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The price of aid

What happens when you get what you pay for?

BY Dru Oja Jay
Photography by Reuters

Campaigns like Make Poverty History and personalities such as Bono perennially call for an increase in aid to the Third World. Aid should be increased, many on the left say, to 0.7 percent of GDP, far above Canadas current 0.33 percent. A similar crowd argues that aid needs to be more effective. With the Harper government making noises about significant changes to the way aid is delivered, its a good time to examine the premise of these kinds of demands.

It remains widely assumed that Canadas foreign aid will be used for benevolent purposes. But without an understanding of why Canada gives foreign aid, campaigns to either increase aid or make it effective will lack any real meaning, and could have dangerous unintended consequences.

The origins of Canadas foreign aid are central to such an understanding, as they directly inform Canadas current aid policies. Canadas first significant allocation of foreign aid was in 1951, with the Colombo Plan. In the plans first year, Canada contributed $25 million, mostly for food aid and the construction of dams in post-colonial South Asia. As Nik Cavell, the administrator of Canadas participation of the plan told the Empire Club in Toronto in 1952, the plans core orientation was anti-communist.

Communism, Cavell said, has made a great inroad in Asia ... and is busy day and night softening up, and preparing, other populations ready for the day when they too can be made satellites of an ever-growing world of terrible totalitarian slavery of the human mind and body. Canada, its safe to say, would have been unlikely to provide aid to post-colonial India if a desperate, starving population hadnt threatened to resort to communism to feed itself.

As the British Empire receded further, the model of the Colombo Plan was extended to Africa and the Caribbean, with Canada taking on a larger role. As the authors of the 1981 book, Perpetuating Poverty: The Political Economy of Foreign Aid explain, Great Britain was dismantling its empire in these areas ... and it was reluctant to leave its old territories undefended against the influence of the socialist bloc. The anti-communist bent of aid continued until the end of the Cold War, when the threat of withdrawing aid became a way to convince developing countries to adopt structural adjustment. With communism out of the way, free market reforms went on the offensive.

Today, aid has become even more aggressively politicized. In Haiti, Canada cut off aid to a democratically elected government that refused to carry out some IMF directives. But when a puppet government was installed by the U.S., France and Canada, Canada gave hundreds of millions of dollars to the new regime in aid and loans, funding what numerous human rights reports have shown to be an unmitigated disaster, with RCMP-trained police carrying out massacres of political opponents and previously convicted war criminals released by a justice system funded and controlled by Canadian organizations and aid.

We only know what happened in Haiti through independent journalism. Official policy documents, however, make the future easier to predict. For the last few years, military leaders have been touting the 3-D approach to military intervention (defence, diplomacy and development), which integrates development aid with counter-insurgency warfare. According to journalists Jon Elmer and Anthony Fenton, who obtained a copy of Canadas new counter-insurgency field manual, the new strategy is designed to combat enemies who are motivated by ideas for social change.

The new military environment, they write, is characterized by urban-based warfare against fighters operating amid, and often with significant support from, local populations. With 3-D, aid is used to win over populations from whatever social or political movements they are supporting, while those movements are literally killed by troops on the ground.

Regarding a Conservative plan to give more money to fewer countries, the author of a C.D. Howe report on aid recently told that the rationale for aid is not just to dole out money, but to have influence over the host countries. It sounds a bit neo-colonial. But if Canada wants to be any kind of actor in this game, it has to step up and become a significantly important donor.

For those who want aid increased, or more effective aid, the question remains a live one: What happens when you get what you want?


Dru Oja Jay is the editor of The Dominion, an online grassroots newspaper (

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