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Rethinking Canadian Aid

Stephen Brown
Molly den Heyer
David R. Black

Section II: The Canadian Context and Motivations

Chapter X. The Management of Canadian Development Assistance: Ideology, Electoral Politics or Public Interest?

François Audet et Olga Navarro-Flores

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1Several decisions made by the Canadian government have initiated an important debate on what some call a shift in foreign aid. Coinciding with the Conservative government’s arrival in power, this shift has been especially noticeable since 2005. In particular, the government has closed Rights & Democracy and transformed it into the Office of Religious Freedom, cut women’s sexual and reproductive health programs, provided new support for the extractive industry, increased funding to faith-based non-governmental organizations, and folded the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), renamed the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD). Despite the importance of these changes, relatively little research has been conducted on the Conservative government’s impact on international aid policies.

2Inspired by recent trends in public administration, this chapter analyzes the decisions at the core of this shift in the Canadian government’s aid policy management. More specifically, we use some of these decisions to illustrate how the concept of development management can help interpret the Conservative government’s choices regarding official development assistance (ODA). We specifically consider whether they were made on the basis of ideology, electoral politics, or the public interest. Our goal is to reflect on Canadian aid from a public administration perspective and, more broadly, to participate in the debate on Canadian foreign policy.

3The chapter is divided into three sections. The first contextualizes the issue of foreign aid in major debates surrounding the public administration of ODA and proposes a three-pronged analytical framework. The second section outlines some observable components of the shift in Canadian aid. The third section analyzes these changes.

Foreign Aid: A Public Administration Issue

4Foreign aid is the voluntary transfer of resources from one country to another through a range of activities, programs, financial channels, and goods and services, as well as debt cancellation (Kim 2009, 556). Through the donor countries’ public administrations, government departments or agencies manage international programs. In addition, the study of foreign aid is a public administration concern, as it can bring about positive change, change public policy, and encourage good governance (Knack 2004; Neumayer 2002).

5For over three decades, New Public Management (NPM) has been the prevailing theoretical and practical public administration paradigm (Osborne and Gaebler 1992). This approach contends that the private sector’s management model is more effective than the one generally used by the public sector. Following in the tradition of Anglo-Saxon countries, the model mainly implies a separation between political involvement (steering) and the operational/administrative function (rowing). In this perspective, such separation facilitates empowerment and consequently enhances the effectiveness of small operational units in charge of public policy (Bezes 2009). In addition to the adoption of NPM, the advent of the debate on aid effectiveness was another strong influence of the private sector’s emphasis on efficiency within public management.

6In the context of public administration, Thomas (1996, 96) characterized ODA management as Development Management, a union between management and international development that implies the inclusion of aid-related values, such as equity, political participation, and gender equality. Development managers in public administration thus distinguish themselves through specific attributes and skills connected to challenges and realities that are different from those found in other areas of the public sector. They must therefore reconcile notions of NPM efficiency with “Third World” ideals (Dar and Cooke 2008, 15). However, de Vries (2008, 151) characterizes NPM as an authoritarian and institutionalized ideological practice which depoliticizes all development activities by transforming a “utopian” project, in line with the recipient countries’ situation, into a “hierarchical” project that reflects donor standards. In short, NPM increases the separation between the steering (politics) and rowing (operations/administration). This situation raises questions such as: Which partner countries should be prioritized? Which crises should receive assistance? Which organizations should implement these projects? Should the political level be involved in defining programs and choosing partner agencies? Should development managers be given ultimate responsibility for these choices? Finally, in case of failure or criticism, as is often the case in foreign aid, who should be held accountable?

7Who decides? Is it administrators, politicians, or both? Should decisions be made jointly, in consultation with DFAIT and CIDA experts? If politicians make the decisions, political interests should be taken into account, following the ruling party’s ideology (de Vries 2008; Massie 2011). If development managers make the decisions, they should be based on development considerations, which entails separating politics from the administrative functions. If, however, decisions are made jointly by politicians, development managers, and other public administrators, bureaucratic efficiency must be considered. It is thus possible to analyze the development management decision-making process from three perspectives: political ideology, the separation between political and administrative functions, and bureaucratic efficiency. In the next section, we apply this analytical framework to better understand the Canadian government’s approach to the management of official development assistance.

Observable Phenomena in Management of Official Development Assistance

8As mentioned above, a shift has taken place in Canadian aid since the Conservatives came to power. We compiled many of their decisions and, to facilitate reading and break down the available information on their analysis, we divided them into two basic types. We based the categories on the Canadian government’s justification at the time of the decision’s announcement: (1) economic rationale (e.g., privatization, exports, role of the private sector); (2) efficiency rationale (e.g., responsible management of the public purse, government downsizing, improved performance). We added a third category for decisions not justified by economic or efficiency rationales.

