Official Development Assistance

Official Development Assistance

What Happened

Since the 1960s, Canada has been internationally recognised as a progressive and generous country in its diplomatic and financial contributions to promoting international development, through its Official Development Assistance (ODA) program. However, since coming to power in 2006, the Conservative government has been quietly dismantling programmes, changing policy orientations and priorities, andfollowing an initial increase which peaked in 2011cutting the federal foreign aid budget, all to the point where there has been a major reorientation of Canada’s international development agenda, with virtually no public consultation. 


Since the election of a Conservative government in 2006, and despite the absence of a new International Policy Statement (the last one was published, after extensive consultation, by the Liberal government in 2005), Canada’s international development aid programme has seen major transformations on several fronts. These include the mission and objectives of Canada’s aid programme, the amounts disbursed, its institutional structure, partnerships and delivery mechanisms, and its relationship with Canadian non-governmental organisations, as well as with the private sector and multilateral institutions. The overall result is a greater orientation of the aid programme (representing some $5 billion per year) to promoting the role of the Canadian private sector in developing countries, accompanied by a new ideological bent towards neo-conservative values (individualism, Christian values, traditional gender roles, unconditional support for Israel, hard-core security…) and a major loss of expertise on development issues and processes within and outside the GoC.

Mission and objectives

The concepts of development and poverty reduction have been re-oriented towards a focus on private investment as the key to economic growth.

One of the earliest signals that changes were in store came in 2007, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced at the G8 summit that Canada’s international development programme’s focus would be shifting from Africa to Latin America. Although the status of Latin America in Canada’s ODA has varied wildly over the decades, and although this declaration by the PM has not resulted in an increase of aid funding to the region, the new focus for ODA here is indicative of the new directions favoured by the GoC. The rationale for aid to the region cites first and foremost “increasing Canadian and hemispheric economic opportunity.”

In May 2009, the government announced five priority themes that would guide Canada’s official development assistance programming in the years ahead. Development programming is now focused on stimulating sustainable economic growth, securing the future for children and youth, and increasing food security, while the international policy priorities of advancing democracy and promoting security, stability, and sustainability were led by other government departments. These priorities have remained the same since 2009. Minister Julian Fantino stated however in 2013 that, “we will put greater emphasis on enabling private sector led development and innovation in support of poverty reduction.” When Christian Paradis was appointed Minister later that year, he noted that “Canada's international assistance priorities are to stimulate sustainable economic growth, secure the future of children and youth, increase food security, advance democracy, and ensure security and stability.” Additionally, early changes to the formulation of these themes give them a neo-conservative ideological twist: “gender equality” was changed to “equality between men and women,” and the classic human security definition of “freedom from fear and freedom from want,” which originated with the United Nations Development Programme, has been re-framed solely as “freedom from fear.”

The amounts disbursed

During the 2006 election campaign and in its first budget, the Conservative government announced that it would continue increasing the aid budget. From 2006 to 2012, the aid budget increased from $4.5 billion to over $5.5 billion in current dollars, and actual expenditure peaked in 2012 at nearly $6 billon. This represented an increase as a percentage of Gross National Income from 0.28% to 0.32%, still far from the internationally accepted goal of 0.7%. The percentage then declined to 0.27% in fiscal year 2013-14. The 2012 budget announced cuts to aid, with a decrease to be progressively implemented to arrive at a total development aid budget of $3.4 billion in 2015-16 out of a total international affairs budget of nearly $7 billion.

Under-spending of the aid budget has seen a sharp increase since 2012, as it has in other government departments (some $11 billion across all departments lapsed in 2012-13 or about 3.5% of total projected expenditure and over $7 billion in 2013-14). This means that unspent funds at the end of the financial exercise revert to Treasury, thus constituting a surplus, generally used for deficit reduction. This amounted to $290 million in 2012-13 and in 2013-14. DFATD “failed to spend $125.9 million that had been budgeted […] Instead of spending the $917 million it had initially set aside, it spent only $792 million.” Final data for subsequent years is not yet available, but figures from the first half of 2014-15 indicate that spending in the area of international affairs was 23% below that projected (although this lag may be compensated for in the remaining part of the year).

