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Rethinking Canadian Aid

Stephen Brown
Molly den Heyer
David R. Black

Section I: Foundations of Ethics, Power and Bureaucracy

Chapter III. Revisiting the Ethical Foundations of Aid and Development Policy from a Cosmopolitan Perspective

John D. Cameron

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1Debates about normative ethics and Canadian aid policy are long-standing but surprisingly thin. In spite of the normative values that underlie public support for aid, and indeed the motivations of many scholars who write about it, the actual ethical underpinnings of aid have rarely been seriously examined in the Canadian context. Many scholars have discussed the relative importance of humanitarian and realist considerations in the making of aid policy, but few have sought to examine aid itself in the context of broader normative ethical frameworks. Recent changes in the institutional framework for Canadian aid following the merger of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) into the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD) and the increasingly explicit role of domestic political and economic interests in the design of aid policy make it more important now than ever before to revisit and deepen the debate about the role of ethical considerations in the analysis of Canadian aid policy and practice.

2The absorption of CIDA into DFATD and explicit subordination of aid policy to broader foreign policy suggests two possibilities for how we analyze aid and development policy. The first is to abandon any expectation that aid is connected to or inspired by moral concerns for the well-being of other people and to employ realist methodological perspectives that analyze aid purely as an instrument of foreign policy. Indeed, numerous scholars have suggested that although moral concerns may be an important source of public support for aid, they do not seriously affect aid policy (Chapnick, this volume; Silvio, this volume).

3The alternative, for which I make the case here, is to re-examine the ethical basis for aid and to analyze aid in the context of a more theoretically consistent and coherent normative framework that draws attention to the broader range of government policies that affect developing countries. To the extent that aid has been analyzed in the light of ethical considerations, scholars have generally, if often only implicitly, emphasized positive ethical obligations to provide assistance to people in need, overlooking equally important but often neglected negative obligations to not cause harm in the first place through other non-aid policies. If scholars and activists are to make the case for reconnecting Canadian aid to its ethical foundations, the understanding of those foundations needs to be much broader – and include both positive and negative ethical duties, which cannot be hived off from one another. From this perspective, arguments for aid as an expression of ethical obligations generally overlook half of the normative framework on which they draw – negative duties to not cause harm. The practical application of a normative ethical framework concerned with both positive and negative moral duties would shift attention beyond aid policy to all of the policy areas in which the Canadian government affects the lives of people in other parts of the world, particularly people who are vulnerable or marginalized.

4This chapter makes a normative argument directed not at policy makers, but rather at analysts of Canadian aid, including students. It argues that analysis of aid policy needs to be more explicitly informed by cosmopolitan political theory, which would expand the object of analysis from aid to development policy. At its core, cosmopolitanism asserts that all humans have moral obligations to all other humans, regardless of their location in the world and national citizenship. Those obligations include positive moral duties to provide assistance to others in need as well as negative moral duties to not cause harm to others in the first place, either directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally. A growing number of political theorists assert that cosmopolitan normative perspectives have become particularly urgent in the context of contemporary globalization, which forces human beings everywhere into much closer connections than they ever experienced in the past (Brown and Held 2010; Kymlicka and Walker 2012).

5Although cosmopolitanism is not without its critics (discussed below), the need for some sort of cosmopolitan ethics in an era of intensifying globalization means that it no longer makes sense from either a practical or an ethical perspective to analyze Canadian aid in isolation from the rest of Canadian foreign policy. With the merger of CIDA into DFATD – indicating the thorough incorporation of aid policy into Canada’s broader foreign policy framework – the time has come to likewise shift analysis of aid policy and practice into a broader normative framework that takes into consideration not just aid policy, but other non-aid aspects of Canadian development policy from the perspective of both positive and negative moral obligations. It seems the Harper government does not distinguish aid policy from the rest of Canadian foreign policy; this shift should also lead analysts beyond the confines of analyzing aid in isolation from other government policies to ground their analysis in a holistic understanding of ethical principles.

6In the terms of contemporary policy discourse, I make an argument for analyzing Canadian aid and development policy from a “policy coherence for development” approach that is grounded in “ethical coherence.” Various scholars and organizations have put forward pragmatic, policy-oriented arguments for greater attention to “policy coherence for development” in aid and development policy, but little attention has been paid to the underlying normative ethical arguments for analyzing aid and development policy using this approach.

7To make this argument, the chapter is organized into three sections. The first reviews debates about ethics and aid policy in Canada. The second section connects the policy-oriented debates about “policy coherence for development” to ethical considerations grounded in cosmopolitan political theory, seeking to explain how cosmopolitan ethics provide substantive normative support for the analysis of aid and development policy. The third section then out-lines the implications of a cosmopolitan approach to the analysis of aid and development policy for research methodology and teaching.

