First-ever aid report a 'slap in the face'

October-13-09

By Lee Berthiaume

Published October 7, 2009

A highly-anticipated report on Canadian international development efforts has been met with widespread disappointment and concerns the government's aid reforms are being driven by its own agenda rather than the needs of the world's poor.

On May 29, 2008, the Official Development Assistance Accountability Act received Royal Assent and came into force. The Act mandating a focus on poverty reduction, consideration of "the perspectives of the poor," and adherence to international human rights standards for Canadian aid. It also set up more stringent reporting requirements, including an annual report to the House that include explanations of how the government met the Act's requirements over the past fiscal year.

On Friday, the government tabled its first report under the Act. Coming in at 37 pages, it has been described as a virtual laundry-list of channels and programs to which Canadian aid is being directed.

However, development groups and critics say it is nothing more than a minimalist attempt to comply with the Act's reporting requirements. This, they argue, is extremely frustrating given the fact the government is in the midst of a major effort to reform all aspects of Canadian aid policy.

One concern was that the report makes no real effort to explain how aid disbursed by any one of 12 federal departments or agencies over the past fiscal year was targeted to reduce poverty, was in line with international human rights or took into account the perspectives of the poor—the three tests for true compliance with the Act. Several sections do reference poverty reduction as a goal—though no analysis or explanation for how that was achieved is included.

"It's remarkable to have a report on accountability without a scintilla of mention on how you've actually taken into account the perspectives of the poor or how you have complied with international human rights standards," said Liberal MP John McKay, who championed the Act through the House.

"It's really terribly disappointing. I think it's a slap in the face of all parliamentarians."

Mr. McKay said he expected that as soon as the Act came into force, a directive would have been sent out to all CIDA employees.

"Those are your three commandments and if your policy or program cannot answer those three questions, then we will have to have a review," he said.

However, Mr. McKay said he wasn't surprised with the government's actions, given that CIDA Minister Bev Oda's announcement earlier this year changing the aid agency's focus countries from Africa to Latin America.

"When you do a major statement on a reorganizing your focus countries...and you don't say a word about how this is going to move you towards your legislated mandate, your flags of suspicion are then in a stiff breeze."

This appeared to be the consensus opinion of civil society organizations.

"What the real tension is around this is the extent to which so many organizations in civil society see the act as a real game changer and really see it as something that is holistic and forward-looking," said Joanna Kerr, director of policy and outreach at Oxfam Canada, "as opposed to where many within the bureaucracy see this as something they just have to make sure that they meet.

"With visionary leadership, the act can be the tool and can be the vision statement to move this government to a highly effective aid program."

Civil society groups acknowledged there was some new information in the report that was previously absent. For example, Gerry Barr of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation said previously unreported ODA contributions—including $974,000 through Industry Canada and $469,000 from Parks Canada—means Canadian aid levels can be more accurately calculated.

They were also hopeful the fact that this was the first-ever report under the ODA Act meant the government was still going through growing pains.

However, Bill Morton, a researcher at the North-South Institute, said the government's response reinforces perceptions it merely sees the matter as one of compliance.

"I just think it is disappointing because it indicates that as far as the government is concerned, the Act is not part of a process of strengthening Canada's development assistance program," he said. "Clearly the minister has an agenda for doing that, and has obviously introduced a number of policy announcements that reflect her agenda, but from our reading of how the government has responded to the act so far, and I think this is reinforced by this report, the act doesn't appear to be a sort of platform or part of a broader reform agenda for Canada's aid program."

Lee Berthiaume
lee@embassymag.ca