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Rethinking Canadian Aid

Stephen Brown
Molly den Heyer
David R. Black

Section I: Foundations of Ethics, Power and Bureaucracy

Chapter II. Refashioning Humane Internationalism in Twenty-First-Century Canada

Adam Chapnick

Texte intégral

1The recent merger of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade has been framed by Canada’s Conservative government as an effort to better align international development policy with Canadian national interests (Savage 2013). While some within and outside of Ottawa have praised the decision as long overdue, others have criticized it for all but disregarding the moral or ethical obligations that many typically associate with foreign aid (Gulrajani 2013). Indeed, even before the merger, one leading analyst had noted, “Given the Canadian government’s growing focus on self-interest, rather than recipient countries’ priorities … it is not surprising that Canada has been slow to implement the more altruistic [italics added] elements of the aid effectiveness agenda” (Brown 2012, 8).

2Balancing altruism with national self-interest has been a focus of critics of Canada’s official development assistance (ODA) policy for decades. The political economist Cranford Pratt is one of many to have depicted the management of these potentially divergent priorities as a conflict between humane internationalists, who understand the obligation of developed nations to help the poor help themselves in primarily ethical terms, and international realists, who maintain that states have to promote and protect their own interests at all costs regardless of whether their behaviour is consistent with humanitarian norms (Pratt 1989, 1990, 1994, 1999, 2000; see also Black, this volume).

3Scholarship about the debate continues to proliferate, but it is dominated by analyses from the humane internationalist perspective. To the international realists, one might infer, there is no real need to argue, since the Canadian government’s foreign aid policy has always been framed as more realistic than altruistic. Even For Whose Benefit? The Report of the Standing Committee on External Affairs and International Trade on Canada’s Official Development Assistance Policies and Priorities (the Winegard Report), a 1987 document heralded by advocates as one of the most progressive assessments of Canadian policy in the post-Vietnam era (Pratt 1994), defined the national interest in political and economic terms as much as it did altruistic ones (Winegard et al. 1987). Since then, the general trajectory of Canadian international policy has hardly changed (Chapnick 2005); nonetheless, as recently as 2010, academics David Black and Molly den Heyer (2010–11, 20) wrote of a Canadian struggle “to reconcile a humane internationalist approach based on an ethical obligation to help alleviate global poverty with a realist approach seeking to deliver aid that supports business and political interests.”

4There is no question that the humane internationalists are sincere and that their case is emotionally compelling. However, decades of failure to convince Canadian policy practitioners to inject a greater sense of altruism into the national attitude towards official development assistance raises the question of whether their campaign will ever be effective. The answer, it appears, is probably not. For one, the premise of the argument – that a humane internationalist/international realist dichotomy of views indeed exists – is misleading. Second, by conflating two elements of the Canadian aid agenda that many realists understand as distinct – emergency relief and development assistance – humane internationalists misrepresent the intentions, if not also the views, of their critics.

5This chapter examines the gap between the humane internationalists, who generally stand on the outside of the strategic decision-making process, and the international realists, who at times make political decisions without the necessary policy expertise. In the hope of beginning to bridge this gap, this chapter begins by reviewing the debate in greater detail. It then considers four plausible motivations for framing the divergences in Canadian attitudes towards foreign aid in binary terms: Proponents of the idea could believe that the dichotomy is real; the strategic infrastructure of the humane internationalists’ advocacy programs could encourage such thinking; personal gain could be at stake; or the Canadian political atmosphere could condition such a black-and-white approach. This chapter suggests that, however credible or reasonable, not one of these explanations alters the basic truth: the Canadian public continues to demonstrate a poor understanding of foreign aid and therefore remains incapable of appreciating the importance of investing in poverty reduction abroad; its support for development assistance is particularly fickle and shallow (see Silvio, this volume), leaving popular thinking more inclined to the realist framework; and the broader national commitment to poverty reduction efforts continues to rise and fall based on the strength of the Canadian economy rather than the needs of recipient countries, once again running counter to best international practices. While making no claim to having the perfect solution to the humane internationalists’ challenge, this essay concludes with three actions that might better integrate the spirit of altruism into Canada’s international policy.

