomplish.
Barry Carin is associate director of the Centre for Global Studies and adjunct professor of public administration at the University of Victoria. Gordon Smith is executive director of the Centre for Global Studies and a senior research fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.