Global Affairs Canada appears set to create a “brand” for international development funding, a move that sends the wrong message about aid.

Global Affairs Canada recently unveiled a pilot “logo” for Canada’s overseas development assistance and set up public consultation and feedback. The site states that the new branding is to “raise awareness about Canada’s efforts to reduce poverty and build a more peaceful and prosperous world.”

Canada has never had any “branding” as such for its aid assistance. Always neatly ensconced in the Canada logo that cuts across the government as a whole, Global Affairs now seeks to “create a look to identify Canada’s international development work, here at home and abroad”.

This is one of the biggest problems of the global aid industry.

I have been part of this industry for 25 years as a non-white woman in and from a non-white developing country. Whenever an aid agency wants to “brand” itself, it means it wants more attribution and visibility. We have seen this in the case of the United States which brands its USAID logo as “from the American people.” The UK unabashedly followed suit when it rebranded its Department for International Development logo in 2009 as UKaid “from the British people.” Thankfully, Canada has not yet qualified its aid as “from the Canadian people”.

This need for branding goes inherently against the principles of aid and development, where the focus should be on priorities of what aid is meant to address. Instead, these branding exercises demonstrate that Canada and other northern nations, want the world to give them a pat on the back. The inherent desire to take credit for helping the disadvantaged, is one that deeply pervades northern international aid institutions and the aid assistance psyche.

Jeff Crisp, former head of policy development and evaluation at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and a vocal critic of humanitarian branding, feels that aid agencies have been devoting too much effort and resources to branding, marketing and celebrity endorsement, uncritically occupying the techniques employed by the private sector advertising industry. “From their social media output, it is tempting to conclude that some are more interested in the image they project, as they are in fostering the participation of marginalized communities in decisions that affect their lives,” he says.

And just as advertisers have been criticized for sending wrong messages to their consumers, this also sends the wrong message both to Canadians, and to those the aid is directed towards. And in Canada’s case, it certainly could not have come at a worse time.

The marketing is possibly spurred by the pressure COVID-19 has put on the global aid assistance industry to deliver on its promises to its less privileged counterparts, as well as Prime Minister Trudeau’s preoccupation with bringing Canadian foreign policy onto the global stage. But it also comes at a time when Western aid itself is being questioned by many in less-developed countries. Calls for localization of aid practices and the decolonization of aid, are getting louder, with calls for northern donors to step back and provide more autonomy to their counterparts in receiving countries.

Focusing on ensuring that everyone knows where the money comes from, also speaks to the well-articulated trope of whoever has the money pulls the strings. It also falls prey to the very northern attitude of the White Saviour Complex, whereby those getting the aid, could not manage unless they were helped by the great “white” north (pun not intended). Simply the use of the word “poor countries,” found actively in Canada’s development vocabulary, as with all northern donors, is in itself a condescending and colonial approach to equitable development. Attributing a logo to this that screams Canada Aid/Aide behind every workshop, seminar or training backdrop in recipient countries, only further demeans this.

For Dr. Maïka Sondarjee, assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of International Development and Global Studies, these campaigns also individualize suffering, which makes people in donor countries feel better about themselves.

“We want to see the face of one person and be told that we are ‘helping them’,” she says.  “Who are these people? How do they participate in their own development? Are they community leaders of initiatives or are they simply ’victims’ that we are going to ‘help’? These types of campaigns risk depoliticizing the process of development because donors are more interested in seeing the eyes of one person, they helped than being told about systemic inequalities we are trying to redress.”

Canada’s response to the COVID-19 vaccine is a clear example of such systemic inequality. Touted as vaccine nationalism by some observers, Canada’s advance purchase of enough vaccine to vaccinate every Canadian five times over, has been hurriedly rebranded in the media as a “donation” of excess vaccines to poorer countries (there’s that word again) and as part of its contribution to the COVAX facility. Canada’s contribution of $485 million of aid to low- and middle-income countries to combat COVID-19, also reflects the need for Canada to ensure that its contribution is boldly recognized, visually, rather than in kind. Because plastering a logo onto every carton of vaccine, PPE or development in vaccine research, is the only way for the world to know that Canada is very much in the fray.

This once again, follows the trajectory of attributing credit to Canada for something that should be a global public good, especially in a pandemic, and not a kind favour that Canada is doing for the world. And this reflects the overall attitude of the northern aid industrial complex – that Canada and other rich nations are doing a favour to the developing world by assisting them financially and technically. This completely negates that fact that countries who receive aid, do so of their own accord (and need), and that bilateral and multilateral agreements for aid assistance are not unilaterally forced upon them. The geopolitical environment may have some influence, but not a binding one.

It is an inane desire for attribution, credit and visibility, that now drives the objectives of the global aid industry. One that social media and the digital world has also helped to encourage. Instead of focusing on flexible programming and policy that gives more power to recipients to do what they feel necessary with the aid they receive, northern donors, including Canada, have diminished the impact of what aid can achieve if left to its own devices. Branding it as “from the Canadian people” would be the last nail in the coffin.

Photo: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits with local residents in Keri, Senegal on Feb. 13, 2020. Trudeau visited a farm, about 50 kilometres outside the capital of Dakar, to witness how $14 million in Canadian aid over the last 10 years helped stimulate vegetable production. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick