Category Archives: Aid

The trouble with Canadian aid

Global Affairs Canada, international development studies departments and many NGOs are celebrating International Development Week. Lost amidst the salute to Canadian aid is the self-serving dark side of international assistance.

The primary objective of Canadian overseas aid has long been to advance Western interests, particularly keeping the Global South tied to the US-led geopolitical order. Initially conceived as a way to blunt radical decolonization in India, Canadian aid is primarily about advancing Ottawa’s geopolitical objectives. The broad rationale for extending foreign aid was laid out at a 1968 seminar for the newly established Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). This day-long event was devoted to discussing a paper titled “Canada’s Purpose in Extending Foreign Assistance” written by University of Toronto Professor Steven Triantis. Foreign aid, Triantis argued, “may be used to induce the underdeveloped countries to accept the international status quo or change it in our favour.” Aid provided an opportunity “to lead them to rational political and economic developments and a better understanding of our interests and problems of mutual concern.” Triantis discussed the appeal of a “‘Sunday School mentality’ which ‘appears’ noble and unselfish and can serve in pushing into the background other motives … [that] might be difficult to discuss publicly.” A 1969 CIDA background paper, expanding on Triantis’ views, summarized the rationale for Canadian aid: “To establish within recipient countries those political attitudes or commitments, military alliances or military bases that would assist Canada or Canada’s western allies to maintain a reasonably stable and secure international political system. Through this objective, Canada’s aid programs would serve not only to help increase Canada’s influence within the developing world, but also within the western alliance.”

Historically, military intervention has elicited aid. Call it the ‘intervention-equals-aid’ principle or ‘wherever Canadian or US troops kill Ottawa provides aid’ principle.

Ottawa delivered $7.25 million to South Korea during the Korean War. Tens of millions of dollars in Canadian aid supported US policy in South Vietnam in the 1960s and during the 1990-91 Iraq war Canada provided $75 million in assistance to people in countries affected by the Gulf crisis. In 1999-2000 the former Yugoslavia was the top recipientof Canadian assistance.

Hundreds of millions of dollars flowed into Haiti after Canadian troops helped overthrow the country’s elected government in 2004. In the years after the early 2000s invasions, Afghanistan, Iraq and Haiti were the top recipients of Canadian ‘aid’.

Aid has also been designed to help Canadian companies expand abroad. With most aid “tied” to the purchase of Canadian products and services, the aid program was an outlet for surplus commodities and contracts for Canadian exporters.

The proportion of ‘tied’ aid has declined over the decades but Canadian aid still supports Canadian firms. After the earthquake in Haiti, for instance, CIDA and the Canadian Red Cross contracted Groupe Laprise and SNC-Lavalin to supply 7,500 temporary shelters. Almost all of the money was spent in Québec and the temporary shelters were of poor quality.

Indirectly Global Affairs also supports Canadian firms by channeling funds to sectors in which Canadian firms dominate. Canadian aid has helped liberalize mining legislation in numerous countries. In the best-documented example, Ottawa began an $11 million project to re-write Colombia’s mining code in 1997. CIDA worked on the project with a Colombian law firm, Martinez Córdoba and Associates, representing multinational companies, and the Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI), an industry think-tank based at the University of Calgary. The CIDA/CERI proposal was submitted to Colombia’s Department of Mines and Energy and became law in 2001. The new code also reduced the royalty rate companies pay the government to 0.4 per cent from 10 per cent for mineral exports above 3 million tonnes per year and from five per cent for exports below 3 million tonnes. In addition, the new code increased the length of mining concessions from 25 years to 30 years, with the possibility that concessions can be tripled to 90 years.

The Trudeau government has channeled large sums of aid to international mining. In 2016 the Liberals put up $100 million for international projects titled “Enhanced Oversight of the Extractive Industries in Francophone Africa”, “Enhancing Resource Management through Institutional Transformation in Mongolia”, “Support for the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development”, “Enhancing Extractive Sector Benefit Sharing”, “Supporting the Ministry of Mines to Strengthen Governance and Management of the Mining Sector” and “West Africa Governance and Economic Sustainability in Extractive Areas.” They ploughed another $20 millioninto the Canadian Extractive Sector Facility “to promote knowledge generation and improved governance in the extractive sector in Latin America and the Caribbean.” The “Skills for Employment in the Extractives Sector of the Pacific Alliance” channeled $16 million into “industry-responsive training systems” in Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru where Canadian mining companies dominate mineral extraction.

In East Africa the government launched the $12.5 million “Strengthening Education in Natural Resource Management in Ethiopia”, which was designed “to improve the employability of people … in natural resource fields like geology, mining and engineering. It works through universities and technical institutes to improve the quality of programs, align them more closely with the needs of the private sector.”

While the corporate and geostrategic components of aid receive some criticism, another dimension has received little attention. Aid is designed to co-opt internationalist minded young people into aligning with Canadian foreign policy. Part of this process is simply offering internationalist minded youth opportunities to do international charity work, which draws some away from challenging domestic political structures that contribute to ‘underdevelopment’. Government funding gives NGOs the ability to maintain an institutional structure, which most activist groups don’t have, that draws internationalist minded youth into their orbit. While they open many young peoples’ eyes to global inequity, government-funded NGOs simultaneously take up political space that would often be filled by those more critical of Canadian foreign policy.

While its funding crowds out oppositional forces indirectly, sometimes CIDA directly co-opts NGOs. After leaving her position as head of CIDA in Afghanistan, Nipa Banerjee explained that Canadian aid was used to gain NGO support for the war there. “Our government thinks they are getting public support and [NGO support] for their mission if they fund NGO programs,” she told the Globe and Mail.

International Development Week itself is a prime example of the co-optation of NGOs and development studies by the government. Each year they are given funds to organize events focused on promoting Canada’s good works. Seldom is heard a discouraging word. Criticism is not part of the program.

It is up to those who no longer believe in the myth that Canada is a force for good in the world to point out the truth.The primary purpose of aid is, and always has been, to advance the US-led geopolitical order and Canadian corporate interests.


On February 18 the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute is sponsoring a talk on “The Trouble with Canadian Aid: Reflecting on Canada’s International Development Week”

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Can NGOs be progressive despite dependence on Ottawa?

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”  Upton Sinclair


International Development Week (IDW) highlights how a large swath of ‘progressive” society has been co-opted into supporting Canada’s corporate, imperialist foreign policy. NGOs funded by Global Affairs call for ‘more Canada’ no matter what Ottawa metes out.

Justin Trudeau’s government has a long list of objectionable foreign policies. They’ve armed Saudi Arabia, backed brutal mining companies, deployed troops with NATO, undermined Palestinian rights, sought to topple Venezuela’s government, supported a coup in Bolivia, failed to end Canada’s ‘low level war’ on Iran, backed an unconstitutional Haitian president, increased military spending, refused to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, etc.

If the immoral character of these measures weren’t enough to make a progressive wary of aligning with Canadian foreign policy then what about the international community decisively rejecting them? Despite the government’s multi-year lobbying campaign, member states voted against Canada’s bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council last June.

While the Security Council defeat no doubt rattled many NGO employees’ confidence in benevolent Canada mythology, their dependence on government financing has proven too strong to shake things up significantly.

During International Development Week this year NGOs have once again jumped into bed with Global Affairs. Last Monday Québec NGO umbrella group Association québécoise des organismes de coopération internationale launched IDW with minister for international development Karina Gould speaking. Cooperation Canada (formerly Canadian Council for International Cooperation), British Columbia Council for International Cooperation, Manitoba Council for International Cooperation, Atlantic Council for International Cooperation and a host of other NGOs organized events focused on what the government officially describes as “Global Affairs Canada’s flagship public engagement initiative.”

Instigated by the aid agency 30 years ago, IDW is a celebration of Canada’s commitment to international development. Or, as the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation put it, IDW offers “an opportunity to explore how Canada and Canadians are making a difference around the world!”

Unfortunately, supposedly progressive NGOs aligning with Global Affairs is all too common. In November 2019 CCIC co-organized a Summit on Canada’s Global Leadership, which included Gould, Chief of the Defence Staff Jonathan Vance, Trudeau advisor (now UN ambassador) Bob Rae, former Trudeau foreign policy advisor Roland Paris, former head of the Canadian International Development Agency Margaret Biggs, former CSIS director Richard Fadden and others. In October 2018, Journalists for Human Rights organized a fundraiser titled “Find Out How Canada is Back!” with a keynote address from then Minister of International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau.

NGOs align with Global Affairs largely due to financial considerations. Aid officials have repeatedly slashed funding to organizations that challenge Canadian foreign policy, as detailed in Nik Barry-Shaw and Dru Oja Jay’s Paved with Good Intentions: Canada’s Development NGOs from Idealism to Imperialism. The Stephen Harper government cut funding to Kairos, Alternatives and others due to their political positions. Shortly after it publicly complained the government created a “chill” in the NGO community by adopting “the politics of punishment … towards those whose public views run at cross purposes to the government,” the CCIC’s $1.7 million CIDA grant was cut in 2012. This forced it to lay off two thirds of its staff. (CCIC was created with financing from CIDA to coordinate relations with the growing NGO network and build domestic political support for the aid program.)

In an earlier episode of CIDA’s “politics of punishment”, SUCO (CUSO’s French language equivalent) had all its funding chopped in 1984 after it campaigned on Canadian corporate ties with apartheid South Africa, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and other politically sensitive subjects. SUCO’s annual budget dropped from $6 million to $400,000 and staff levels fell from 45 employees to 4, leading to the collapse of the organization. CIDA delivered another blow to NGOs critical of Canadian foreign policy when it cut funding for the Development Education Animateur Program in 1975.

