Apart from the odd tug-on-your-heart-strings infomercial or charity fundraiser, the average Canadian has very little reason to think about international development. Overall, Canadian foreign policy issues get minimal media bandwidth and development usually ranks low, if not dead last, on the list. Why shouldn’t it? Nothing truly transformative has occurred in the aid sector in years – decades even. Yes, that includes our ‘sunny ways’ Feminist International Assistance Policy. Not yet anyways, although we may just be on the right track…

Lying at the heart of the justification for development assistance is the age-old philosophical debate of Hobbs vs. Rousseau or individualism vs. collectivism. When deciding whether or not to send our own national financial resources to those less-fortunate living abroad, Canadians must decide whether they feel that the social contract is “a war of every man against every man” or if all human beings are “an indivisible part of the whole”? Our own social security system, our commitment to democracy and human rights, and legacy as a peacekeeping nation indicate that Canadians tend to gravitate towards the latter. Whether we realize it or not, these theoretical considerations underpin our policies.

Within living memory, international development issues have been important to the Canadian public. During World War II, Canada was one of the original 26 signatories of the Declaration of the United Nations and our Mutual Aid Board sent 2 billion in goods, free of charge, to support the war effort in Europe. Today that would be the equivalent of approximately 17 billion. Through procurement, Canada also contributed toward the US sponsored Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, which was worth over today’s equivalent of 125 billion. Canada created the External Aid Office in 1950 and joined the Colombo Plan for Co-operative Economic Development in South and Southeast Asia. Canadian aid continued to grow throughout the 1960s under Prime Minister Lester Pearson and in 1968 the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) was formed. Fifty years later, in 2018, Canada’s official development assistance (ODA) was around 5.37 billion.

There is no question that academic theories have influenced the way we do development. Keynesian economics laid the foundation for the Marshall plan. Scholars like Milton Freidman from the Chicago School championed neoliberal economics in the 1970s. In the 80s and 90s, the Washington Consensus led to its export across the developing world, through loans tied to Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) that forced recipient countries to deregulate their economies, slash social spending and allow foreign investments to flood their markets. In the 1990s, postdevelopment theory was a rejection of this “assistance” and questioned the very foundation of aid – calling it neocolonial. Since then, many debates have been had around the effectiveness of aid. The Paris Declaration in 2005 and the Accra Agenda for Action in 2008, in particular, sought to emphasize recipient country ownership for aid effectiveness.

In Canada, during the Harper years, the government did away with CIDA, linking development goals with Canada’s trade agenda and folding the agency into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Under his leadership, there was a palpable disregard for science and the application of academic evidence to policy. Fast-forward to 2015. Justin Trudeau wins a Liberal majority and declares, “Canada’s back, and here to help”.

The Liberal government’s 2017 Feminist International Assistance Policy is arguably built upon a critical, feminist approach. In the language of FIAP itself “Canada has committed to providing feminist international assistance that is Human Rights Based and Inclusive”, “Transformative and Activist”, and even goes so far as to say that “Unequal power relations and systemic discrimination, as well as harmful norms and practices, will be challenged”.  Yet, major critiques of FIAP include glossing over terms like intersectionality and failing to allocate the funding needed to generate transformative results in practice.

Now, Canadians have ‘chosen forward’, and we have a newly elected minority government. Trudeau has appointed a young, vivacious new Minister of International Development. So what’s in store for Canada’s international development policy? What remains to be seen is if the Liberals will side with the Conservatives (who campaigned on cutting aid by 25%) or ally with the NDP, Bloc and Green Party who have all advocated for increased ODA spending. Will the Liberals double-down on their Feminist strategy or retreat to the old aid for trade tactics? And, notwithstanding that the fates of millions of underprivileged beneficiaries around the world hang in the balance,

… do Canadians even care?


Alexandria Novokowsky is a PhD student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in the International Development Policy stream.

Image courtesy of flickr.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect iAffairs’ editorial stance.

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