Ethics and Contemporary Aid Policy in Canada

  • 1 For example, in a 2012 interview with the Globe and Mail, Fantino explicitly argued that CIDA init (...)

8This is perhaps a strange time to make an argument for renewed emphasis on normative ethics in the analysis of Canadian aid. Although it has been widely recognized that aid policy reflects a mix of ethically driven humanitarian motives and self-interest, there is a growing consensus that over the past two decades self-interest has increasingly displaced humanitarian considerations in the crafting of aid policy (Black, this volume; Brown 2012; Pratt 1994, 2000). Indeed, following the merger of CIDA into DFATD and recent policy decisions from CIDA and statements by then Minister of International Cooperation Julian Fantino in 2012 that explicitly articulated domestic self-interest as a legitimate motive for aid, it appears that the space for moral considerations in Canadian aid policy making has shrunk considerably.1 In short, realpolitik seems to be the order of the day, suggesting that realist perspectives are much more appropriate for understanding Canadian aid policy than approaches grounded in normative ethics.

9However, my argument here is not so much about what Canadian aid policy should look like, as about how analysts should examine and evaluate it. From this perspective, choices about the issues we choose to research and the analytical methods we use can be understood as ethical decisions. It is probably safe to argue that most scholars who study aid policy do so out of a moral concern for the well-being of people in other parts of the world. As Brown and Raddatz note in the conclusion to a 2012 volume on Canadian aid, “All [sixteen] contributors to this volume share a normative concern about poverty in the global South and want to see the Canadian government deliver better aid” (2012, 338).

  • 2 For more on Canadian immigration policies targeting medical professionals from the global South, s (...)

10Nevertheless, the normative foundations for studying aid are rarely examined in depth. A full review of the literature on Canadian aid is beyond the scope of this short chapter, but it is useful to examine how the work of one particular scholar, Cranford Pratt, has shaped scholarly thinking in Canada about the moral foundations for aid (Pratt 1989, 1994, 2000). As David Black argues in this volume, “the scholarship of, and inspired by, Cranford Pratt has been exceptionally influential in framing analysis of the foundations and rationale for the Canadian aid program.” However, as Black goes on to explain, Pratt’s understanding of the relationship between Canadian aid and what he called “humane internationalism” also “limited the debate in ways that have constrained creativity and innovation.” One important limitation was an excessive emphasis on aid as an expression of positive moral duties to do good, at the expense of attention to negative moral duties to not cause harm through other policy areas. Indeed, Pratt’s conception of “humane internationalism” focused almost exclusively on the provision of aid. As Black notes, Pratt defined humane internationalism as “an acceptance by the citizens of the industrialized states that they have ethical obligations towards those beyond their borders and that these in turn impose obligations on their governments” (Pratt 1989, 13, quoted in Black, this volume). Nonetheless, although potentially cosmopolitan in scope, the ethical obligations that Pratt emphasized focused predominantly on aid. Given Pratt’s influence, it is perhaps not surprising that discussions about the ethical foundations of Canadian aid have similarly focused on positive duties to provide assistance. Unfortunately, that focus appears to have come at the expense of attention to the linkages to other policy areas, such as immigration and finance, which might be more appropriately analyzed from a “do no harm” perspective – for example, considering how the impacts of CIDA-funded projects to promote child and maternal health might be undermined by immigration practices that effectively poach medical professionals from developing countries.2

11Some recent works have examined Canadian foreign and development policy from a perspective that highlights the harm and potential harm done by Canada in other parts of the world (Engler 2009; Gordon 2010). A growing body of work focuses specifically on government support for Canadian extractive industries overseas, including the use of aid to support extractive activities and the negative consequences for the well-being of people who live in mining-affected communities (e.g., Blackwood and Stewart 2012; Brown, this volume). However, this body of work remains marginal to the larger body of research that focuses more narrowly on aid policy itself, often criticizing the extent to which it fails to fulfil positive duties to provide assistance to those in need (although not always framed in those terms). A separate body of work focuses specifically on ethical issues in development policy (Gaspar and St. Clair 2010; Goulet 1995; Irwin 2001; Quarles Van Ufford and Giri 2003). Many of the works within these volumes focus on moral problems with how the idea of development itself has been operationalized and often imposed, while a smaller number (Giri 2003; Penz 2001) highlight the importance of cosmopolitan perspectives in the analysis of development policy. These debates need to be rekindled and revisited.