9Table 1 shows the Canadian government’s main decisions from 2010 to 2013, taken from CIDA’s website (CIDA 2013) and grouped by rationale. Other decisions may have been taken that are not listed on the CIDA website. The decisions shown below represent solely those that were publicly announced.

10Without going over all the decisions presented in Table 1, some important facts are worth highlighting to support our analysis. One of the key factors that emerges from this list of decisions has to do with the public administration’s management effectiveness. Influenced by the NPM perspectives, the budget cuts and merger of CIDA and DFAIT to downsize government, along with the fact that 13 percent of the ODA budget went unspent, seek to improve program management efficiency and reduce operating costs. At the time of writing this chapter, the government had yet to announce the merger’s financial impact.

Table 1: Main Canadian Government Decisions on ODA Management

Table 1: Main Canadian Government Decisions on ODA Management

Source: Compiled from the CIDA and DFAIT websites and interpreted by the authors

11The table also reveals Canada’s new policy towards Israel, which tends to influence and justify a good number of related decisions. Foreign Minister John Baird has stated that “Canada is a better and stronger ally of Israel’s than the United States” (Blanchfield 2012). This new Conservative policy seems to be ideological. Massie (2011) points out how the Harper government’s position towards Israel contrasts with Canada’s previous balanced policy.

12Finally, the table highlights cuts in the funding of several Canadian non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including the Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC). These decisions are based on the Canadian government’s pro-Israel ideology or other ideological perspectives, for instance, its rejection of bottom-up approaches such as those of the CCIC, a longtime CIDA strategic partner organization for defining and applying aid policy.

13The above helps us characterize the Conservative government’s behaviour and establish that efficiency issues and the Conservative Party’s ideology heavily influence aid management decisions. We analyze this in the next section.

The Difficult Application of Development Management

14As mentioned above, NPM and development management are the dominant public administration paradigms. This translates into the application of specific development values related to foreign aid, in addition to the NPM-influenced agenda of bureaucratic efficiency and the ideal of a separation between political and administrative functions. Using core concepts from both theoretical fields, Table 2 provides a framework to interpret Canadian government decisions that have drastically altered the Canadian aid landscape.

15A review of Table 2 reveals at least three main development management challenges in Canada: (1) The NPM utopian separation of political and administrative functions, which enables (2) the influence of political ideology and (3) policies seeking “bureaucratic efficiency” at all cost.

An Impossible Separation of Functions

16In this context, it would appear that the ideal of the separation between the political and the administrative is impossible to achieve. However, is there a genuine interest in separating these functions? To answer the questions, it is instructive to examine Harper government decisions and one case in particular of political intervention in aid program management, in which Bev Oda, then Minister of International Cooperation, overturned a CIDA administrative funding decision regarding KAIROS, an NGO working in Palestine, by inserting the word “not” (see Fitzpatrick 2011). The political rhetoric that denies political intervention is contradicted by politicians’ actions. This specific case shows how difficult it is for the Harper government to remain outside of the administrative structure. Citing the importance of working with administrators, Sharp (1981) advocates joint decision making. He explains that public administration is even more important when the parties in power alternate. The administrators (the rowing) guarantee the development and maintenance of expertise, which can be used by politicians (the steering), who come and go. How, then, to explain the government’s concealment of its interventions? Hood (2011, 7) explains that politicians, because of their need to be re-elected, worry about being criticized. Not wanting to be blamed for political intervention, the Conservatives might prefer to hide their influence on decision making.

Table 2: Framework for Analyzing Canadian Government Decisions

Table 2: Framework for Analyzing Canadian Government Decisions

Source: Authors’ compilation

17Table 2 also illustrates how officials and politicians have a complementary role in decision making regarding the formulation and implementation of aid effectiveness policies. In fact, the international debate on aid effectiveness, in which Canada participates, involves a plethora of measures that require the government’s political commitment (such as harmonization with other donors, ownership policies), as well as program administration through mechanisms for funding, monitoring, and evaluation, as well as program administration tools.

18However, the invocation of “Canadian values” and aid effectiveness to justify certain decisions – the increase in funding to faithbased organizations, the closure of organizations that are not aligned with the Conservatives’ ideology or pro-Israel policy – must be interpreted through a different framework. Some of the Conservative government’s decisions seem ideological. This suggests that religious ideology plays a dominant role in the Harper government.

