On Improving the Effectiveness of Foreign Aid

David Laing Dawson

By Dr David Laing Dawson

Canada’s foreign aid spending totaled CAD$ 5.4 billion in 2013  compared to CAD$ 5.66 billion in 2011. This equates to about C$154 per Canadian. Aid spending was 1.9% of total 2013 budget expenditure.

This money is spread around dozens of countries all over the world. The list of receiving countries includes Russia, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen. Undoubtedly each project is worthwhile and based on impeccable humanitarian principles.

We also know that many of these countries improve for a while (education, governance, medical care, nutrition, crime, infrastructure, services) and then collapse again. Sometimes the collapse has a natural cause (tsunami, drought, earthquake), but often the cause is corruption, sectarian strife, poor governance, undeveloped civil service and infrastructure, democratic failure, independently powerful armed forces, gross income disparity, over-population, refugees from neighbouring failing societies, continuing poverty, poor education.

Sometimes the money is wasted. A portion lines the pockets of criminals. Sometimes free money creates a climate of dependency and fosters corruption.

And each of these failed or failing countries is a potential target for exploitation and ultimate takeover by extremist groups, or psychopathic dictators: ISIS, Boko Haram being the current scourges.

It is understandable that some thoughtful, educated and outspoken citizens of these countries are now saying: “Do not give us money.” There is even some evidence that some countries not receiving aid have fared better than those that have received aid.

If the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results” then our foreign aid policy is insane.

But what else can we do?

Here is an idea:

Canada (and each and every other developed nation) can chose one or two or three or four countries with which to work, and to help exclusively, and, in partnership with the leaders and people of that nation, provide aid (money, expertise, people, equipment) in a planned and evaluated fashion, to create, over time, a foundation of good democratic governance, universal education, universal health and medical care, a functioning police and court system, a self-sustaining economy, a solid infrastructure for commerce, sewage, clean water, goods, services, and information.

Each successful country – successful enough to be resilient to changes of government, extreme weather, the intrusions of corrupt corporations, would-be dictators, and natural disasters –  will be a bulwark against extremism,  terrorism, and a return to the medieval.

We would have to find a way to overcome fears of colonialism, to do this in an entirely altruistic fashion, and it would be a long-term project. We would not get quick returns (images of the maple leaf on bushels of wheat being handed out to starving people, mosquito nets over palette beds in village huts, happy children attending a school in one impoverished village in Nigeria).

But what we, and dozens of other developed countries are doing, is not working. Our band-aids cover up the bleeding but do little (some are saying they do, ultimately, more harm than good) to overcome the illness and create sustainable health.

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