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Rethinking Canadian Aid

Stephen Brown
Molly den Heyer
David R. Black

Section I: Foundations of Ethics, Power and Bureaucracy

Chapter IV. Power and Policy: Lessons from Aid Effectiveness

Molly den Heyer

Texte intégral


1When the federal government’s plan to fold the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) leaked from the back pages of the omnibus budget in March 2013, it sparked yet another round of cries for renewing the Canadian aid conversation. This is a familiar theme, dating back over a decade. The cycle begins with a new aid policy that bypasses questions of overarching vision in favour of administrative and technical solutions, followed by the aid watchers’ chorus of policy critiques and calls to reinvigorate debates, often in keeping with international trends. While these debates are interesting, the real challenge is to understand why we are stuck in this policy eddy and how we can escape from it.

2Breaking free from this pattern requires more than just a critique or new set of policies; it requires a shift in perspective and reconfiguration of power. Cameron (this volume) argues that development scholars should ground their analysis in cosmopolitan ethics emphasizing the principles of assistance, as well as “do no harm.” The latter requires development scholars and practitioners to move beyond the myopic focus on aid policy to understanding how we, as a country, interact and engage with others on the international stage and in the backrooms of far-off nations. It also requires a deeper, more thorough conceptualization of how power infuses policy and everyday development practices.

3This chapter uses power as an analytical tool and subject. As an analytical tool, the chapter examines the multifaceted environment of development policy and the series of complex interactions and influences that shape its outcomes. The effects can be divided into three forms: how policy is put into practice; how the various actors interpret and negotiate policy; and the underlying narratives or discursive frames. I pay particular attention to the latter, in which narratives (including conceptualization of first principles and ethics) can have a significant influence on policy, either as a source of resistance or as the driving force behind innovation.

4I apply the analytical frame to Canadian aid effectiveness policies as it relates to international and country-specific partnerships. One of the stated goals of aid effectiveness polices is to forge a new development partnership in which recipient countries have ownership of their development processes. While this attempt to reconfigure power relations between donor and recipients has failed to come to full fruition, the analysis reveals the subtle and varied forms of contestation, norm-setting, and compromises embedded in everyday development practices.

5This discussion is based on current debates and my doctoral research on aid effectiveness policies in the international, Canadian, and Tanzanian contexts. The research included a policy and literature review and thirty-eight interviews, as well as focus groups and participant observation (den Heyer 2012a). Drawing on this study, I argue that development scholars and practitioners should embrace a broader and more complex understanding of policy. This will allow us to move past the hubris that accompanies policies such as aid effectiveness and identify more strategic and effective ways to advocate transformative change.

Understanding Policy through Power

6This chapter traces the various ways power acts on and within aid effectiveness policy by using VeneKlassen and Miller’s (2002) elegant analytical framework of visible, hidden, and invisible forms of power. Visible forms of power are expressed through formal negotiations between officials in the policy process. Hidden forms of power, such as control over invitation lists, timing, and agenda, are used to shape policy spaces and outcomes. Lastly, invisible forms of power are exercised through subconscious filters and categorizations that all members of society accumulate through processes of socialization. These include negotiations concerning the different roles that individuals and organizations can legitimately play within the policy process, and what types of knowledge are valued or not. Below, I examine each of these forms of power as applied to the contours of Canadian aid effectiveness policies. In doing so, I point to areas of contestation and the different ways the policies are modified.

Visible Power

7Most policy research (including my own) starts with the mapping of finite objects and events, such as descriptions of publicly recognized authorities and formal institutions, as well as policies and procedures that comprise the aid industry. These objects and events represent the visible exercise of power. National laws grant authority to societal institutions, reaffirmed through public transcripts and exercised along formal decision-making lines. Power analysis focuses on the technical aspects of decision making captured in public discussions and official documents, including policy statements, press releases, planning documents, and reports.

8Using the aid effectiveness policy framework as an example, the formal institutions, events, policies, and procedures involved are easily mapped. The current policy configuration began to flourish in the 1990s with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development/Development Assistance Committee’s (OECD/DAC) report Shaping the 21st Century: The Contribution toward Development Co-operation (OECD 1996), and in the early 2000s with Goal 8 of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which aims to “develop a global partnership for development to increase effectiveness” (UNDP 2013). Since then, the OECD/DAC has blazed a trail of agreements from Rome (2002) to Paris (2005), Accra (2008) and Busan (2011). The Declarations, High Level Forums, Working Parties, Advisory Groups, and so forth created a formal structure within which plans unfolded, policies were implemented, and activities were monitored and evaluated.

