Skip to main content

Steven Hoffman, a health policy professor, argued in The Globe that Canada should not confuse promoting trade with foreign aid. International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino says it's more complicated than that.

Mr. Hoffman need not hold his breath until 2013 – our government has not only already begun engaging in an honest debate about the important issues concerning international development, we have also started to walk our talk.

It will not do to have a limiting, simplistic silo mentality that refuses to acknowledge that assistance need not be divorced from the arsenal of tools required to tackle poverty. Not in a complex world that requires smart actors: both governments, non-governmental organizations, the private sector, along with their local counterparts to address pressing needs. The status quo simply is not an option.

In fact, Canada is moving in sync with the rest of the world when it comes to using an assorted, effective approach that inculcates partnerships to reach our stated outcomes. As The Globe and Mail recently editorialized, "Partnering with the private sector, including enterprises, foundations and individuals, is a good idea, and can improve the flexibility, transparency and effectiveness of assistance projects. While it may be seen as revolutionary by some circles in Ottawa, the public-private model was endorsed by the U.S. a decade ago, and has been followed by Australia, Germany and the U.K. with minimal controversy." Our allies' development agencies are also with us when it comes to innovative approaches, and are also taking lessons from Canada on how to be more effective and accountable with their taxpayer dollars.

As I cited in my speech to the Economic Club of Canada, we endeavour to grow small- and medium-sized businesses that are vital in many developing economies. Often women, who can be excluded from the formal economy, need access to credit and technical assistance to kick-start their ideas. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) partnered with the local government in Vietnam, which enabled Vu Thi Ha – a terracotta pot factory owner – to improve her competitiveness with the knowledge gained at a business development course.

She is not alone. Between 2007 and 2010, in Vietnam alone, CIDA helped 1,200 small- and medium-sized businesses – 90 per cent of them owned by women – increase their profits. This effort is as important as the partnership of CIDA with larger multinational firms. This approach leads to the employment of thousands in the developing world, as shown through our partnership in Burkina Faso with Plan Canada and IAMGOLD. These are real examples of peoples' lives being improved through non-traditional models that Mr. Hoffman fails to mention.

Our government has taken landmark action to untie our assistance. For instance, to maximize the value of Canada's international assistance, the government untied all food assistance in 2008. In addition, the government has set 2012-2013 as the deadline for fully untying the goods and services delivered through Canadian programs – a goal we are on track to reach. Canada is also not walking away from our humanitarian responsibilities. From Haiti to the Philippines, our ability and responsiveness in assisting countries struck by natural disasters remains robust.

Perhaps Mr. Hoffman's responsibilities at Harvard has made him unaware of how generous Canada and Canadians actually are. He should speak with the generous members of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank who, in partnership with CIDA, have distributed 40,849 tonnes of food and seeds to 2.2 million beneficiaries in 36 countries. Or the generosity of the many ordinary Canadians whose contribution to the Sahel Crisis Matching Fund has helped Canada provide food assistance to more than six million people and treat more than 526,000 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition. These are but two examples of many efforts by both Canadians and their government that express their spirit of giving.

Finally, when it comes to those who are suffering, and in need – what matters more? That monies are simply disbursed in their name, or that their actual situation and their future possibilities experience a tangible improvement? No one approach, or one agent, can or should have a monopoly on doing good in the world. A narrow fixation with a pessimistic ideology of trade vs. aid is outmoded. We must focus on the things that have the greatest outcomes for both people in the developing world and Canadians in the long-run.