Harper is on to something in cutting aid - Macleans.ca

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.


Harper is on to something in cutting aid

  1. Show me where Harper cried commie. A little bit of dramatic licence I think in what is otherwise a reasonable column.

    • "Dramatic license" is pretty much the full extent of most left-wing arguments — ESPECIALLY regarding the census.

      • breaking the census is a big deal… for anyone who cares about policy or information

        • Then let's allow Canadians to put youir money where their mouths are, if they care to.

          The long-form census will now be voluntary. If Canadians really want the kind of broad socially-engineered policies that most proponents of the mandatory long-form census seem to desire, then they'll voluntarily fill out their long-form census.

          If they don't, that will speak for tiself.

          Democracy! Isn't it grand?

          • A number of significant problems with your argument:

            1) A census needs to be mandatory by definition, what some Canadians will be filling out is a survey.

            2) The census is mandatory in order to ensure representation through a random sampling of the population. If your population is the aggregate of individuals that are Canadian citizens, than it is possible to achieve an accurate enough sample if a random 20% of Canadians fill it out (saving time and money instead of 100%). Yes an increase sample size will always lead to more accurate results, but of far more importance is keeping the sampling as random as possible. The best way to ensure this is if everyone is potentially eligible.

            Like it or not, that is the science behind census taking. Stop misrepresenting the facts, unintentional or otherwise.

            3) Why would you assume that good data collection necessarily supports "broad socially-engineered policies"? There are plenty of occasions where census data is used to justify reforming or scrapping social policies!

            4) You are outlining the main argument against making the long form voluntary: certain groups of people will be more likely to fill it out, and others wont.

          • *snicker*

            Nice. Way to demonstrate that you have no idea what you're talking about.

            First off,

            1.) The census IS a survey.

            2.) The long-form census form is always accompanied by a short-form census form. Even though the long-form census will no longer be mandatory, the short-form census — which contains the REAL important information such as language, population, among other things — will remain mandatory.

            3.) It's no great secret that the people who are protesting the change to the census are complaining about the end of so-called "smart government" — just a euphemism for social engineering.

            4.) This changes nothing. Statistics Canada is currently not pressing charges against those who decline to fill out their long form census. Ergo, the long form census is ALREADY de facto voluntary. Government policy is simply changing to reflect this fact. Do you REALLY want to be the person to suggest that Canadians should be punished for protecting their privacy. That, perhaps, their passports should be taken away?

            That's done in oppressive third-world countries. It isn't done in Canada.

            As I've already stated elsewhere, Canadians will have their say on what information they think the government should have by either providing it or not providing it. I think you're just scared that Canadians will take a stand against big government social engineering by declining to fill out their long form census.

          • "Statistics Canada is currently not pressing charges against those who decline to fill out their long form census. Ergo, the long form census is ALREADY de facto voluntary."

            Even moreso now, that StatsCan has told media outlets about this. Before it was a relatively unknown factoid. I'm sure that this revelation would have NO bearing on how Canadians filled out the survey in 2011.

          • I can't help but wonder how some of the lefties here think Canadians should be punished if they decline to fill out the long-form census.

            Take their passports away, perhaps? Scary idea from a scary man who the left seems to love as soon as he's helping them get to what they love most: power.

  2. Now we know who wrote that piece of crap pro government G20 article…

  3. When there is no prospect of Harper bashing,
    Macleans commentors have nothing to say.

    SunTv in 142 days.

    • That's 142 days of whimpering… then indefinite crying.

    • "I love hearing my opinions reaffirmed!!! what else would you want from a news outlet!!!"


      • Well, let's face it: YOU aren't looking for much more in a news outlet.

        I think people like yourself are terrified that Canadians will see their own news and issues treated from a conservative point-of-view and agree.

        Gee, wouldn't THAT be a tragedy?

        • I like to think about things… so having an array of different arguments doesn't scare me at all. What I *don't* like is bad arguments. Or misleading reporting. neither helps public discourse

          • We both know that's a bunch of crap.

            What people like yourself prefer are places where bad arguments that you agree with are tolerated, and where people are misled into believing the things YOU believe they should believe.

  4. maybe this one should be filed under "opinion", it seems the article was more about bashing harper than aid

  5. What a useless column. I'm no expert on foreign aid funding and the NGO sector, but I can tell when an opinion piece is content free.

    There is nothing here for the reader to know why an "increase [in] the role of the private sector" should at all be preferable to the "NGO community." Why won't the aid industry not like what Harper is pushing for and why is it their own fault? Nothing is laid out for the reader to make a decision from. The author clearly does not know enough about the topic, thus requiring an infantile analysis of Harper's 'ideology' – its subject is Andrew Potter is a contrarian.

