Harper is on to something in cutting aid

POTTER: "A rare case of Tory ideology actually aligning itself with sound public policy"

Fresh off defending Canadians from the tyranny of the mandatory long-form census, the Conservative government has set its sights on the gang of internationalist do-gooders that make up Canada’s foreign aid community.

Ottawa recently cut $1.8 million in annual funding from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to the Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC), an aid-industry organization that represents as many as 100 NGOs. The money represents more than two-thirds of the CCIC budget, and the organization is now in the process of laying off over half its staff. Its head, Gerry Barr, described the defunding as “partisan brush-clearing.”

As well he might. During his tenure as prime minister, Stephen Harper has asserted himself as Canada’s red-baiter-in-chief. From his early attacks on the public service and arts galas to more recent salvos against everything from the Rights and Democracy organization to the long-form version of the census, Harper has made it clear that there is no nook or cranny of the federal government that he doesn’t fear to be infested with agents of creeping socialism.

But just because something is done for ideological reasons doesn’t mean that it’s a bad idea.

And if the government seemed to deliberately turn its back on reason and evidence when it came to the census, its decision to de-fund the CCIC appears to be driven by a feeling that if Canada is going to spend money on foreign aid, we should at least try to do it properly.

The problems with foreign assistance are well known. When it isn’t helping corrupt dictators buy fleets of Mercedes, aid money tends to exacerbate the problems it is trying to address by snaring the recipient countries in extremely tenacious welfare traps. And that’s when the money actually gets delivered, since a great deal of it is spent just maintaining the sizable aid industry of NGOs and government officials. The result is that a great deal of foreign assistance is ineffective and unaccountable, which is a roundabout way of saying that it is largely wasted.

Many countries are currently engaged in a barrel-scraping review of their foreign assistance spending. It is all the more pressing at a time when public finances everywhere are staggering and governments are looking to cut anything that isn’t comfortably fenced off in a political minefield. Last year, both the White House and the State Department initiated a high-profile rethink of America’s development policy, aimed at formulating a more focused approach that is more clearly aligned with the country’s security, defence, and diplomatic agenda.

A similar review is under way in the U.K., where some departments are looking at budget cuts as high as 40 per cent. But not only has Prime Minister David Cameron decided to ring-fence the international aid budget, he also committed to increasing it, by 2013, to the magic Pearsonian level of 0.7 per cent of GDP. This has sent the Tory faithful into conniptions, but Cameron’s defence of the aid budget has come at a price: the minister responsible has demanded a more hard-nosed approach that focuses on value-for-money and promises to increase the role of the private sector, all in the name of increased effectiveness and accountability.

The distinguishing feature of the Canadian approach to aid under the Conservatives is that it has been comparatively low-key, though no less far-reaching. CIDA completely untied its aid budget two years ago, committing to a global procurement system for all international assistance by 2013. Then it insisted that the bureaucracy stop spreading Canada’s foreign aid dollars around like manure and instead pick a small number of countries upon which to focus our attention. Both of these changes, it must be stressed, were responses to demands from within the aid industry itself.

And even the latest decision to de-fund the CCIC is not as ideologically punitive as it might look. While its supporters like to describe it as the “heart and soul” of Canada’s overseas development efforts, the truth is that it is essentially a lobbying firm for the NGO community that was receiving two thirds of its funding from the very agency it was set up to lobby. This makes about as much sense as the Department of Corrections funding the prison lobby, which is why New Zealand has already de-funded its parallel organization, while the U.S. and the U.K. equivalents get over 80 per cent of their funding from the NGOs they represent.

And so curiously, this is the exact opposite of what we have seen in the way the Tories have dealt with other departments. In most cases, the government has made it clear that it doesn’t give a hoot about stuff like data, evidence, and outcomes, but when it comes to foreign aid it is the other way around. And that is because the aid industry has deliberately set itself up so that its objectives are impossible to properly measure, in order to protect itself from criticism.

What we are seeing here is a rare case of Tory ideology actually aligning with sound public policy. The folks in the aid industry might not like it, but that’s largely their own fault. And if Stephen Harper doesn’t get any credit for it, well that’s his own fault. After setting himself up for years as the little boy who cried Commie, he shouldn’t be surprised that no one trusts him even when he’s doing the right thing.