May 23, 2013

Inspired or deflated? Discussing the future of Canadian development aid

As a fly on the wall, or as my badge has it, a volunteer, at the Annual Forum of the Canadian Council for International Cooperation (CCIC) I’ve gotten to listen in on discussions and debates on the most pressing issues to Canada’s development CSO (Civil Society Organization) community. It is clear that Canada’s foreign development sector is entering some interesting times, and I do mean interesting in the most attention-grabbing form. Not only is CIDA amalgamating with DFAIT, but also the global development landscape is changing in front of our very eyes. The economic ascension of developing countries is rearranging the traditional relationship between providers and receivers of aid. With this in mind, I have witnessed discussions with an atmosphere of urgency, but also with a lining of optimism. As this forum goes on I hope this urgency will lead to a sense of a common purpose.

One of the more grand ideas behind this year’s gathering is the idea of shared responsibilities, or as Mathias Fiedler (whose paper provides a fundament for some of the discussions) puts it, the “One world approach”. Keynote speaker Michael Edward describes this concept as a bridge. This bridge rests on foundations that are equal at both ends and people are able to cross over in both directions. Development needs to happen in both hemispheres with a global participation and sense of responsibility. This week, over 150 leaders and participants gather here in Ottawa to discuss where Canadian organizations can fit into this picture.

This concept of shared responsibilities got me thinking. How would I feel as a citizen of Canada, if a group from for example China came to Ottawa to influence the development of my surroundings? Obviously, the answer to this question depends on the approach, methods, and area of interest (among many other factors) of the organization in question. If the bridge allows passage both ways, “developing” countries should be allowed to make what might at first be unwelcome demands of “developed” countries. The first of these should probably be to ask developed countries to stop referring to themselves as developed and recognize their own need for change. As Kathy Vandergrift proposed to the forum’s emerging leaders, maybe Canada is at a point where instead of sending aid workers abroad, we need to ask other countries to come here to help us reinvigorate the public discourse on for example sustainable consumption.

Canadians should not be afraid to challenge themselves, particularly in handling some of the more uncomfortable discussions. This means that aid should be an important topic at all levels of society, and also that us in the CSO environment should be open to discussing new development methods. As these ideas are being discussed here at the forum, I hope they do not get caught up in too much idealism (and perhaps a fear of offending), but that they also remain well planted in the reality of things. As Mr. Fiedler warns, the development discussion has a tendency to foster sycophants and self-congratulation. The CCIC has done a good job in seeking to avoid this, particularly through Wednesday’s debate.

A particular point of contention has been Canada’s role in the changing aid landscape. Our government is shaping its policies to try to keep up (or withdraw as some will have it) with these external changes. How can the new combination of strategic interests, trade, and aid be successful? Wednesday’s debate participants seemed to share the opinion that the new structure is functional, but depends on the actors inserted into it (think passionate leaders). Lucien Bradet ceded that the current personnel did not make his job of arguing for the new policy easier. Across the table, John Mckay to some extent in agreement, accepted that a cross party commitment, as seen in Britain, would make the new policy more persuasive.

In agreement or not, the situation remains that the Canadian CSO community will imminently find itself working within this framework. After hearing some of the ideas discussed today, I am left with the image of a turning of the ages. As the extinction of the dinosaurs brought on the ascension of the mammals, I am sure that the restructuring of the Canadian aid policies will see the fall of some outdated ideas, but I am also hopeful that it will see the rise of new innovative methods that will strengthen the plethora of Canadian aid organizations.

After taking in the impressions from the first day of the Annual Forum, I am left, after an influx of ideas, at a point of reserved optimism. Yes Canada’s CSO community is entering uncharted waters, however, from the signs of today’s discussion, it is not doing so without a will to adapt and prepare for a thorough exploration of these new territories.

Peder Soeraas

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