Framing the Debate

6The most significant problem with the humane internationalist/ international realist construct is its conflation of what policy makers in Ottawa – most of whom appear to be sympathetic to realist thinking – typically understand as two separate forms of support: emergency (or humanitarian) relief and development assistance. Duke University’s Tim Büthe and his colleagues (2012, 572–73) have explained the distinction by differentiating between a humanitarian discourse, which is preoccupied with “a normative commitment to serving underdeveloped or neglected populations … and provid[ing] services to those in need,” and a development discourse, committed to tackling the “‘root causes’ of poverty” and to promoting “sustainable, long-term improvements” to the quality of life in developing societies. In policy terms, although the humanitarian imperative could serve to promote long-term poverty reduction goals, it might also translate into funding short-term relief operations in states that suffer natural and human-induced disasters. In the latter case, it can easily be interpreted as altruistic, and thereby equated with the concept of charity (Winegard et al. 1987). By contrast, development assistance policy is grounded in more, even if not entirely, traditional conceptions of the national interest. As the Winegard Report (1987, 8) makes clear, its purpose is not “to demonstrate our moral sensibilities but to provide timely and effective assistance to those who need it most.” “Investments in the well-being of the poor,” the document goes on to explain, “are very much in the long-term interests of Canada and other industrialized countries” (Winegard et al. 1987, 9).

7There is no debate in Canada over the merits of limited humanitarian relief operations. As one poll demonstrated, at least 70 percent of Canadians agree that their country has a moral obligation to assist others in need (CDFAI 2007). Even the realists, then, embrace the spirit of altruism in times of crisis, although some might still emphasize the anticipated diplomatic benefits arising from so-called humanitarian initiatives. The real public and political differences exist over whether Ottawa has an obligation to invest in developing states’ long-term futures; whether it is in Canada’s best interests to do so; and whether there are motivations other than altruism that might legitimately drive official development assistance policy. Practically, Canadians did not dispute the moral imperative faced by their government to respond generously to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The public was and remains divided, however, over whether Ottawa has a duty to pursue a longer-term partnership through, for example, investments in good governance initiatives, social services, and economic development that might help Haitians rebuild their society (Canadian Press 2010).

  • 1 Others, such as Morrison (2000) and Nossal (1988), have criticized the humanitarian internationali (...)

8At the conceptual level, where realists ultimately differ from humane internationalists is over whether specific development goals such as gender equality should be considered, as they are by scholar Liam Swiss (2012), altruistic. To realists, if gender equality leads to economic growth and orderly, sustainable social development, then it is good policy, period. And if it does not, then it should not be a primary concern of any donor country. Certainly, some might, as the Canadian government has in past policy pronouncements, attempt to combine altruism with realism through “an integrated view of humanity” (Government of Canada 1987, 6). Alternatively, however, one might simply accept that, in spite of the impression left by the humane internationalist/international realist dichotomy, both groups will often agree on development assistance policy; they will merely do so for different reasons.1 It is therefore hardly in the interests of government critics to paint the realists as an impediment to long-term social progress. Cooperating with them in the pursuit of common ends should be more productive.

The Dichotomy Explained

9Why would members of the humane internationalist movement reject the realists’ differentiation between emergency relief and development assistance when doing so – and thereby positioning themselves outside of the strategic decision-making process – could compromise their capacity to effect global change? Here are four possible explanations:

1. The commitment to a rigid approach to humane internationalism is a product of sincere, strongly held normative beliefs