9As a supranational policy framework, aid effectiveness rests on the principles of ownership, alignment, harmonization, managing for results, and mutual accountability (see box below). More specifically, donor partners committed to harmonizing their administrative procedures and aligning their programming objectives with the recipient government’s priorities, as well as to coordinating activities among themselves. Simultaneously, recipient countries committed to strengthening good governance and fiscal management in order to assume full ownership of their development. As a set, aid effectiveness policies were supposed to make aid distribution more efficient by streamlining administration and more effective by transferring ownership of the development process from donor partners to recipient countries.

The Aid Effectiveness Principles
1. Ownership: Partner countries exercise effective leadership over their development policies and strategies, and coordinate development actors.
2. Alignment: Donors base their support on partner countries’ national development strategies, institutions, and procedures.
3. Harmonization: Donors’ actions are more harmonized, transparent, and collectively effective.
4. Managing for Results: Donors and partners manage resources and improve decision making.
5. Mutual Accountability: Donors and partners are accountable for development results.
Source: OECD (2005, 3)

  • 1 Program-based approaches are funding mechanisms that coordinate with other donor partners, civil s (...)

10As a member of OECD/DAC, Canada participated in the design of the aid effectiveness framework and officially committed to implementing it. The Canadian government used the global policy framework as the basis of numerous policy documents, starting with Canada Making a Difference in the World: Policy Statement on Strengthening Aid Effectiveness (CIDA 2002). The policy emphasizes some of the key concepts embodied in aid effectiveness, including ownership, donor coordination, policy coherence, and managing for results. Over the subsequent decade, aid effectiveness language and concepts appeared frequently in the Canadian government’s policy statements, strategies, press releases, speeches, action plans, and procedural documents. CIDA implemented the aid effectiveness policies through program-based approaches,1 a slow and reluctant crawl towards untying aid, another disappointing attempt at decentralization, and efforts to improve aid predictability (den Heyer 2012a; Lalonde 2009). Despite the promises, the policy framework failed to reform Canada’s beleaguered aid bureaucracy, let alone transform its partnership with recipient countries.

11Canadian aid policy exists within a complex institutional setting. In many cases, other policies, procedures, and formal decision-making processes conflict with, if not subvert, the stated aims of the aid effectiveness policies. In an earlier publication (den Heyer 2012b), I showed there was particular tension between CIDA’s efforts to pool funds with other donors and align policies with the recipient government, and the fiduciary requirements outlined in the Accountability Act and by the Treasury Board of Canada. The Treasury Board sets the rules and regulations around departmental spending and reviews any item over $20 million. Its reluctance to provide general budget support and use recipient government systems to administer aid hampered CIDA’s effort to transfer ownership. These competing policy frameworks (aid effectiveness and accountability) and associated formal institutions illustrate how other forms of visible power often stand as obstacles to or diversions from the implementation of aid policy and its intended change.

12CIDA is not alone in its struggles to apply aid effectiveness policies in practice. The central message of the Paris Declaration evaluation was diplomatic, but tough:

The global Paris Declaration campaign to make international aid programs more effective is showing results. But the improvements are slow and uneven in most developing countries and even more so among most donor agencies, although the changes expected of them are less demanding. (Wood and Betts 2013, 5)

13These words echoed loudly in the corridors of CIDA, known as a laggard in aid effectiveness (Bülles and Kindornay 2013).

14These visible forms of power are easy to identify and track, but they only describe the tip of the policy iceberg. A wider analytical approach should also explore how hidden power and invisible power act on policy.

Hidden Power

15Hidden power describes the influential processes that operate behind the scenes and determine who sets the political agenda. In the case of aid effectiveness policies in Canada, there are two distinct but interwoven applications of hidden power. First, development actors exercise hidden power by frequently modifying aid effectiveness policies in order to make them work within particular contexts. Second, they do so as an inclusionary/exclusionary process that includes agenda-driven influence over invitation lists, meeting agendas, media coverage, or the structure of the decision-making process. While the intentions behind these exercises of power are very different (practical implementation and/or persuasion), the combined influence creates significant drift in the articulations of policy, especially as the policy is implemented in the international, Canadian, and recipient country contexts.

16Lewis and Mosse (2006) describe how development practitioners act as brokers, interpreting and translating policy as it moves through the international development bureaucracy. The result is a sophisticated version of “whisper down the lane” or long chains of meanings. Development practitioners fuel policy drift by wrestling with implementation, applying their own interpretation of the policy, and negotiating with others’ interpretations. In this regard, several studies have shown that development actors modified aid effectiveness policy as it was applied in the national context, resulting in a uniquely “made-in-Canada” version (Brown 2011; Bülles and Kindornay 2013; den Heyer 2012ab; Lalonde 2009).