A Political Ideology Steeped in Political Interests

19Collins and Kakabadse (2006, 112) describe the dangers of a rigid and dogmatic political ideology based on religious views, insofar as those who subscribe to a Manichean logic of good and evil seem incapable of nuance or respect for other religions and ideologies, which they perceive to be in conflict with their own values. Such behaviour leads either to the exclusion of those who do not share the same beliefs or attempts to convert them.

20Collins and Kakabadse’s (2006) argument sheds new light on certain Canadian government decisions. First, the selection of new proselytizing organizations to implement aid programs cannot be justified on the basis of effectiveness. Though Canadian aid was initially based in religious motivations, most Canadian NGOs abandoned their religious roots in the late 1970s. However, after the Conservatives were elected, the number of faith-based organizations delivering aid increased significantly. Between 2005 and 2010, funding to proselytizing organizations increased by more than 70 percent, and non-evangelical faith-based organizations received a 40 percent increase, while secular organizations received only a 4 percent increase (Audet et al. 2013). While there is no consensus on the evidence regarding the growth in funding for faith-based organizations (Vander Zaag 2013), religious groups clearly influence Canadian international cooperation (Berger 2006) and NGOs more generally (Clarke 2006), and the role and the effect of evangelical groups on the Canadian Conservative government is well documented (Malloy, 2013; Potter 2011).

21The Harper government justifies the funding decisions on the basis of the quality of the project proposals, not on the organizations themselves. Project-based criteria would suggest an aid effectiveness rationale. However, that justification does not hold, since new organizations have by definition less experience, which decreases the effectiveness of aid delivery. The funding of evangelical organizations thus fits well with Collins and Kakabadse’s (2006) description of Manichaean ideology.

  • 1 In the case of KAIROS, it might also be related to the organization’s support of Guatemalan commun (...)

22Second, the defunding of Canadian NGOs KAIROS and Alternatives was probably due to their support of Palestinian communities, which was not consistent with the Harper government’s ideological view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.1 The closure of Rights & Democracy and its subsequent transformation into the Office of Religious Freedom is also not surprising in this context, as it too opted for a balanced human rights policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. DFATD’s new Office of Religious Freedom, led by a supporter of the Catholic Church, will be easier to keep in line with the government’s ideology.

23Third, some NGOs’ refusal to toe the Conservative line has had other repercussions, as well. Some Canadian organizations have lost government funding for their projects relating to sexual and reproductive health, notably those providing access to safe and legal abortion for women who have been sexually assaulted or are HIV-positive. This decision can be attributed to the Conservatives’ ideological position on abortion. Organizations such as Doctors of the World Canada, which has much expertise in maternal health and fighting HIV, can no longer rely on funding from the Canadian government for those issues.

24The situation is similar with humanitarian organizations. Indeed, a large number of faith-based organizations have joined the Policy and Advocacy Group for Emergency Relief (PAGER), an ad hoc committee for coordination and policy composed of Canadian humanitarian organizations, DFAIT, and CIDA. Since 2005, the number of faith-based PAGER members has risen from three to fourteen. With this dilution of Canadian humanitarian professionals, PAGER appears to have lost its raison d’être. The space for dialogue between experts to discuss policy and operational issues has turned into a list of CIDA-funded organizations that the government favours. Relatedly, DFAIT removed from its website the list of organizations it endorsed, which included about fifteen Catholic and evangelical organizations, most of which had only recently been added to the list.

25These changes and their link to the Conservative government’s ideology can be interpreted in two ways. The first has to do with the electoral impact of criticism (self-preservation). Thus, given the obvious objections to these decisions, how should one interpret such behaviour? On the one hand, politicians worry about the impact of their decisions if it compromises their chances of re-election. However, criticism probably has a lesser impact on their image than the faith-based groups that approve of these changes. Indeed, the Conservatives are probably seeking to please their electoral base. The second view helps us understand how political intervention imbues the Canadian public administration of ODA with Conservative values. How does this compare with previous governments? As explained by Jeffrey (2011), the Conservatives have merely “removed” the Liberal bias and introduced a Conservative one in its place. As such, the Conservative government is no different from previous ones or from other international donors. The Harper government is part of mainstream economic development discourse in which ODA is an instrument of economic self-interest. In the Conservative Party’s ideology, this implies favouring organizations that echo their religious values.

The Quest for Bureaucratic Efficiency

26The third issue affecting development management in Canada concerns aid effectiveness. Requirements for the effective management of aid and the government’s desire to reduce expenditures in a context of economic crisis can explain the reorganization of aid management (CIDA/DFAIT), as well as the budgets cuts themselves. However, these decisions can also be defended from a public interest perspective. From this point of view, taxpayers should expect judicious use of public funds, especially in times of economic crisis. Similarly, decisions and policies encouraging the private sector, especially the mining sector, are part of the Conservative government’s economic development strategy. Aligning aid policy with the private sector and the extractive industry can also be justified on effective grounds.