10Advocates such as Tony Vaux maintain that one should never differentiate between disaster relief and sustainable poverty reduction strategies; furthermore, he and others hazard, it cannot be done. “Humanitarian aid should play a role not only in saving lives today but also saving lives tomorrow,” Vaux (2007, 15) has argued, “and this means contributing to a just society. Issues such as participation, consultation, gender equity, and respect for minorities are not just ‘quality’ aspects of a humanitarian response. They may be its essence, if they contribute to peace.” Vaux explicitly rejects what he identifies as the minimalist approach to humanitarian assistance, popularized since 1997 by the Sphere Project (2013), and promotes instead the more holistic, developmentalist position first formally articulated in the Red Cross Code of Conduct in 1994 (Vaux 2007). In Vaux’s defence, the latter position makes sense from a practitioner’s perspective: Refugees who have lost everything during a natural or human-induced disaster and are then forced to return, post-disaster, to a country that lacks a functioning governance mechanism or sustainable infrastructure are hardly better off than they were before. If one does not, therefore, invest in that country’s development, another disaster is almost inevitable. Strategic decision makers, however, often view the disaster and its long-term implications as distinct tactical challenges. One requires an immediate response to mollify a concerned (domestic) public; the second lacks the same political urgency.

2. Structural realities prevent humane internationalists from recognizing why government decision makers see fundamental differences between emergency relief initiatives and policies explicitly designed to promote sustainable poverty reduction

11The structural explanation is straightforward. Some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – particularly those committed to the “disaster-development continuum” (Anderson 1994) – are mandated to pursue a combination of humanitarian and developmental assistance goals (Büthe et al. 2012). Their staff’s responsibilities can spread over both challenges, and advocates among their workers might be split between Sphere minimalists and Red Cross developmentalists. The lack of cohesion within NGOs themselves might therefore prevent a more coherent approach to, and understanding of, foreign aid advocacy at the political level.

3. Notions of personal self-interest prevent humane internationalists from adapting their tactics to accommodate political realities

12Aid organizations and their workers cannot help but look out for themselves and their interests. While Büthe and his colleagues (2012) have convincingly rejected what for years was a commonly held view that NGOs behave like money-hungry institutions in competition for scarce resources and therefore focus on rallying support for media-intensive international tragedies as opposed to longer-term social and economic challenges, research by development consultant Ian Smillie and others has demonstrated that a significant percentage of northern NGOs continue to rely on programs like child sponsorship to raise money for what they nonetheless frame as development assistance initiatives (Smillie 1998; Vaux 2007). That such ventures are generally successful as short-term fundraisers is undeniable, and Büthe’s suggestion that activists who use these strategies remain motivated by altruism is plausible. Still, in making the welfare of individual children the face of so-called development assistance initiatives, these organizations miscast ODA as a series of quick-impact projects rather than a long-term investment in sustainable development. In other words, they condition the public to believe – incorrectly – that paying for a single child to eat a healthy breakfast and attend school will have a lasting impact on the over-all ability of that child’s larger community to grow economically and provide a sustainable, prosperous environment for future generations.

  • 2 Unless one is using such a framework to relieve the guilt associated with profiting personally fro (...)

13At the individual level, recent research into the motivations of international aid volunteers rejects the standard assumption that altruism and selfishness are mutually exclusionary (de Jong 2011; Fechter 2012). Optimistic analysts, such as development assistance scholar Sara de Jong (2011, 30), suggest that the reality is more complex and that “it is possible for an act to be altruistic when the consequences of the act benefit both the person who performs the act and the person the act is done for.” Others are more critical, suggesting that “the idea of ‘wanting to help’ is an expression of … young … men and women’s privileged position; helping is structurally associated with a position of power and freedom of action” (Mangold 2012, 1495). In both cases, the ethical/practical divide is hardly clear-cut, leading one to question how it could possibly be helpful to frame development assistance discourse in binary terms.2

4. The politics of gaining and maintaining public support for development assistance initiatives has caused humane internationalists to frame their cause in an overly simplistic and ultimately misleading manner