17Policy implementation often involves practical compromise with other policy frameworks (such as the Accountability Act), individual judgment calls in terms of lived experiences of what works or does not, and the fit with organizational culture. While Wood and Betts do not directly mention CIDA in their paper, the following observation is quite applicable to its highly centralized and risk-averse culture:

It is clear from the evidence gathered by the Evaluation that some donors have been too uncoordinated and risk-averse to play their expected proactive part in the relationship. Most donors have set high levels of partner country compliance as preconditions for their own reforms rather than moving together reciprocally and managing and sharing risk realistically. (Wood and Betts 2013, 11; see also Smillie, this volume)

18The phrase “partner country compliance as preconditions” highlights one of the key issues in donor implementation of commitments under the principle of alignment, and consequently the principle of ownership. The Paris Declaration calls for partner countries to strengthen their government systems and for donors to use these systems to distribute aid. Yet, within the aid corridors, donors are reluctant to relinquish control of aid dollars over concerns around accountability to taxpayers, corruption in recipient countries, and general lack of capacity. As a result, some donors (including CIDA) set demanding preconditions and effectively stall policy implementation under the rubric of feasibility.

19The vague terms and inherent contradictions embedded in the aid effectiveness framework create ample space for practitioners to interpret and reinterpret key terms. As McNeil and St. Claire observe,

[C]oncepts used by the UN System agencies act as intellectual “boundary objects,” trying to bridge policy and research, agendas and goals and linking diverse (and often) contradictory communities. The broader the range of meanings of an intellectual boundary object, the more the possibility for common ground among partners, communities and interests. However, the manifold range of meanings of intellectual boundary objects may also be a way for the prevalence of dominant interpretations under the pretension of consensus. (McNeil and St. Claire 2005, 4)

20Terms such as aid effectiveness, coherence, accountability, and ownership carry a number of definitions and interpretations that often coexist and are used interchangeably in the same policy spaces. For example, the research on ownership shows two distinct meanings within the aid effectiveness framework. One version of ownership calls for an end to Western influence over Southern nations. This perspective emphasizes the recipient government’s exertion of control over its own economic and social policies, including the ability to critique and design them. The second version also defines ownership as control over the development process, but then limits it through secondary terms and conditions. The limitations ensure recipient countries’ commitment to mainstream development and economic policies, making ownership essentially something recipients must earn by meeting Western standards. This version emerges from an expert-centric, managerial approach that focuses on visible institutions, documents, processes, and events (Castel-Branco 2008).

  • 2 Membership in Development Partners Group (DPG) includes bilateral and multilateral donors operatin (...)

21These competing definitions also lead to two different assessments of aid effectiveness policies. The OECD indicator for country ownership is that by 2012 “at least 75 percent of partner countries have operational development strategies” (OECD 2005, 9). However, even in such cases, there are many subtle ways in which donors still exercise hidden power and influence national development strategies or Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs). Numerous authors have documented the World Bank’s veto power over PRSPs, the extensive consultation with Donor Partners Groups, and the minimal participation of domestic non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and constituents (Gould 2005; Harrison et al. 2009; Hayman 2009; Holtom 2005; Hyden 2008; Whitfield 2009).2

22Development practitioners are continuously negotiating these two coexisting definitions of ownership among themselves and with others in various policy spaces. This interactive meaning-making process is further influenced by the context and location of the policy space. In Canada, trends towards more fiscal conservatism and a general distrust of public officials led to an increased emphasis on accountability in the 2000s. The context accentuated CIDA’s already risk-averse and highly centralized organizational culture (see Smillie, this volume), leading to a version of aid effectiveness that emphasized fiscal accountability, results-based management, and donor coordination, while effectively de-emphasizing harmonization, alignment, and ownership (Brown 2011; den Heyer 2012ab; Lalonde 2009). However, this version of aid effectiveness only partially influenced the policy in country offices, such as in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

23In Tanzania, the aid effectiveness discussions took on a more international flair. The five-block radius surrounding the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs in Dar es Salaam hosts numerous government buildings, embassies, and aid offices. Here, the CIDA and DFAIT officials interact with the government of Tanzania and non-governmental actors, including private businesses, international NGOs, local civil society, and the University of Dar es Salaam. Given the diverse participation, the official discussions around aid effectiveness policies often reflected international agreements. CIDA representatives in the field are constantly negotiating their own procedures, with intense peer pressure from other donors and the government of Tanzania. The need to balance CIDA’s policies and procedures with in-country demands led CIDA officials to emphasize strengthening recipient government processes as an expression of ownership and future promises of donor alignment. Further, CIDA has joined the club of donors working diligently towards harmonization, often defined as their own coordination.

