The Conservative revolution in Canada's foreign aid is finally here.
It's not just that the Harper government has folded the former aid agency, CIDA, into the Foreign Affairs department, ending the flimsy pretense of separation between politics and aid policy. It's that the money spent by Canada on aid now reflects the Tories' view of the world, or at least the aid world.
For years the Tories have talked about changing Canadian aid, and NGOs and aid advocates have expressed fears about what they planned. But some of the Tories' ideas about aid were ad-hoc notions, and it's taken time for little shifts to really change the aid portfolio – a big, lumbering thing made up of thousands of multiyear projects. Now it has.
There's a stronger belief in development banks, aid projects built around Canadian commercial interests in mining, and a profound faith in the power of the private sector.
The projects funded this year, especially, show an unmistakable Tory stamp. The Conservatives, controversially, have since last year been touting the idea of linking aid to the mining industry, and they had already financed a few small projects to test the waters. But the money is rolling out more this year.
Among other things: $25-million for an institute on mining and development based at the University of British Columbia; $16-million to improve environmental practices of Peru's mining sector, and $17.4-million to "promote economic competitiveness" in mining regions – to help build the businesses of small rural farmers in three areas of Peru where Canadian companies operate mines.
Beyond mining, this year's projects reflect the Harper government's inclination to back development through the private sector and "entrepreneurship." There's $20-million to the International Finance Corporation to back private-sector development, $700,000 to improve entrepreneurship in Mozambique, and $20-million to the Mennonite Economic Development Associates of Canada to back an investment fund for small business in developing countries.
It's not just mining and the private sector. Much of the portfolio – setting aside the emergency aid for humanitarian appeals – now reflects the little shifts the Tories have made in aid policy.
There's a lot of food aid, and consistent backing for development banks. And there are the ongoing funds for the maternal-health initiative that Mr. Harper championed when he hosted the G8 – the one time he really attached his political identity to aid.
The Conservatives came into power with little affinity for development aid, and never made it a top priority. When deficits had to be slain, the aid budget was first frozen, then cut. They decided they didn't want to pay budgets for aid agencies doing "advocacy," which was seen as an effort to silence them because the advocacy was often for left-leaning causes. Mr. Harper didn't follow the Liberal enthusiasm for increasing aid to Africa because he associated it with "slush funds and Swiss bank accounts," a former aide said.
But they did other things, too. Because they doubted whether many of the aid projects under rubrics like "governance" were really worth it, they reached for concrete, simple items – and became big backers of food aid. When the financial crisis of 2008 and the Arab Spring of 2011 came along, Mr. Harper touted Ottawa's increased backing of multilateral development banks as Canada's aid response. A PM who doubted the effectiveness of aid grants believed the banks' lending was often more efficient.
Now the Conservatives' linking of aid to mining, and focusing more development around the private sector, makes up a major part of Canadian aid. They argue backing the private sector is key to developing economies, and supporting development in mining areas can help local communities and Canadian interests.
"It's a sea change. It's dramatic," said John McKay, a Liberal MP who in 2007 sponsored the Better Aid Bill, which makes "poverty alleviation" the official goal of Canadian aid.
He insists the Conservatives have made Canadian aid a political animal, linked to Canada's commercial interests in mining and free-market ideology, rather than helping the poorest of the poor.
But the Conservatives, who came to power distrusting Canadian aid, have taken the sum of their little shifts and designed a different model for Canadian aid. And it's only now fully in place.