14A fourth motivation to differentiate between altruism and pragmatism could be politics. The development assistance community functions under the (reasonable) assumption that the general public is most willing to support foreign aid when it is framed in altruistic terms and focused on results (Brown 2012; Büthe 2012; Lindstrom and Henson 2011; Mc Donnell et al. 2002; Pratt 2000). Presumably, then, some NGOs might court the popular humanitarian impulse as a means of initiating a relationship with the broader community. The thinking, it would follow, is that once the public is interested in global or individual hardship and even moderately committed to doing something about it, it will become easier for advocates to expand that support to include long-term development assistance priorities. As for the focus on results, citizens simply like to know how their tax dollars are being used, and it is easier to observe and measure immediate outcomes in responses to disasters. Again, however, the challenge in both cases is that focusing on either grave emergencies or individual stories skews popular understandings of foreign aid, making it more difficult for the general public to recognize the value and importance of long-term poverty reduction programs. Moreover, as Brown (2012, 6) has made clear, short-term results, as positive as they might be, “do not guarantee a concomitant positive impact on broader development outcomes” (see also Smillie, this volume). The effect the public tends to see in the aftermath of a disaster often cannot be sustained without a long-term commitment to development (hence, the disaster-development continuum), nor will improvements to the life of a single child necessarily benefit an entire community.

The Results of the Humane Internationalist Campaign Thus Far

15Regardless of whether the humane internationalist movement is driven by a rigid commitment to a disaster-development continuum, the joint mandates of NGOs, the self-interest of such groups and their workers, or the political realities of contemporary Canada, Ottawa’s inconsistent, if not simply disappointing, effort to support poverty reduction programs around the world makes it clear that attempts to frame development assistance policy as a moral imperative have been largely unsuccessful. The long-lasting problems are threefold: (1) after more than half a century of advocacy and education, the Canadian public – much like publics across the Western world – maintains a limited understanding of ODA; (2) popular support for foreign aid is fickle and shallow, and significant numbers of Canadians believe that aid is failing; and (3) the national commitment to development assistance rises and falls based on the strength of the domestic economy, with official contributions to emergency relief consistently finding greater favour among voters than long-term investments in sustainable partnerships. This section examines these three problems in turn.

Lack of Public Understanding

16Over the last two decades, studies by reputable organizations like the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the United Kingdom’s Institute for Public Policy and Research have demonstrated that, in the words of the former OECD president, Jean Bovin, “people in most countries lack adequate knowledge about development co-operation and about the difference that aid can actually make in the lives of people in developing countries. While there is a stable level of ‘compassion’ for the poor, most people find it difficult to arrive at a sophisticated judgment about the development efforts of their governments and NGOs” (Bovin and Martinez 1998, 7; see also Glennie et al. 2012; Mc Donnell et al. 2002). Put less generously, most Westerners “believe that ODA is humanitarian assistance” (Mc Donnell et al. 2002, 12) and therefore question its long-term strategic impact.

17Domestic research suggests that Canadians are no exception to these observations. In the early 1990s, a series of surveys by CIDA found that Canadians identified aid primarily as a means to relieve human suffering. Moreover, as citizens of a generous country, the data showed, Canadians felt a moral obligation to do their part to help the less fortunate during their times of greatest need (Pratt 1994). Two decades later, the feelings of generosity persisted, as did the belief in providing assistance to those “in need of [immediate] support” (Environics Institute 2011). Consistently missing from these findings, however, is any sense that a strategic investment in sustainable poverty reduction is an international obligation of the Canadian government in either a moral or a political sense.

18Since both Ottawa and development-focused NGOs have traditionally spent little money or energy on information campaigns that might correct this skewed understanding of foreign aid (Smillie 1998), the role of educating the public has been left largely to the media. In Canada, popular journalism appears to have only reinforced the common ignorance. As one analyst has shown, when the Canadian Broadcast Corporation covered the Haitian earthquake in early 2010, its stories consistently emphasized the words “help” and “generous,” and paid significantly less attention to the long-term needs of Haitian society that were exacerbated by the disaster (Mason 2011; see also Smillie 1998). There is nothing inherently wrong with being generous, of course, but it is not the primary ingredient in any strategically meaningful, effective, long-term international development assistance strategy. So long as Canadians fail to understand the difference, there is no reason to believe that their altruistic inclinations will translate into a sustained commitment to poverty reduction around the world.

