Bono has put Africa front and centre, but Canada should spend its foreign aid closer to home

TONY KELLER December 19 2005


Bono has put Africa front and centre, but Canada should spend its foreign aid closer to home

TONY KELLER December 19 2005



Bono has put Africa front and centre, but Canada should spend its foreign aid closer to home


Mother Teresa is said to have described the slums of the Haitian capital, Port au Prince, as “the fifth world.” This was not hyperbole. Per capita income in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere is $440, with most of the population living on less than $1 day. Life expectancy is only 49 years. More than one in 10 Haitian children die before the age of 5; that’s 20 times the Canadian rate. Literacy is low, and on the United Nations Human Development Index,. Haiti is number 153. (Canada is fifth.) The country trails only Bangladesh and Chad on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, tying with Myanmar and Turkmenistan as the third most corrupt country on earth. Kidnapping for ransom is widespread.

Haiti is an economic and political disaster area. It is also the one place on earth where

Canada behaves and is treated almost like a superpower. Together with Prance and the United States, Canada has played a key role in recent attempts to help Haiti get back on track. It has never been easy, and there’s real debate over how much we’ve accomplished or can ever hope to. But one thing is certain: Haiti needs help. And there maybe no country better equipped for the job than Canada.

The United States? Otherwise occupied, and stigmatized by a history of meddling. Prance? Ditto. But for Canada, which shares with Haiti a language, a large diaspora community and a Governor General who was born there, the Caribbean island nation is literally our backyard. We’ve traditionally been Haiti’s second largest source of tourists and, after the U.S. and neighbouring Dominican Republic, the third largest buyer of the country’s few exports. In 1994, and again in 2004,

Canadian military forces intervened to help change Haiti’s government, and Canadian soldiers and police officers have served long tours of duty there. Canada is already more deeply involved in Haiti than most Canadians realize. Given Canadian foreign policy’s growing focus on helping the world’s worst off, and given one of the world’s worst basket cases is so familiar to us, shouldn’t Haiti be at the top of Canada’s “to do” list?

It’s not at the moment. Ever since leadership candidate Paul Martin brought in rock singer Bono to speak at the 2003 Liberal convention, foreign aid has become an increasingly visible priority for the Canadian government, and Africa has gotten most of the attention. Canada has promised to increase aid overall, from less than $3 billion in 2001 to $6 billion by 2010, and has pledged to double aid to Africa, the largest destination for Canadian aid, by 2008. In deciding how to spend the new money, Canada has largely followed the lead of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bono and the Live 8 crew—all of whom have made Africa their priority. Their reasons are obvious: it’s the least developed continent, and the most ravaged by AIDS. It was also governed, badly, by Europeans until little more than a generation ago.

But given Canada’s location, international ties and recent history, could we do more good for the world by spending a little less of our aid in a gigantic continent that already has the attention of the rest of the Lirst World, and more on one small country, Haiti, which is just as underdeveloped as Africa, but more connected to Canada by geography, immigration and history?

Canada’s aid program has long been one of the world’s most diffuse. Don’t know what tens of billions of dollars worth of Canadian development aid over the past five decades has achieved? You are not alone. Results are hard to measure and harder to communicate, because the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the government’s aid arm, gives development assistance to over 150 countries—essentially dropping a little bit here and a little bit there in every developing country on the planet. CIDA is literally all over the map.

If Canada were targeting its aid at only a handful of countries, we would stand a chance of having a real impact. Consider: Haiti’s nine million people live in an economy whose gross domestic product is smaller than that of Prince Edward Island, population 138,000. Several hundred million dollars a year dropped into such a tiny pool would not go unnoticed.

According to Danielle Goldfarb of the C.D. Howe Institute, the spend-a-bit-everywhere aid strategy is increasingly rejected by other major donors. “In 2004, Norway focused its aid on only seven main countries and 18 other minor partner countries,” says Goldfarb. “Australia and New Zealand concentrate on the Far East and Papua-New Guinea. Japan concentrates on Asia; Spain on Latin America.”

Canada, in contrast, tries to be a player everywhere. That spreads dollars thinly, and expertise too. “It really matters that you’re able to understand the countries that you give aid to better, so that you can design aid programs that are going to be more effective,” says Goldfarb. But “if we’re so unfocused, we aren’t able to have that kind of local knowledge.”

What she proposes is not spending less, but spending in fewer places. “If you were to focus on, say, 10 countries,” says Goldfarb, “then you could really develop a presence and make a difference in those countries.” But until now, that hasn’t been the Canadian way. Result: we’re a bit player in most countries, but a leader in almost none. “If you look at our top aid recipients, we don’t get into the double digits [as a percentage of aid received by the country] in any of those countries.” The one exception: Haiti.

Canada is Haiti’s second largest bilateral aid donor, after the United States. Canada has pledged $180 million to Haiti over two years, for everything from traditional CID A development aid, such as support for agriculture and technical assistance to the Haitian electrical power corporation, to non-traditional but increasingly popular types of aid, such as election monitoring and training for court clerks and police officers. On January 8, Haiti will hold the first round of national elections—under the supervision of a team

headed by Canada’s chief electoral officer. The UN police force in the country is also commanded by a Canadian. Haiti is one country in which Canadian aid workers, police, soldiers and diplomats are developing a growing level of expertise, including expertise in working together.

Haiti’s sad situation also fits with two important goals of the current government’s foreign policy: the desire to spur development in the poorest countries, and the concept of “responsibility to protect.”

