Canadians care about global poverty and development. Four out of five people surveyed in 1987 agreed that one of the best things about Canada was its global generosity. A recent poll of Alberta residents carried out by Angus Reid found no less than 89% ranking global poverty as priority.
Working against this is what Richard Nimijean has called a “rhetoric-reality gap” in Canadian foreign relations. In plain language: there’s no shortage of high-minded words from Ottawa, but the reality is a far cry from the rhetoric.
The rhetoric gap isn’t new to Canadian development aid. It was foundational to the project. Louis St Laurent’s Liberal government was keen to provide big postwar reconstruction loans to Europe, but dragged its feet when invited to take a leading role in the Colombo Plan for aid to Asia. As Commonwealth foreign ministers created that plan in 1950, Canada’s Lester Pearson cabled home that “it would cause no surprise to any of the Governments more directly concerned if we were to decline on the grounds that we have heavy commitments in other areas.” Eventually Canada signed on, but the majority of early Canadian aid funds went to buy Canadian wheat for shipment to Asia, with Canada far behind the 0.7% of GDP target reached in the 1960s (if not today) by the United States, Britain and France. All donor countries, meanwhile, made sure their aid was directed to staving off communism, rebuilding multilateral trade, and promoting their image in the recipient country.
Images of Canada as a humanitarian aid donor have found their way into the country’s diplomatic self-image, but there’s a substantial gap between those images and the fact of Canada’s development aid, which peaked in 1978 at 0.53% of GDP. Canada scores poorly in absolute and comparative aid rankings.
It’s fair to ask, then, where Canadian development aid policy is heading as the government and non-governmental organizations mark International Development Week, an event the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) touts as “a unique opportunity” to “publicize progress achieved and lessons learned in international development.” Decisions in Ottawa starting in 2009 show that CIDA may be ignoring the lessons learned in six decades of development work. Continue reading