Fickle and Shallow Public Attitudes

19The Canadian public’s support for development assistance has been described at various times over the last fifty years as “fickle” (Spicer 1966, 38), “fragile,” and “profoundly ambivalent, if not incoherent” (Noël et al. 2004, 33, 37). Consistent with these findings are polls that note that, in times of financial difficulty at home, support for foreign aid declines significantly (Environics Institute 2010). Such attitudes mirror the results of similar international surveys, reinforcing the idea that the worldwide approach to promoting development assistance as humane public policy is failing (Lindstrom and Henson 2011; Mc Donnell et al. 2002). The common attitude, to paraphrase a former Canadian prime minister, seems to be “generosity if necessary, but not necessarily generosity.”

20In the current context, there is reason to believe that humane internationalists are more than just failing; some of them have become part of the problem. Some analysts accuse NGOs of oversimplifying the complex challenges of long-term aid and of mixing messages (Glennie et al. 2012; Smillie 1997, 1998). Others argue that ongoing advocacy that emphasizes desolation can result in disengagement, if not disbelief. In other words, when developing states are framed as places where disasters happen and children suffer, and if the crises seem to be ever-present, some Canadians will eventually give up on aid’s efficacy (Glennie et al. 2012; Lindstrom and Henson 2011; Mc Donnell et al. 2002; Noël et al. 2004; Pratt 2000; Smillie 1998; Spicer 1966).

Consistency with the Donor’s Agenda, Not the Recipient’s

  • 3 For a helpful summary of public and government thinking, see Otter (2003).
  • 4 Canada’s history of tied aid is a prime example.

21The combination of the lack of strategic importance ascribed to development assistance by the Canadian government and the absence of real public understanding and commitment has enabled poorly conceived, tactically focused official policies to persist.3 As would any liberal democratic regime, Ottawa has traditionally responded to the basic demand to demonstrate generosity towards the poor through actions that privilege domestic support over causes abroad.4 Successive Canadian governments of every political inclination have done so for two understandable reasons: First, because that is what the public wants. Charity, it is often said, should begin at home. In difficult times, limited government resources should be used to support Canadian taxpayers (Lindstrom et al. 2011; Mc Donnell et al. 2002; Pratt 1994). Second, as international realists would expect, the federal government has been true to its responsibility to promote and protect the interests of the state. As one of the first analyses of Canadian development assistance policy argued in 1966:

Philanthropy is plainly no more than a fickle and confused policy stimulant, derived exclusively from personal conscience. It is not an objective of government. Love for mankind is a virtue of the human heart, an emotion which can stir only individuals – never bureaucracies or institutions. Governments exist only to promote the public good; and, as a result, they must act purely in the selfish interest of the state they serve. Altruism as foreign policy is a misnomer, even if sometimes the fruits of policy are incidentally beneficial to foreigners. To talk of humanitarian “aims” in Canadian foreign policy is, in fact, to confuse policy with the ethics of individuals moulding it, to mix government objectives with personal motives. (Spicer 1966, 11)

22Or, as the political scientist Kim Richard Nossal maintained,

Organized groups of humans have mandates that are ruthlessly exclusive, and their members generally have a well-developed sense of their obligations to the group. In particular, they are able and prone to distinguish between their personal sentiments and their positions as officials of organizations. More importantly, their positions oblige them to limit the organization’s altruism … Because of these limits, a fundamental lack of concrete, or real, concern for those who lie outside the scope of the organization’s mandate naturally follows. (Nossal 1988, 35–56)

23To be sure, the “organizational altruism” of the state, and therefore its officials, is wider than that of most individuals, who tend to be truly altruistic only towards kin. But it is limited, nonetheless. Having never defined its mandate in imperial terms, the Canadian government has no authority over, and thus no real responsibility for, the condition or behaviour of those living outside Canada’s borders. A lack of the kind of ethical obligation to other peoples that leads to meaningful and altruistic concrete action follows inexorably (Nossal 1988, 49–50).