    "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."

    This, I take it, is the model Potter is endorsing. The pivotal question that is not even raised is this: do you want an aid industry where 0.7% of GDP is distributed through military, security and for-profit organizations, or do you want this to be distributed by the "NGO community" – who, from what I can tell are composed of various strata of baby boomers with all their boons and trappings. Obviously Potter has a bone to pick with them, but he doesn't want us to know what it is exactly.

    • Yeah, he speaks about 'aid' broadly as if all aid ever has been ineffective? Obviously there have been problems with aid, particularly in the early days of such programs (ethiopian famine is the classic example), but are we really supposed to believe that accountability/effectiveness hasn't improved since then? Also since when is the welfare trap an argument for eliminating welfare programs? Isn't the point that short term band aid programs won't solve underlying systemic failures? Basic aid keeps people from getting dead. It doesn't necessarily create a sustainable well-functioning society/economy.

      I guess my question to Mr. Potter is… what is your alternative to humanitarian disasters? nothing? and after the initial bare bones aid is delivered, should we no longer engage in long term aid efforts (education, housing, agricultural ) those which are most likely to create permanent results?

      • There is something distinctly ominous with the idea of foreign aid being explicitly though about as a business or national security venture. Instead of as you say, the facts on the ground where ever they might be. It is a substantial amount of money, and I am more interested in the question of who will be making a living from the aid industry than picturing a boyhood Stephen Harper cry red wolf.

      • I think that this article could have presented better arguments, and more detailed ones at that, but I suppose that we have to keep in mind that with word limits on writing, sometimes the deeper arguments get lost. Also, as a former journalism student, I can attest to the fact that editors are sometimes bitchy about unsubstantiated opinions, even though they're just that- opinions.
        In terms of cutting aid, though, I'm not so sure that it's not a good idea. Of course contributing aid to foreign countries is important, but we need to look at where we're sending it, and how it's being used, instead of just handing over a chunk of change to be used at will. We need to work more on sending our money with strings attached – if we're going to help a country, it is going to have to be committed to ruling out corruption and other, more concerning practices that go against what we claim as our country's innate values.

        • You're being too generous. The problems Steve outlines show up consistently in Andrew Potter's columns, this is hardly even the worst example of his writing. He's the most frustrating columnist I've read; he picks great topics to write about but his style is terrible and he's needlessly contrarian.

          If he wanted to write a column about how refocusing aid is a good thing, then I could definitely see how that case could be made. Instead, Mr. Potter chose to frame the whole thing in terms of the PM and did so in a way that was guaranteed to frustrate supporters and detractors of the PM alike. Doing this detracts hugely from the real point of the column. Its pretty pathetic.

  6. Harper's destruction of Rights & Democracy had nothing to do with belt-tightening or cost-effectiveness and everything to do with his appointment of ideologically-correct doofuses (doofi?) to the agency's board of directors. A better reading of Paul Wells' efforts on this topic makes this quite clear. Let's not forget these are the same men responsible for blowing almost $1-million of R&D's budget on a witch-hunt against the late president and his loyalists on staff. All in response to $30,000 spent in the Israel / OPTs. Is this the "sound public policy" to which you refer?

    • Or it might have something to do that that there are humanitarian aid groups (NGOS) that funnel money to terrorists. Omar's father and another convicted Tamil (Humanitary aid group) who used those money to fund tamil terrorism. All these are financed and sponsored by Canadian tax money. I wonder how many said groups are there in the soup.

  7. Stupid Commies.

  8. You say that, but clearly you have no answer to the point offered.

    If Canadians are as concerend about this matter as you insist they should be, they'll all fill out the voluntary long-form census.

    As the voluntary long-form census will be sent out to 1 in 3 Canadian households, this means that that Stats Canada will actually have MORE information, and BETTER information.

    There's nothing more democratic than what a citizen does when they are given a choice — and it seems to me that this is what REALLY alarms you about this move. Is that Canadians will offer the most profound statement possible on how much information they think the government needs, which in turn is a statement on how much they think the government should do.

    • As the voluntary long-form census will be sent out to 1 in 3 Canadian households, this means that that Stats Canada will actually have MORE information, and BETTER information.

      Wrong. Sample bias. Discussed on these boards many times. Making the long-form voluntary means you don't get an accurate cross-section of the population. "Democracy" doesn't create useful numbers.

      • I'm well aware of sample bias. Because not all the Canadians who receive the long-form census complete it, it's already a factor. So the Tory decision changes nothing in that regard.

        It's very simple, kids: if you think this is a pivotal matter, convince Canadians to fill out their long-form census. If your arguments fail to sway them, I guess they just aren't that persuasive.