Responsibility to protect is an idea that Canada has pushed hard for the United Nations to adopt, as a principle that in extreme cases will override the sovereignty of states. Under responsibility to protect, the international community would have a right to intervene in situations of gross human rights abuses, or where the state has completely broken down. Canada and the UN sent soldiers into Haiti in 1994 and again in 2004 for those very reasons. Like Afghanistan, Haiti is a failed state. Like Afghanistan, putting it back together will not be easy. And like Afghanistan, Canadian involvement in Haiti follows what has become known as the 3D model, with diplomacy, defence and development working hand in hand to try to rebuild a failed state. Unlike Afghanistan, however, Canadians have longer experience in and greater knowledge of Haiti.

UN forces have been in the country for nearly two years, and when they first stepped in, Canadian troops were in the vanguard, with 550 soldiers arriving days after President

Haiti’s economy is smaller than P.E.I.’s. A small boost in aid would be a big help.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown. In the months prior, the Canadian government was one of the leaders of the movement to get Aristide to respect human rights, to share power with his opponents and, ultimately, to step aside.

Ironically, Canadian troops who helped ease the transition post-Aristide had, a decade

earlier, restored him to power as Haiti’s first democratically elected leader. In the early 1990s, after a military coup ousted Aristide,

the UN imposed economic sanctions, with troops and ships from Canada and other nations enforcing a blockade. A United Nations military force ultimately invaded and put Aristide back into power, remaining in the country for several years, for a time under Canadian command.

The fact that Canadians had to help remove the supposedly reformist government that they had installed shows how much of a challenge Haiti is. “If you’re going to make Haiti the poster boy of your program, you’d better be prepared for some reversals and some bad luck,” says Andrew Cohen, a Carleton University professor of journalism and international affairs, and author of While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World. “If you’re going to put Haiti front and centre, you must be prepared for some hard sledding and tough going and possible reversals and disappointment.” Difficult? Yes. Impossible? Not necessarily. There is no iron rule of politics or economics that says Haiti must always be poor and poorly governed. Haiti is half of the island of Hispanola. The rest is occupied by the Dominican Republic—which is peaceful, democratic and relatively prosperous. The Dominican Republic’s average per capita income is five times that of Haiti, and even higher than China’s. Haiti may be impoverished,but its neighbour—a middle-income, developing country—proves that Haiti is not doomed to be that way forever.

Fixing Haiti will be no cakewalk, but as U.S. President John F. Kennedy said about the moon program, “we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” And unlike the space race, this isn’t about embarking on a vast, new, open-ended spending project: Canada already has a foreign aid budget. The question is how it can do the most good.

The good news is that Ottawa is trying to improve its aid program. Cohen sees this as a big opportunity for Canadian foreign policy. “Of all the arms of our internationalism, [the government] may be able to make the most progress on aid,” he says. Cohen argues that while the military will take a very long time to rebuild, because training new troops

and buying major new weapons systems can take a decade, aid is a place where change can be made quickly. He sees signs that the will is there. “They’ve got an activist minister in Aileen Carroll and, in Robert Greenhill, the newly appointed head of CIDA, they’ve got someone who’s not from the bureaucracy.” Greenhill is a former Bombardier executive with no background in foreign aid. That may not necessarily be a bad thing.

Other signs of progress: the government’s new international policy statement, released earlier this year, calls for focusing Canadian aid on fewer countries. Beginning in 2010, CIDA plans to deliver two-thirds of its aid to a short list of 25 countries.

It’s a step in the right direction, but according to C.D. Howe’s Goldfarb, no more than a baby step. She says that CIDA’s top 25 aid recipients are already receiving 63 per cent of the aid dollars. What’s more, the list of 25 so-called “development partners” that Canada intends to concentrate on includes such little-known countries as Benin, Burkina Faso, Malawi, Niger and 10 other African states, six Asian countries and even one relatively developed European country, Ukraine. But it doesn’t include Haiti.

Why not? According to Aileen Carroll, the minister for international co-operation, who is responsible for CIDA, Haiti meets two out of three criteria to be on the 25-country short list: average annual incomes are below $1,000, and Canada believes it can bring some added value to the table. “In Haiti,” says Carroll, “both of those exist. But on the third criteria, the ability on the part of the country to use aid effectively, Haiti isn’t there. That capacity hasn’t been built yet.” Carroll adds, however, that even if Haiti isn’t one of the 25 development partners, it will still receive aid because it is “on our list of fragile and failing states, along with Iraq and Afghanistan.”

In fact, Canada’s two largest aid recipients in 2003-04 were Iraq and Afghanistan—coun-

It’s the one country where Canada behaves and is treated almost like a superpower

tries that, like Haiti, are failed states and, also like Haiti, aren’t on that top 25 list. So what’s the problem? All of these aid recipients—the 25 development partners, the failed states, the scores of other poor nations—are worthy. They all need help. And so we’re giving a little help to all of them. Which leaves Canadian aid policy, despite a shift in rhetoric, where it has always been: saying “yes” to everyone.

By delivering a bit to all and saying no to none, the only thing Canada’s aid program guarantees is that it will never be enough of a presence in any one country to generate either public support in Canada or significant results overseas. To govern is to choose, and faced with a world of problems, Canada still chooses to try to make a very small contribution to each, rather than a big contribution to only a handful. It’s never been an effective strategy. M