Institutional structure, partnerships and delivery mechanisms

For over 40 years, Canada’s ODA was handled through the Canadian International Development Agency. In 2013, CIDA was ‘amalgamated’ with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, renamed the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD). The new structure of the Department includes integrated geographic teams, with staff from each area of responsibility. Some 700 CIDA employees were however advised their positions could be cut in 2012; such cuts represent a significant loss of accumulated expertise in the field of development.

Beginning in 2009, under then-Minister for International Development Bev Oda, a major transformation began regarding the nature of the Canadian partners with which CIDA operated – again, with no public consultation or policy statement. Traditionally, as is the practice in many other OECD countries, non-governmental not-for-profit organisations were major actors in the ODA programme. Later, institutions (such as universities and colleges) and professional associations were included.

A key change brought in since 2009 concerns the status of private companies as ODA partners. In March 2009, the Canadian government issued its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Strategy for the Canadian International Extractive Sector, and in 2010, CIDA began funding Canadian NGOs to the tune of $26 million to implement CSR projects in collaboration with Canadian mining companies. These included: $500,000 for a WUSC/Rio Tinto project of $428,000 in Ghana; $0.9 million for a $1 million PLAN Canada-IAMGOLD project in Burkina Faso and $500,000 for a project co-implemented by World Vision Canada and Barrick Gold worth $500,000.

In 2012, Minister Oda famously joked to a meeting of Canadian mining executives that she was seen as the mining industry’s “new best friend.” She noted that mining companies are “improving the quality of life for thousands …, [are] one of the main building blocks of civilization,” and that “your interests and our interests at the Canadian International Development Agency can come together.” The greater space for private sector interests in the aid arena is underlined as well by the recent appointment of two new Canadian members of the Board of the International Development Research Centre; at the same time, the new strategic plan of the crown corporation prioritizes working with the private sector, while its projected spending will decrease by $20 million (10% of its annual budget).

Other changes to ODA delivery channels related to aid activities implemented by NGOs. In July 2010, Minister Oda announced the creation of a ‘Partners for Development’ mechanism – purportedly to enhance aid effectiveness – that would render all support to Canadian organisations subject to a competitive process on the basis of specific calls for proposals. A review of the list of calls launched starting in 2011 (17 in all) reveals that a large proportion of the recipient organisations are closely linked to the private sector or faith-based movements.

Relationship with Canadian development NGOs

Alarm bells sounded as early as 2009, when two progressive NGOs – Kairos and Alternatives - with significant development experience learned, after many months of waiting, that their funding proposals to CIDA had been rejected. Some government officials hinted that this was a result of their position on Palestine, critical of the Harper government. Additional deep cuts to NGOs that had been long-standing partners of CIDA followed: the Canadian Council for International Cooperation (CCIC) and MATCH International in 2010, the Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL) in 2011; the arm’s length institution Rights & Democracy, the Mennonite Central Committee and Development and Peace, all in 2012; and the internationally-respected North-South Institute in 2013. In a new wave of pressure on critical organisations, a disproportionate number of progressive NGOs have been subjected to scrutiny from the Charties Directorate of the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), including Oxfam CanadaAlternatives, Amnesty International, and the Steelworkers Humanity Fund, among others, and subjected to “political activities” audits or threatened with having their charitable status withdrawn. It is quite clear that the organisations targeted are those most critical of government policy on issues such as Israel-Palestine, abortion and the environment. Organisations devoted to independent research in the field of development policy have also become an endangered species.

The tack taken by the most recent Minister for International Development, Christian Paradis, appointed July 15, 2013 with the integration of CIDA into DFATD, may however represent a departure from the aggressive attitude of the GoC towards progressive NGOs. After extensive consultations in 2014, a new International Development and Humanitarian Assistance Civil Society Partnership Policy was launched on February 6, 2015. Although well received by an NGO community deprived of good news for some time, some remain skeptical, not least because this policy does not seem to have reined in the CRA attacks and funding cuts that continue apace.

