John McKay Delivers Speech on his "Better Aid Bill at the United Nations
It’s “Not” About the Orange Juice
iPolicis, July 6, 2012
In light of Minister Oda’s resignation this week many politicians, journalists, columnists and stakeholders have taken to the pen and commented on her record as a politician, a minister, and a connoisseur of orange juice. They have been both glowing and harsh in their comments, but much has focused on her public gaffes, and her extravagant lifestyle.
What has been missing to a large extent from the commentary is a discussion of what has happened to CIDA over the past four years under Minister Oda’s reign. Many, including myself, have watched with great concern as our official aid agency has been re-made and re-formed time and time again, each with increasing ineffectiveness. Under her watch, Canada’s contribution to foreign aid has declined in absolute and percentage terms, and has moved away from aid for the poorest of the poor, and towards those countries that offer more enticing political, economic or business advantages.
It would be unfair of course to place the blame for CIDA’s troubles entirely on Minister Oda’s shoulders. Not to say she could not have performed better in her role, but that there were certain realities she could not change. I have no doubt that Harper’s firm grip extended into her department, likely evidenced by the botched defunding of KAIROS. However her refusal to address some of the serious internal directional problems within CIDA has had devastating consequences. By refusing to comply with the sole legislative mandate for her department – the “Better Aid Bill” – she took things in CIDA from bad to worse.
Earlier on in her term many saw our aid agency’s performance slipping, and sought to find a way to improve Canada’s aid effectiveness. So along came a bunch of academics and policy wonks with a simple idea – foreign aid should be for poor people. While this insight may not rank up there with Moses and the Ten Commandments, it did provide a theoretical framework through which to assess Canada’s contribution to international assistance.
In response to this thinking, in 2007 I introduced a Private Members Bill in the House of Commons that sought to ensure that all aid delivered by the Canadian government would be directed towards poor people.
The genesis of the Bill was based upon a wide-spread belief that most of our foreign aid was just wasted. We were spending $3 billion plus per year with no discernable difference to anyone. This view was buttressed by report after report from our Senate and commons committees, that our aid was unfocused, poorly distributed, and lacked any policy coherence.
The simple explanation for this was our aid policy was akin to the flavour of the month – ministerial turnover was endemic, and with each change came a new set of priorities. One day it was women – then wells – then governance – then this country – then that. The turnover of ministers, staff, and bureaucrats was high, morale low, effectiveness not measurable, and statistics so outdated as to be worse than useless.
The bill however, set out a legislative mandate which required our Official Development Assistance to meet three criteria:
1) It must be focused on poverty alleviation;
2) consistent with international human rights standards;
3) and take into consideration the perspectives of the poor.
The legislation, which was co-sponsored in the Senate by Romeo Dallaire, was met with widespread support, and received royal assent in May 2008 after receiving unanimous consent in the House of Commons and the Senate.
For a couple of years following the passage of the bill, the government paid lip service to the legislation, and issued reports on CIDA’s activities as promised. Recently however, they have dropped any pretence of adhering to the mandate and objectives of the bill, and have certainly resisted any efforts to adhere to any metric that would measure performance. Now they simply assert that they are complying with the legislation because they have written in their reports that they are complying. It’s like me saying that the Maple Leafs are on track to win the next Stanley Cup, because I have written it in this article. Not exactly a convincing argument.
Many of the NGOs who supported the legislation, and have criticized the government for their lack of compliance with the law have had their funding cut. These NGOs are now either out of business, or are shadows of their former selves. Others are afraid to speak out for fear of a similar fate. Criticism of government aid initiatives are now quite limited. So when Low Income Countries: Malawi, Nepal, Niger, Rwanda, Zambia, Zimbabwe and others were cut off from Canadian foreign assistance, the critique in Canada was largely non-existent.
To make matters worse, when these countries were cut, the Government announced with great fanfare that it was going to refocus on the Western hemisphere – where we coincidentally have significant political, economic, and business interests. You’ll note the poverty alleviation doesn’t even make the top three.
The move has been so transparent that today we see the government teaming up with Canadian mining companies operating in the region, and using our aid dollars to fund corporate social responsibility programs for the companies’ projects. How this fits into our legislated mandate is still a mystery.
The government has recognized that any project can be twisted to appear as though it is focused on poverty alleviation – and so they have carried on as before, picking projects that suit their interests, and orchestrating fancy photo ops with smiling children to demonstrate the hard work that they do.
Not exactly the intent of the legislation.
Luckily, not everyone has ignored this bill. In recognition of my work as the sponsor of the legislation I was asked to speak at the United Nations Development Cooperation Forum of the Economic and Social Council in New York on “what difference legislation can make on foreign aid”. Speaking alongside two other politicians, both from developing countries, my perspective was intended to demonstrate how legislation can help you do aid right, although my conclusions find that legislation on its own, simply isn’t enough.
Legislation can help you to “do aid right” and ensure that poor people are getting the help and support they need, when they need it. Unfortunately, you cannot legislate morality. Despite the passage of the “Better Aid Bill”, Canada continues to have an ineffective and counter-productive aid agency that consistently places politics and profits, ahead of poverty and justice. The government has chosen to ignore the legislation, and as a result the bill has failed to make a significant difference. It is now simply a decorative plaque on my office wall that demonstrates the cruel reality that in this country, without political will, legislation can’t make an impact.
It is puzzling though. For a government that claims to believe in transparency, accountability, and effective use of funding, this legislation should be exactly what they aspire to practice. It is not a question of how much money we spend (though I would certainly endorse spending more), but rather a question of how we spend that money. Is it too much to ask that our aid dollars go to those who need it, rather than those who we think we need?
Aid cannot be about partisan bickering, or scoring cheap political points. It is about doing the right thing and using our aid in the most effective way for those that need it the most. Minister Oda has the opportunity over the past four years to do just that, and to make a substantial and significant contribution to the world. Instead she chose to use her department to push the government’s political and economic agenda.
I welcome her resignation, and wish her the best in retirement with the hope that when Minister Fantino takes her place, he learns from her mistakes, and recognizes the potential that his department can have. My only advice to him, which should guide him through any of the tough decisions he will have to make, is that he should above all else remember the mandate of his department– foreign aid is for poor people.
Hon. John McKay P.C., M.P.