12Quite separate from discussions of ethics and development policy, other analysts and organizations, including the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (OECD/DAC) and the Centre for Global Development (CGD) have expanded analysis of aid policy to also include non-aid development policies, highlighting the importance of “policy coherence for development” (Brown 2012; McGill 2012). Although it makes no mention of ethical considerations, this analysis represents an important step towards a more ethically coherent approach that analyzes aid policy and practice as part of a broader array of development policies and explicitly considers how those policies may do both good and harm. Both the OECD/DAC and the CGD assert the importance of a “policy coherence for development” approach from a completely pragmatic, policy-oriented perspective. In this chapter I try to link the “policy coherence for development” approach to deeper considerations of normative ethics, and in particular to cosmopolitan political philosophy, with the goal of demonstrating that there are both pragmatic and ethical reasons for devoting greater attention to policy coherence for development.

13It is important to make the distinction between the analysis of development policy and practice from a “policy coherence” approach, on the one hand, and the actual implementation of “policy coherence” in government policy, on the other. The failure to make this distinction has clouded recent debate. As Brown explains, “At its best, policy coherence for development recognizes that more than just aid is required for development, including reforms to the global trading system” (2012a, 9). The difficulty comes with analysis of actual experience with policy coherence, in which the “for development” elements tend to disappear as other foreign policy and domestic political and economic considerations take precedence. Nevertheless, even though the actual practice of “policy coherence” may “undermine development rather than promote it” (Brown 2012, 10), a very strong case remains for analyzing aid from a “policy coherence for development” approach. The next section examines the ethical basis for such an analytical perspective in cosmopolitan political theory.

From Policy Coherence for Development to Cosmopolitanism

14Most scholars of aid acknowledge that public support for development assistance is largely grounded in ethical principles – even if aid policies and practices are largely shaped by strategic, partisan, economic, and bureaucratic factors. Moreover, many, if not most, scholars of aid are themselves motivated by ethical concerns. However, in spite of these normative motivations, the actual ethical underpinning of aid has rarely been seriously examined in the Canadian context. In the context of the 2013 merger of CIDA into DFATD, it is extremely important to revisit the ethical considerations that underlie the provision of development assistance and that, as I argue here, should also inform analysis of both aid and non-aid aspects of development policy, and particularly the linkages between them.

15Questions about ethical obligations to other humans who live beyond state boundaries – which clearly inform the moral basis for aid – have been actively debated since the fourth century BCE in the context of what is widely understood as cosmopolitan political theory. The term cosmopolitanism is typically attributed to the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who, when asked where he was from, became famous for answering “I am a kosmou politês” (citizen of the world), implying that he understood his ethical and civic commitments as applying to all of humanity and not only to the fellow citizens of his city-state (Brown and Held 2010, 4). The question of what ethical obligations humans owe to other humans has been hotly debated by cosmopolitan philosophers since the time of Diogenes (Brown and Held 2010). The basic principle that those moral duties exist is widely agreed upon, even if their specific content and the mechanisms for putting them into practice are not. Indeed, as the political philosopher David Miller asserted, “‘cosmopolitan’ is probably now the preferred self-description of most political philosophers who write about global justice” (2007, 23).

16The central questions addressed in cosmopolitan theory concern the substance of the ethical obligations that all humans hold to all other humans by virtue of their shared humanity. Cosmopolitan philosophers do not agree on what those obligations are or what specific actions they require, but they do agree that our ethical obligations involve both positive duties to provide assistance to others in need and negative duties to not cause harm in the first place. Most cosmopolitan theorists are quick to point out that negative duties involve not only an obligation to not cause direct harm to others, but also to not cause or contribute to indirect and unintended harm, including harms that result only from the cumulative actions of many people (Brown and Held 2010; Held 2010).

17The relative importance of positive and negative moral duties is debated by proponents of different frameworks of normative ethics. In particular, consequentialist or utilitarian ethical frameworks assert that moral questions should be assessed on the basis of an action’s outcome or result and so do not privilege positive or negative ethical duties over one another. By contrast, deontological ethical frameworks, widely associated with eighteenth-century German scholar Immanuel Kant, make considerations about human dignity the reference point for ethical questions, and so prioritize negative duties. From a deontological or Kantian perspective, the failure to respect negative duties to not cause harm (that is, to cause harm to others) causes greater damage to human dignity than the failure to provide assistance to others in need. The contemporary human rights scholar, Thomas Pogge, makes a similar argument that the greatest causes of human suffering in the world are caused by failures to act on negative duties to not cause harm, in particular through the global trade system. Consequently, Pogge argues that negative duties should be prioritized (2007, 16–17). Paehlke (2012) makes a similar argument about the failures to prevent harm through climate change. However, the crucial point here for analysis of Canadian aid and development policy is that cosmopolitanism, along with virtually all of the prevailing normative ethical frameworks, including most of the world’s religions, includes both positive and negative moral obligations.