        • The sample bias was negligible when the LF was mandatory. This change threatens all of the data collected, making the LF census much less useful. At the same time, it's more expensive.

          • Nothing of substance will change, except that Canadians will now know they have a choice on what information they want the government to have,

            Moreover, you're assuming that more Canadians will decline to fill out the long form census.

            It's a VERY tall assumption.

            But the long and short of the entire issue is this: either Canadians share your view on how much information the government needs, or they don't.

            We're going to see very shortly, and I personally look forward to it.

          • It's not just about how many Canadians, it's which Canadians (see point about sample bias above) decide to answer.

            And these aren't my 'assumptions,' they're the facts as outlined by statisticians and data users from several different fields and across the ideological spectrum.

            Whatever this change is about, it's not about ensuring quality data.

          • No, this very much DOES seem to be about the assumptions you are making.

            And, yes, they are assumptions.

            You ASSUME that if the long-form census is no longer mandatory that Canadians will decline to fill it out. That is not a fact. It couldn't possibly be — it hasn't had the opportunity to happen or to not happen, one way or the other.

          • The existence of sample bias is a fact. That's why every reputable survey considers it in its design. LF questionnaires were sent out randomly, not self-selected. It's the self-seletion that introduces a much greater chance of sample bias.

          • Your argument that sample bias is at issue rests on the ASSUMPTION that Canadians will decline to participate in a voluntary long-form census.

            More assumptions — pretending they aren't assumptions doesn't make it any different.

            Moreover, you're precisely right, there are many methods of accounting for sample bias in a statistical study. Not all of them involve government coercion.

            I can't help but be alarmed at your stark insistence on the methods that do.

          • You can argue that the data collected from a voluntary survey is more virtuous if you want. But I think I've done all I can to indicate that making it voluntary makes the data worse and less useful. Your counter argument seems to be that I can't predict the future. I can't. However, statisticians and organizations (again, from several fields and perspectives) that use the data agree, based on their expertise and experience. I'll go with them, especially given how few of the organizations that use the data support the change to a voluntary survey.

            IHave a nice evening.

          • I'm not particularly interested in the opinions of statisticians regarding what information Canadians should think the government needs.

            I'm not interested in the opinions of would-be social engineers regarding what information Canadians should think the government needs.

            I'm interested in what information Canadians think the government needs.

            Apparently, you can't handle the idea of Canadians making these kinds of decisions. Democracy is just a heavy, heavy burden, isn't it?

    • "If Canadians are as concerend [sic] about this matter as you insist they should be, they'll all fill out the voluntary long-form census."

      Like I said, willful ignorance.

      • And as I said, your declaration that this statement is ignorant — willfully or otherwise — isn't nearly enough to make it so.

        What you need is an argument. Needling typos doesn't qualify.

        • Patrick this has been discussed and explained about a hundred times on this site alone. If you haven't learned what's wrong with your stance by now, it could only be willful ignorance.

          Why would I waste my time explaining it to you again?

          • You seem to have made the mistake of assuming I've been participating on this site all that time.

            You've made it clear that you just don't have an argument. Which, I suppose is a good thing: it saves me from wasting my time listening to you make the attempt.

          • It's been in all the papers too. Go get caught up, and we'll talk.

          • Well, folks, TJCook has weasled out.

            Can't say I'm in any way surprised.

          • Yup, I've totally failed in my responsibility to explain basic statistics to a guy who can't be bothered to… wait a minute! It's not my job at all!

            Patrick, when you understand the basics of this discussion, I'm here to talk. Until then, well, a wise man once said: "Never wrestle with a pig – you'll both get dirty, but the pig likes it."

          • Interestingly enough, TJ, you declared that it was my assertion that Canadians would fill out the long-form census if they decided the government should have that information.

            That particular matter has nothing to do with statistical methodoloy. It has to do with democracy. Canadians making a decision — voting with their information, so to speak — about what they believe the role of the government should be, and how much information they think the government needs in order to fulfil that role.

            If you wanted to discuss statistical methodology, you should have objected to a comment pertaining to that.

            You know, at a certain point when someone refuses to attempt to make an argument, a person simply has to assume that they simply don't have one.

          • If you're going to summarize my words, Patrick, do limit yourself to what I've actually said. To wit:

            1) What you're claiming is false
            2) That has been extensively discussed here and elsewhere
            3) Until you learn the basics of that discussion, I'm not wasting my time teaching you.

            A wise man recently said "Don't put words in my mouth, they taste like the orifice you pulled them from."