24While many development actors negotiate and interpret policy as part of their everyday struggles of applying abstract concepts in practice, others clearly represent vested interests. As part of the negotiations embedded in the various policy spaces, development actors make amendments, compromises, and adjustments to accommodate different interests or positions. Those with money, as well as the right education and cultural background, gain access to these venues in order to influence the outcomes through activities such as lobbying, producing knowledge, or currying favours. These exercises of power often result in the privileging of some development actors and consequently the marginalization of groups and issues with fewer resources.

25While the exercise of visible and hidden power provides a wider view of how power acts on and within aid policy, it still only represents the top two layers of the iceberg. Underneath the practical compromises and backroom lobbying for policy change, are our own deep-rooted, subconscious narratives. This invisible power often sets the parameters for what is acceptable or not acceptable to say, do, and see.

Invisible Power

26Invisible forms of power often play on the subtle and sometimes subconscious ways in which meaning and subsequently behaviour is shaped. Power operates in a multi-variant way that infuses every interaction, from state to familial relationships. Regimes of discourse and discipline interact to create a web of power relations. Processes of socialization and surveillance entrench identities, traditions, habits, and expected behaviours. These ways of being in the world eventually become internalized and are subsequently expressed by development actors in official venues (VeneKlassen and Miller 2002). They reflect who has and who does not have the legitimacy to convey expert knowledge, provide commentary, and make decisions.

27The exploration of the metaphors, narratives, and rationales embedded in the discourse can render invisible power visible. In this vein, Mosse (2004) argues the new aid architecture has four largely unquestioned characteristics. First, the architecture is built on a foundation of neoliberalism and institutionalism. Second, Western managerial standards extend to all facets of development. Third, all countries and development organizations are striving towards the 2015 MDGs. Finally, development actors have shifted away from risky and intensive on-the-ground projects towards scaled-up programs and policy dialogue. As a set, they present the very narrow and highly technical definition of poverty reduction, based on common development archetypes embedded in a neoliberal context.

28These grand narratives contain many smaller, more fluid pieces of discourse that compete, combine, and coexist with each other. Terms such as “corruption” and “capacity building” embody particular meanings or are associated with certain storylines that resonate within the aid debates. For example, the phrase “lack of capacity” is linked to underlying assumptions regarding Western expertise and Southern incompetence. Development actors from the North and the South frequently use the expression to frame issues and exert their influence. The research found that the word “capacity” was used in a number of ways, including genuine assessments, diplomatic insults, excuses to gain and retain authority, excuses not to do work, and subtle strategies of resistance, as well as a reason to extend contracts, design training workshops, and charge sitting fees. The deep-seated assumptions and subconscious power dynamics around capacity feed into hidden strategies (i.e., the donors’ conditions for government reform programs and the recipient government’s reasons for delays and slippage) and are expressed in visible terms and conditions. In this manner, the three levels of power are not discrete but play upon each other.

29In keeping with these international trends, the underlying narratives in Canadian aid assume a neoliberal, managerial-styled development, as described by Mosse (2004). However, two particular sub-stories frame current debates. First, Canadian aid policy draws on charity archetypes that often conflate international development with humanitarian assistance. The focus on topics such as earthquake relief in Haiti and childhood and maternal health is important, but the way in which media and development actors convey the story often perpetuates the underlying narrative of a saviour–victim relationship. This relationship resonates in the second, distinctly Canadian story of Lester B. Pearson and middle-power status. Whether myth or reality, it evokes an image of do-good, earnest Canadian diplomats “sticking up for the little guy” in international politics (Jefferess 2009). These storylines stand in direct contrast with a transformative definition of ownership as control over the development process.

30The aid effectiveness example illustrates how underlying power dynamics influence policy. While promoted as reform, aid effectiveness policies are firmly rooted in mainstream development discourse, essentially reflecting prevailing power dynamics within the Canadian and international development bureaucracy. However, this is not a black-or-white issue. Policy spaces embody a great deal of complexity and are sites of much contestation, norm-setting, and value judgment. As the next section argues, substantive change does not come from a policy framework alone, but from strategic and persistent pressure towards a tipping point.