18Scholars have raised legitimate concerns with cosmopolitanism that need to be carefully considered. First, various postcolonial critics have highlighted the Western roots of cosmopolitan theory and have argued that it cannot possibly represent a global ethical framework for all of humanity. In response, other scholars have highlighted the many non-Western expressions of cosmopolitanism and have argued that if these articulations are given the attention they deserve, cosmopolitanism can indeed be understood as a global ethic (see Gaspar 2006; Gidwani 2006; Giri 2006; Pieterse 2006).

19Second, some political scientists (e.g., Miller 2007; Nagel 2005) have argued that global moral obligations cannot be effectively realized without some sort of global state and that such a state is both unfeasible and undesirable (because it could not be democratic). In response, growing numbers of scholars have abandoned discussions of legal and political cosmopolitanism that focus on global political institutions, moving to place more attention on civic and moral cosmopolitanism – that is, the cultivation of cosmopolitan attitudes and practices (Brown and Held 2010, 11–13).

20Finally, research in psychology suggests that the moral focus of cosmopolitanism on all of humanity is not tenable, that the actual exercise of cosmopolitan attitudes requires that individual humans be grounded in particular communities to which they feel and exercise greater obligations than they do to the rest of humanity. Emerging from these critiques, the idea of “rooted cosmopolitanism” asserts that “rootedness” in local communities is not just inevitable but necessary for the exercise of cosmopolitanism (Kymlicka and Walker 2012). In short, the versions of cosmopolitanism articulated by contemporary political theorists are quite different from those of Ancient Greece, the Enlightenment, or even the 1980s and 1990s. As Kymlicka and Walker point out,

If current realities have made some form of cosmopolitanism inevitable, these realities have also made clear that we need to revise our inherited ideas of cosmopolitanism … Enlightenment images of cosmopolitanism seem paradoxically both utopian and dystopian. They are utopian in their expectations of a democratic world state, but dystopian in their suppression of cultural and linguistic diversity. Indeed, European colonialism was often justified as a means of spreading a cosmopolitan order and ethos … Any defensible conception of cosmopolitanism for today’s world must avoid these connotations. It must be a postcolonial cosmopolitanism. (Kymlicka and Walter 2012, 2–3)

21The difficulty with most discussions of the moral basis for Canadian aid is that they prioritize – often only implicitly – positive ethical obligations but leave negative obligations unaddressed. To discuss moral obligations towards the rest of humanity only in terms of development assistance, while ignoring negative duties to not cause harm is not only theoretically inconsistent, but borders on political irresponsibility – at least to the extent that the scholarly analysis of aid has any influence on public understanding of it. Ethical consistency and political responsibility suggest that scholars of aid should give equal consideration to positive and negative ethical duties. In practical methodological terms, this would require the expansion of our analytical frameworks beyond aid as an expression of positive duties to also include greater examination of the potential harms caused by both aid and non-aid aspects of development policy, in particular the ways in which other policies might undermine the impacts of aid. Of course, there is a real danger that concerns to “do no harm” could be twisted into a justification to not provide aid at all, especially in the context of the loud chorus of aid critics. A pragmatic cosmopolitan response to this danger would be to focus attention first on the policy areas that present the greatest risk of harm, which might include trade, finance, defence, and the promotion of extractive industries; in comparison, the risks of doing harm through aid would be much less significant and justify less concern.

22Significantly, growing numbers of analysts of aid have also come to the conclusion that aid should be examined within the broader context of other policy areas, albeit for reasons that are primarily pragmatic rather than ethical. In 2009, Clare Short, then British Minister for International Development, asserted, “Development is more than aid. If we really mean to establish a more equitable and sustainable world order, then all areas of policy must be reexamined. It is a mistake to confine thinking on development to how aid budgets are managed” (quoted in McGill 2012, 40). McGill (2012) highlights the ways that the governments of both the UK and Ireland – in contrast to Canada – have incorporated analysis of non-aid policies into their development policy frameworks. In so doing, he emphasizes the importance of analyzing both the aid and non-aid policies of donor countries from the perspective of “policy coherence for development” and draws on data collected since 2002 by both the OECD/DAC and the CGD’s Commitment to Development Index. The OECD 2008 Ministerial Declaration on Policy Coherence for Development – to which Canada is a signatory – requires the Canadian cabinet to “ensure that information is gathered on the development impact of [non-aid] policies so that it can influence Canadian policy and its interactions with the developing world. This in turn requires cabinet to inform the various departments dealing with policy decisions that might affect development” (OECD 2012, 37). While the OECD/DAC emphasizes policy processes to enhance policy coherence for development, the Commitment to Development Index focuses explicitly on six non-aid policy areas (as well as aid itself) in its analysis of rich country development policies. Those six policy areas are trade, investment, migration, environment, security, and technology transfer (CGD 2013).

