Canadian foreign aid is often criticized for being paltry compared to the country’s massive wealth. But while it may lack quantity, Canadian aid may nevertheless have something else going for it.

Some principles.

The Principled Aid Index is a tool developed by the Overseas Development Institute, a global think tank based in London, to distinguish wealthy donor countries’ strategic motives for giving at a time of growing nationalism and polarization. The index looks at how donors allocate their aid to reveal the true intentions behind their charity. A high rank indicates a country recognizes its own interests are tangibly tied to the success and well-being of other nations and peoples.

Due to data lags, the 2020 index captures performance recorded in 2018. Canada ranked fourth among 29 donors, behind Ireland and Norway, two countries Canada lost to when it ran for a United Nations Security Council seat last year.

Canada’s strong performance as a principled donor may surprise naysayers concerned by an absence of principles, including its ongoing arms exports to Saudi Arabia, a country that stands accused of gross human rights abuses. But a rank is always relative to the performance of others, and global standards are unfortunately slipping.

Which leaves Canada doing surprisingly well against its peers.

 How so?

Canada is a strong performer in filling development gaps that exacerbate global inequality and vulnerability. Looking at aid allocations as a share of its overall official development assistance (ODA), it is a generous provider of humanitarian support to conflict-affected states. It also provides a high percentage of its ODA for health, education and social security provision in countries that would struggle to raise enough tax revenues to do so themselves. A high share of its aid goes towards solving global challenges, including addressing climate change and eradicating communicable diseases.

 But like all donors, Canada struggles to maintain the integrity of its aid spending and can be tempted to use it to secure unilateral commercial or strategic advantages. While Canada does not formally tie its ODA to the purchase of goods and service by Canadian companies in accordance with its OECD commitment to untie aid, a high percentage of contracts are still won by domestic firms, suggesting informal barriers to competitive tendering remain. Moreover, a significant share of Canadian aid still gets spent in Canada on things like research, debt relief, scholarships and refugee resettlement costs rather than in the field, which can mean less assistance reaching vulnerable people facing extreme hardships overseas.

Becoming a global champion for principled nationalism

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Zero-sum, me-first policies are clearly short-sighted and sub-optimal in a world when a pandemic is destroying the lives and livelihoods of millions. In an inter-connected world, shared collective threats mean achieving the goals of development is in the hard interests of any state that views greater global stability, security and prosperity as an advantage.

And yet, wealthy aid donors are tilting policy toward initiatives that secure narrow short-term benefits rather than working toward the long-term interests of all. The global chaos and fragmentation witnessed last year in response to the coronavirus crisis is in keeping with an observed downward trajectory of principled aid scores across the vast majority of donors, including Canada.

The long road to recovery from this contagion demands the pursuit of a more principled kind of nationalism in international development. As a relatively good performer, Canada should consider championing the imperative of enlightened self-interest in a world growing more divided but where there remain moral and strategic incentives for working together. Active collaboration with like-minded allies within the Development Assistance Committee (DAC), the club of rich-world donors, could cultivate a bold agenda to fill critical development gaps, renew multilateralism and preserve donor public-spiritedness.

Alongside, Canada will also need to embed an enlightened view of its own self-interest in its wider foreign policy. For example, when Minister of International Development Karina Gould says it is in Canada’s national interest to tackle the pandemic overseas because the country cannot be safe “until everyone, everywhere on the planet is safe,” this is an implicit challenge to Canada’s current position on a World Trade Organization proposal to temporarily waive intellectual property rights governing COVID-19 drugs, vaccines and treatments.

Improving the affordability of COVID-related medical innovations for low-income countries enhances global rights to health and makes Canadians safer. The fact that Canada continues to oppose the temporary waiver suggests taking enlightened self-interest mainstream and beyond the confines of foreign aid policy is likely to involve uncomfortable trade-offs, in this case pitting domestic pharmaceutical interests against the global good of faster vaccine production and equitable vaccine access.

While Canadians may despair at their place in the global queue for vaccines, they remain considerably ahead of people in poorer countries who are now expected to procure substantial coverage in 2024. Supporting a temporary World Trade Organization waiver could improve affordability of COVID-19 products and technologies, reduce costs to the Canadian taxpayer underwriting these medical goods within the COVAX global fund set up to purchase them for lower-income countries, and advance the right to health for all. This could be supplemented by signing onto the World Health Organization’s Solidarity Call for Action – signed so far by only a handful of wealthy countries like Norway, Luxembourg and the Netherlands – which demands the sharing of knowledge, data and intellectual property to improve access to health technologies.

Tempering competitive and self-centred foreign policy instincts in an age of shared global challenges could yet become Canada’s calling card if it can marshal the boldness and ambition required as other countries have done. Not only might this lay the groundwork for Canada’s next Security Council seat, it could also cement the country’s reputation as a nation driven by solidarity as much as self-interest.

Photo: Screening for COVID-19 as people enter the city of Taiz in southern Yemen, one of the world’s poorest countries., by anasalhajj.

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Nilima Gulrajani
Nilima Gulrajani is a senior research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute. She is currently visiting fellow at the Canadian International Council, Trinity College and the Department of International Relations at the University of Toronto.

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