Navigating the Crosscurrents

31The above discussion of visible, hidden, and invisible forms of power illustrates how policy is pushed and pulled in the crosscurrents of development assistance. The pressures occur within and among the different forms of power. First, the trappings of aid effectiveness policies (declarations, events, policy papers, committees) provide development actors with the visible and legitimate authority to implement the policies. However, these visible forms of power compete with, and are often mitigated by, other forms of visible powers, such as those exercised under the Accountability Act. Second, there is also a great deal of negotiating in the corridors of aid, leading to constant reinterpretations, compromises, and amendments. These hidden forms of power generate significant policy drift. Third, development actors (as all human beings) exist within set parameters or discursive regimes, which subconsciously frame debates and privilege some forms of thinking over others. In the case of aid effectiveness, the invisible forms of power create an undertow or constant pull towards mainstream norms, limiting the possibility of transformation.

32It is important to note that this analysis does not imply that significant policy change is impossible. Instead, it suggests that new policy language and technical solutions are not enough to reform the aid bureaucracy. It is in the labyrinth of development actors, who contest, influence, and implement policies and practices, where the smaller battles are won and lost. Any effort to transform the donor–recipient relationship should operate on multiple fronts, broadly corresponding with the three forms of power:

  1. Despite the inherent hubris, it is still important to work with official policy. Good policy provides overarching direction and, most important, legitimacy for development actors to carry out their work.
  2. Scholars and practitioners should also follow the policy process during implementation and in the backrooms. This involves strategies that either expose hidden forms of power and/or engage in lobbying.
  3. Efforts to uproot discursive power should involve strategies that change narratives or provide alternative storylines. As Mills (2003, 55) suggests, “discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines it and exposes it, renders it fragile, and makes it possible to thwart it.”

33Efforts on all three fronts are essential for generating enough momentum to initiate substantive reform or a rethinking of Canadian aid.

Rethinking Canadian Aid

34Returning to the problem presented in this chapter’s introduction, Canadian aid seems stuck in a policy eddy that focuses on technical and bureaucratic solutions and critiques. Current policy debates address the visible and hidden forms of power behind the priority setting, countries of focus, private/public partnerships, and the process of folding CIDA into DFAIT, now the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD). While these issues are important, rethinking Canadian aid will require the aid conversations to go farther in terms of substance and context. First, efforts to address invisible power should expose underlying narratives and generate discussions of alternative storylines and rationales. This requires a long-term and wider public dialogue involving awareness campaigns, media coverage, political debates, academic critiques, education, and so forth. Second, the discussions must reflect on and engage with our global partners in a changing international landscape.

35In this regard, Michael Edwards (2013) identifies four significant changes in the international development context worth considering. First, the complexity of international politics continues to grow with multipolar international politics and the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, and China (BRICs). The BRICs, along with many recipient countries, are questioning the traditional postcolonial approach to aid. Second, global poverty can no longer be described neatly by a North–South distinction. Instead, extreme wealth and poverty reside side-by-side within the same countries – or in Michael Edwards’s (2013, 3) words – there are now “pockets of extreme poverty and conflict.” Third, there is an increase in the number of complex global and regional issues that require cooperation. Fourth, in some circles the 2008 global financial crisis and ongoing economic problems in Europe have shaken faith in linear growth-based development models that promote the notion that developing nations should strive to become just like developed nations.

36For aid watchers, it is becoming increasingly apparent that Canada needs to cast off old storylines and rethink its approach to development. This means shedding the longstanding North–South charity model laden with false generosity and top-down bureaucratic processes. It requires us to reconceive Canada’s place in the world, not as a leader or middle power, but as a nation grappling with common issues stemming from an imperfect global economic system, regional conflicts, climate change, and so forth. This transition is rooted in cosmopolitan concepts of development cooperation that emphasize partnership and shared global responsibilities.



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1 Program-based approaches are funding mechanisms that coordinate with other donor partners, civil society organizations, and recipient governments. They include general budget support, thematic and sector programing, and pooled and basket funding. General budget support is a transfer of funds from one government to another without conditions. The recipient government includes this money in its budget and it is spent through government systems.

2 Membership in Development Partners Group (DPG) includes bilateral and multilateral donors operating in a specific recipient country. In Tanzania, the DPG comprised seventeen bilateral and five multilateral donor organizations in 2013.


Senior Program Analyst with the Coady International Institute at St. Francis Xavier University, and Research Fellow with the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University. Her areas of expertise include critical approaches to aid administration, planning, monitoring and evaluation, aid policy, research methods, participation, and development theory. Molly holds a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies from Dalhousie University and an MSc in Rural Planning and Development from the University of Guelph


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