23While academic debate has focused on whether the idea of “policy coherence for development” actually improves or undermines development when it is implemented, the key point here concerns the need to analyze Canadian foreign policy from a “policy coherence for development” perspective. The central questions are: How and to what extent does the Government of Canada promote or undermine the well-being of people in other parts of the world through its foreign and domestic policies? How do decisions in one policy area support or undermine development efforts in other policy areas? The adoption of a “policy coherence for development” approach among analysts is important not just for practical reasons of aid effectiveness, but as a methodological expression of ethical considerations as well.

The Practical Implications of Cosmopolitan Ethics for Aid and Development Research

24While most scholars of development policy aim for objectivity in their analysis, the choice of what questions to ask and what research methods to employ are ultimately normative decisions. Making research on development policy more “ethically coherent” would require a number of shifts to expand the scope of analysis of Canadian development policy well beyond aid. The Center for Global Development’s Commitment to Development Index already provides systematic longitudinal data since 2002 on six non-aid components of rich country development policy (trade, investment, migration, environment, security, and technology transfer), but there remains significant scope for research in other government policy areas that have important implications for development – in particular the connections between aid and non-aid policies and how they complement or undermine one another.

25In the current Canadian context, research on the development impacts of government support for Canadian extractive businesses operating overseas is particularly important (Brown, this volume), but so too are other less-examined policy areas, such as Canada Pension Plan investment policies and practices (Blackwood and Stewart 2012). There are simply no good reasons for scholarly research to continue to place such disproportionate emphasis on aid as an expression of humanitarian concerns about doing good, without at least simultaneously expanding analysis of other aspects of Canadian government policy that may undermine the good done through aid.


26The argument presented in this chapter for greater emphasis on negative ethical duties in the crafting of our research agendas on Canadian development policy is fairly simple and is certainly not new. However, the argument still needs to be made – at the risk of sounding like a broken record – as, time and time again, when scholars and analysts discuss development policy, it is aid policy that receives disproportionate attention, perhaps because of inflated hopes that aid can resolve problems of injustice, inequality, and poverty, and perhaps because of desires to highlight doing good rather than doing harm. If the primary underlying motivation for studying, writing about, and advocating aid in Canada is ultimately humanitarian, then we – as a scholarly community – also need to be more coherent and rigorous in choosing research questions and research methods that reflect these normative concerns. Cosmopolitan ethics call for consideration and analysis of both positive and negative moral obligations. As various scholars have argued (Held 2010; Pogge 2007), in the context of contemporary globalization, the negative ethical duties to not cause harm – or not benefit from the suffering of others – are increasingly more relevant to global well-being and justice than the positive duties to provide assistance.

27In this context, it makes little sense to analyze Canadian aid as if it were separate from the broader framework of Canadian foreign policy and as if positive and negative duties can be isolated from one another. If the broader context of globalization was not sufficient incentive to adopt a cosmopolitan-inspired framework for government policy analysis in Canada, the merger of CIDA into DFATD should make the urgency of such a perspective clear. The time has come to merge consideration of positive ethical obligations – or “humane internationalism” in the words of Pratt – with attention to negative moral duties, thus creating a methodological perspective that analyzes Canadian government policy and practice both in terms of relative success and failure in providing humanitarian and development assistance and in terms of relative success and failure in not causing harm or benefiting from it. Indeed, we may need to think of a kind of Hippocratic oath for scholars of development policy, that in our analysis we focus first on the duty to do no harm (primum non nocere).



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1 For example, in a 2012 interview with the Globe and Mail, Fantino explicitly argued that CIDA initiatives should benefit Canadians: “This is Canadian money … And Canadians are entitled to derive a benefit” (Mackrael 2012). CIDA’s partnerships with Canadian mining companies operating in developing countries also clearly indicate an explicit emphasis on the promotion of domestic self-interest as a valid goal for aid (Brown, this volume).

2 For more on Canadian immigration policies targeting medical professionals from the global South, see Shuchman (2008).


Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of International Development Studies at Dalhousie University. His current research, funded by SSHRC and IDRC, analyzes processes of indigenous self-governance in Bolivia, as well as global citizenship and representations of poverty and development by international humanitarian agencies

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