27From an NPM perspective, the private sector produces more cost-effective results, thereby improving the effectiveness of aid programs. It is politically expedient for the government to embrace rhetorically the strict management of public funds and the downsizing of the state bureaucracy. However, downsizing creates new public service problems because the layoff of experts impairs institutional memory and reduces the government’s ability to make informed decisions (Tait 1997). Public interest is therefore not necessarily served by the market, but rather by institutionalization, meaning general social acceptability, recognition, and support, and not just from government officials. However, even if the aid effectiveness rhetoric appeals to a segment of the population, it must in the long term reflect a political project broadly embedded in society.


28This chapter analyzes the shift in Canadian official development assistance. It finds that some decisions can actually be justified by the promotion of the role of private sector or by NPM’s emphasis on government downsizing and program efficiency. However, other decisions result from electoral concerns and a Conservative ideology that pervades development management decisions. This chapter also highlights the complexity of the separation between politics and public administration.

29Our analysis suggests that, beyond the rhetorical level, it is indeed difficult, perhaps even impossible, to avoid political intervention in the public service’s operational workings. Admittedly, the ideological nature of government decisions has caused tensions within and between sectors among traditional aid actors. However, the arrival of new private actors will create an interesting new dynamic. Will these new players demand more consultation, dialogue, and collaboration between the political and administrative functions? How will they influence aid policy? Will the government be able to set up innovative public policies that cater to society as a whole rather than just its electoral base and interest groups? What will be the concrete impact on the effectiveness of Canadian aid? To that end, other studies must explore the links between the Conservative Party and its electoral base to better understand the relationship between politicians and the electorate.


30This chapter is an adaptation of an article by François Audet and Olga Navarro-Flores, “Virage dans la gestion de l’aide canadienne publique au développement: tensions et dynamiques d’une nouvelle idéologie,” Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, vol. 20, no. 1 (2014), pp. 61–72, copyright © Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA). It is reprinted by permission of Taylor & Francis Ltd. (www. on behalf of NPSIA. The authors and editors are grateful to Taylor & Francis for allowing it to appear here and to David Carment for helping them obtain the permission. The authors also wish to thank Professor Étienne Charbonneau from the UQÀM School of Public Administration for his judicious advice on an earlier draft of this chapter.



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1 In the case of KAIROS, it might also be related to the organization’s support of Guatemalan communities protesting the actions of a Canadian mining company.

Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1: Main Canadian Government Decisions on ODA Management
Légende Source: Compiled from the CIDA and DFAIT websites and interpreted by the authors
Fichier image/jpeg, 493k
Titre Table 2: Framework for Analyzing Canadian Government Decisions
Légende Source: Authors’ compilation
Fichier image/jpeg, 296k


Professor at the School of Management, Université du Québec à Montréal, and the Scientific Director of the Canadian Research Institute on Humanitarian Crisis and Aid (OCCAH). He holds a PhD in Public Administration at ÉNAP for his research on local capacity building and decision-making processes of humanitarian organizations. He has been a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research. He also has over fifteen years’ experience in humanitarian action. He was previously Head of the Regional -Delegation of East Africa and the Indian Ocean for the Canadian Red Cross, and also served as Program Director for CARE Canada. He worked for several years in Latin America and Southeast Asia on behalf of the Canadian Centre for International Study and Cooperation, where he served as chief of humanitarian aid projects in Honduras and Vietnam

Has a bachelor’s degree in Economics and Administration and a master’s degree in International Cooperation from the Université de Sherbrooke, as well as a PhD in administration from the Université du Québec à Montreal. Her dissertation, titled “Les relations de partenariat Nord-Sud : Du paradoxe au compromis. Une étude institutionnaliste des relations entre ONG dans le secteur de la coopération internationale,” was published by the Presses de l’Université du Québec in 2009. She received the prestigious Best Thesis Award from the Institut de recherche en économie contemporaine in 2007. Before undertaking her doctoral studies, Ms. Navarro-Flores worked for more than ten years as a consultant in management and development for cooperatives, community development groups, and NGOs. She also worked as a consultant in development project and program evaluation, including policy design and development for both funding and implementing agencies. She has worked in a diversity of contexts such as Latin America, Africa, and Asia, as well as across Canada. Ms. Navarro-Flores is particularly interested in development NGOs and their relationships with the private sector, government, and other NGOs from institutional and organizational perspectives. She is also interested in project management and evaluation, gender and development issues, and inter-sector partnerships and their intrinsic power relations

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