The Way Ahead?

24It would be arrogant for any analyst to suggest a simple solution to the challenges identified in this essay, but it would be equally inappropriate to engage in such extensive criticism of the humane internationalist approach without offering at least some thoughts on how to improve its effectiveness. Here are three:

1. Rather than criticizing the international realists’ thought process, emphasize a shared desire for common outcomes

25So long as international realists advocate a stable, liberal world order, humane internationalists must learn to manage their antagonism towards them. Put another way, if humane internationalists simply accept that international realists will never be convinced that altruism should drive public policy, they will soon recognize opportunities for cooperation and collaboration to support shared goals that have been neglected for much too long.

2. Avoid reinforcing the common perception that development assistance is no different than common charity

26The humane internationalist campaign might also focus its public awareness and fundraising campaigns on issues and events that are less likely to reinforce standard popular misconceptions about official development assistance and its implications. Admittedly, doing so might temporarily hurt the ability of certain organizations to raise much-needed money. In the long run, however, a more strategic approach to public education that aims to break the links that so many Canadians make between charity and development assistance will enable the humane internationalist movement to cultivate more sustainable popular support for causes that it holds dear. In other words, rather than using, if not exploiting, an earthquake in Haiti by framing it as an effort to “save” individual Haitians, advocates might treat such a crisis as an opportunity to promote development assistance efforts in other states that share similar vulnerabilities.

3. Build public support from the top down

27Finally, the recent merger of CIDA and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade presents a significant opportunity to effect real political change. While the tendency within the humane internationalist movement has been to try to build support from the ground up, and steady public sympathy will be necessary to ensure a long-term government commitment to an effective, sustainable poverty reduction program (Otter 2003), for now, it might be prudent to focus advocacy and education efforts on the political elite. It is worth recalling that the United Kingdom’s early twenty-first-century transition from development assistance laggard to global leader was accomplished without significant popular involvement, let alone support; rather, a meeting of the minds among the leaders of the country’s most significant political parties enabled the government to exercise leadership (Glennie et al. 2012). In that spirit, rather than merely criticizing the decision to merge, humane internationalists might focus on practical proposals to help shape the new Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development in a manner that preserves and protects the poverty reduction mandate of the old development agency.


28Humane internationalists have been pursuing a noble, yet perennially unsuccessful, campaign to effect a change in Ottawa’s and the Canadian public’s understanding of the purpose and impact of foreign aid for more than half a century. Rather than persisting in an effort that seems doomed to disappoint, it is time to refashion the campaign to reflect better the contemporary challenges and opportunities of promoting sustainable poverty reduction and emergency relief programs around the world. The solution is not to abandon altruism in its entirety. Rather, it is to concede that as an advocacy strategy, humane internationalism has never succeeded in altering realist thinking. Finding common ground with the realists, thinking more carefully about the negative impact of drawing disproportionate public attention to crises that conflate assistance with charity, and focusing on the policy-making elite as opposed to everyday Canadians might not be strategies that will excite Cranford Pratt’s many followers, but they are more likely to advance the cause of sustainable poverty reduction around the world than the current approach.



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1 Others, such as Morrison (2000) and Nossal (1988), have criticized the humanitarian internationalist/international realist dichotomy for additional reasons.

2 Unless one is using such a framework to relieve the guilt associated with profiting personally from work in the development field.

3 For a helpful summary of public and government thinking, see Otter (2003).

4 Canada’s history of tied aid is a prime example.


The Deputy Director of Education at the Canadian Forces College, and an Associate Professor of Defence Studies at the Royal Military College of Canada. He is the author or editor of five books and over thirty refereed articles and book chapters on Canada’s international policy


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