The unanimous adoption by Parliament of a private member’s bill (presented by Liberal MP John Mackay) in 2008, the ODA Accountability Act, provides a long-called-for legislated mandate for Canada’s ODA. It obliges the government departments involved in disbursement of the ODA budget to report annually to Parliament on the conformity of their programmes with three criteria (ODA must be consistent with international human rights instruments, must target poverty reduction, and must take into account the perspectives of the poor), and was welcomed with enthusiasm by the international development community in Canada. In practice, however, the yearly reports have become another occasion for self-congratulation by the ministers involved, rather than involving a bona fide examination of programmes on the basis of the the criteria. As a result, despite the existence of a well-conceived law, respect for the spirit of accountability it demands has not been forthcoming.

These changes point overall to a state of great instability in the ODA field in Canada: no clear overall direction has been provided, institutional structure has been radically modified, funding levels and mechanisms changed with little public justification or indication of future plans, funding to many progressive CSOs with longstanding international track records has been slashed. Some recent counter-trends (reinstatement of funding to a small number of NGOs that had been cut, consultations with CSOs by Minister Paradis), while welcomed by NGOs, do nothing to dispel the uncertainty. Indeed, such uncertainty may increase in coming months, given the recent departure of Foreign Minister John Baird and the imminent retirement from politics of Christian Paradis.

Relevant Dates

2007: Changes to terminology (gender, human security…) appear on government websites, indicating subtle ideological shifts in the approach to development issues.

2008: Parliament unanimously adopts Bill C-293, the ODA Accountability Act.

2009: Unexplained prolonged delays by CIDA in responding to NGO funding requests begin, leading some to have to cease operations. The first of a series of progressive NGOs have their requests for funding refused.

2010: PM Harper announces his maternal, newborn and child health initiative at the Muskoka G-8 Summit. Canada has to date pledged over $6 billion to fund the initiative

2010: Minister Oda announces that the Canadian Partnerships Branch at CIDA (the major funding channel for NGO-proposed development programmes) will be revamped. Funding to Canadian NGOs is now allocated on the basis of specific and periodic calls for proposals issued by DFATD.

2010-2011: CIDA funds a series of local development projects in collaboration with Canadian mining companies operating in developing countries.

2012: PM Harper announces that Canada’s ODA will focus on the Americas and downplay involvement in Africa.

2013: CIDA is ‘amalgamated’ with Foreign Affairs and quietly disappears.

Role or Position

Canadian international development aid was a world leader in the field, recognised as an innovative actor that put humanitarian values and interests ahead of narrowly-defined Canadian economic or geopolitical ones. It was seen by many governments and organisations in the developing world as an ally. The shift underway since 2006 has dilapidated that reputation and undermined and even destroyed in some cases, the dense institutional fabric and its concomitant expertise which made that reputation possible.

Implications and Consequences

Freedom of speech : An ‘advocacy chill’ has fallen over international development NGOs as a result of government hostility towards organisations that have adopted stances critical of the federal government positions on issues of foreign policy and development. Such NGOs have been specifically targeted with sanctions such as funding cuts and CRA audits.

Transparency : Key policy and operational changes have been implemented with no public debate and no clear justification provided. Such changes include cuts to the ODA budget, funding decisions essential to the survival of non-governmental organizations involved in international development, the transformation of geographic and thematic priorities, and giving precedence to Canadian economic interests rather than to development imperatives.

Accountability : Despite the adoption of the ODA Accountability Act in 2008, government departments have not responded with a genuine analysis of the extent to which their international aid programmes correspond to the spirit of the Act.

Democracy : No official change in ODA policy has been announced by the government, and no new international policy statement has been debated in Parliament, despite the deep changes imposed by the ruling party. Some of these changes run counter to the recommendations of non-governmental research centres, and their internationally-recognised expertise in the field of development is being dismantled by government de-funding attacks. Informed public debate on international issues is undermined and with it, our democratic institutions.

Published: April 23, 2015