On the other hand, the Canadian aid agency has helped establish NGOs to undercut criticism. In 2007 CIDA gave Peace Build $575,000, which was on top of money from Foreign Affairs and the government-run International Development Research Centre. Largely focused on Afghanistan, Peace Build was a newly created network of NGOs viewed as a moderate counterweight to the more activist-oriented (and financially independent) Canadian Peace Alliance, which opposed Canada’s occupation of Afghanistan. Peace Build founder Peggy Mason was a former Canadian diplomat.

Two decades earlier CIDA encouraged the creation of a new NGO to undercut criticism of Canadian complicity with apartheid South Africa. In a history of the aid agency Cranford Pratt explains, “CIDA secured creation of the South African Education Trust Fund because it did not think the strong NGOs already active vis à-vis South Africa sufficiently sensitive to Canadian foreign policy concerns.”

Aid is not divorced from the government’s broader pro-corporate, imperialistic, international policy. While sometimes critical of Canadian foreign policy, NGOs’ reliance on government funding and charitable status hampers their political independence.

International Development Week offers an opportunity to reflect on the extent to which many progressives have been co-opted into Canada’s belligerent foreign policy.


On February 18 the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute is sponsoring a talk on “The Trouble with Canadian Aid: Reflecting on Canada’s International Development Week”


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NGO coalition aligns with imperialism


The Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC) exists primarily to lobby for increased aid. As a result, the NGO umbrella group broadly aligns with Canadian imperialism.

When Justin Trudeau recently set off for an African Union Summit to build support for the government’s bid for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council the CCIC reiterated its call for increased aid. In an interview with Radio Canada International, CCIC CEO Nicolas Moyer suggested that if “Canada is back”, as Trudeau has previously stated, it needed to increase aid spending.

In November 2019 CCIC co-organized a Summit on Canada’s Global Leadership. The event included Chief of the Defence Staff Jonathan Vance, minister for international development Karina Gould, Trudeau advisor Bob Rae, former Trudeau foreign policy advisor Roland Paris, former head of the Canadian International Development Agency Margaret Biggs, former CSIS director Richard Fadden and others. Describing himself as a lobbyist for greater aid, Moyer said in an interview before the Summit on Canada’s Global Leadership that it was important to bring together different sectors of Canadian foreign policy because “there is no path which leads towards increased federal commitments to ODA [overseas development assistance] which can exist without a strong ambition for Canada’s role in the world. We need champions in other sectors that also want an ambitious and impactful foreign policy.” Willing to include the military as part of his grand foreign policy coalition, Moyer added, “it’s why I am looking forward to discussions at the summit, for example between Chief of the Defence Staff Jonathan Vance and Canada’s Ambassador for Women Peace and Security Jacqueline O’Neill.”

It makes sense that an organization focused on increasing aid spending would do-si-do with the military. Since the 1950-53 Korean War military interventions have elicited substantial boosts in aid spending. Call it the ‘intervention-equals-aid’ principle or ‘wherever Canadian troops kill Ottawa provides aid’ principle. The largest concentration of aid spending in Canadian history was in Afghanistan. During the 2000s $2.2 billion worth of development assistance was pumped into Afghanistan with NGOs flooding into the country alongside Canadian troops.

(No matter the popular portrayal, the primary objective of Canadian overseas assistance has long been to advance Western interests, particularly keeping the Global South tied to the US-led geopolitical order. Aid has also been designed to help Canadian companies and to co-opt internationalist minded young people into aligning with Canadian foreign policy. While most individual aid projects offer some social benefit, they’ve also helped justify the imprisonment of Haiti’s constitutional prime minister, rewrote Colombia’s mining code to benefit corporations, assisted Filipino landlords blocking much-needed land reform with violence, etc.)

More damaging than the CCIC’s dalliance with the military is its reluctance to criticize Canadian foreign policy. In September 2018 the CCIC co-organized a conference titled “Is Canada Back: Delivering on Good Intentions?” Publicity for the event noted, “Inspired by Justin Trudeau’s 2015 proclamation ‘Canada is Back’, we are presenting panels that illustrate or challenge Canada’s role in global leadership. Are we doing all that we could be doing in the world?” Formulating the question this way ignores the government’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia, backing for brutalmining companies, NATO deployments, antagonism towards Palestinian rights, efforts to topple the Venezuelan government, failure to end Canada’s ‘low level war’ on Iran, backing for an unpopular Haitian president, refusal to support nuclear weapons controls, promotion of military spending, etc.

Many progressive minded Canadians look to international NGOs as a counterweight to government abuses. Instead of challenging unjust Liberal policies, the CCIC has largely shilled for the liberal (aid) arm of Canadian foreign policy.

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