          • It's amusing that the summary of your words is not at all a summary of this discussion. To wit:

            1. I remarked that if Canadians believe the government needs the information contained in the long-form census, they'll fill it out voluntarily.
            2. You declare that statement to be wilfully ignorant.
            3. You are challenged on not having produced any semblence of an actual argument.
            4. You then declare that knwoledge of basic statistical methodology is key to this discussion of whether or not Canadians will fill in the long form census voluntarily, but won't produce an argument to defend that assertion.

            So, as it pertains to the idea that allowing Canadians to decide whether or not they'll provide that information to the government is democratic, you have yet to even ATTEMPT an argument. Now, you're attempting to pretend the discussion has beena bout something else altogether.

            It's undiginified, and at this point I suspect you're really just trying to grind out the last word.

          • Basic statistical methodology on the subject of self-surveys is pretty simple: you never will know how wrong your information is.

  9. Little boy who cried commie? He's six two, two forty, is styled "Right Honourable", leads a G8 nation, and has a more statist, more leftist record than any PM since Mulroney. Massive increases in spending, maternal health initiatives, blacklisting of white males from the public service…what friggin' planet are you on pal?

  10. Based on the facts as presented, I don't really have a problem with this change. Cameron's initiative has merit too. But I have a question – has anyone else heard of the practice of aid being donated through goods / services coming from donor-country companies paid for by the donor country? For instance, the Canadian government goes to Third-World country government X and says "you need a better telephone system," then pays Nortel (this was a few years ago) $X million to improve their switching network using Nortel products. Basically a form of corporate welfare.
    In The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa, Neil Peart from Rush tells of a bike ride through Togo. At one point, the road on which he was travelling suddenly opens up into a four-lane expressway in the middle of nowhere, runs that way for 10 km and then returns to a regular poorly maintained two lane road. In other words, perhaps some Western engineering firm was paid to design / build this thing that appeared to be of little use to the people of Togo.
    I'm open to correction on this. But sometimes it makes me wonder if aid has been geared more toward the needs of the donor country than the recipient.

    • It works for Chinese foreign aid policy.

      • Yeah, I guess I was thinking more the business angle than the foreign policy angle. Or is that what you meant?

        • "CIDA completely untied its aid budget two years ago, committing to a global procurement system for all international assistance by 2013."

          This is somewhat mentioned in the article. Tied aid has been standard practice here and elsewhere for ages, its only recently that this has been changing. As you say, tied aid is essentially corporate welfare and has less to do with helping than it does to subsidizing business; its pretty stupid.

          I can certainly see how you missed the reference in the article, though. It wasn't like it was well explained at all.

          • Thanks for that. My references are pretty old (Nortel!), so I wasn't sure if it was still done. I'm glad they're planning to chang this practice, at least here.

  11. I suspect that a lot of our aid money is paying the salaries of NGO bureaucrats and being laundered through the international community. If you read the webpages of many of these NGO's, they refer to their donations going to "partners" unnamed. The whole brouhaha over Maternal and Child Health Care not funding abortions was, I'm sure, because Harvard's Carr Centre, home to Mr. Ignatieff, was now the new residence of the former head of Planned Parenthood.

  12. Foreign aid organizations have made a lot of money keeping the third world third, but it's long past time to stop. Entrenching poverty and corrupt politicians in aid recipient countries has made life miserably worse for the majority of people in those countries for the past six decades.

  13. Fresh off defending Canadians from the tyranny of the mandatory long-form census

    What we are seeing here is a rare case of Tory ideology actually aligning with sound public policy.

    Lines like that really, really discredit Potter as a serious journalist and identify him as just another partisan shill.

  14. Watch for this: As a way to persuade us that the government is cutting overhead on aid, it will direct more of it through UN agencies. This, of course, ignores the fact that they have much higher overheads than Canadian NGOs, or the Canadian private sector, and some of them (not all) are much worse in reporting their results.

    CIDA, whatever its other faults, does try to identify results, and to get those managing aid projects to report on results. This is not uniformly the case for the UN agencies.

  15. I believe it is high time that this NGOS and other aid groups has to be rethought to make them more effective. I just can't imagine that many of this aid groups spend much of their budget on lobbying to promote their specific group, instead of going to those who most need it. And in some cases those aids went to finance terrorist activities, those have to stop. There are also Canadian aids which were wasted like in Haiti.

  16. i am late to the party here, but for what it is worth (little), here goes nothing.

    1) in large measure it appears that Potter has artificially constructed an understanding of the issue to fit his story. The headline and much of the story attempt to lead us to take up the bait that Harper's decision to cut $1.8 million in annual funding from the Canadian Council for International Co-operation was a ideological decision that reflected his cutting foreign aid in general. but one can surmise that from the evidence presented that the decision was not necessarily anything to do with ideology, had no broader implication for aid and, given the lack of evidence on effectiveness had, well, nothing to do with evidence. Not sure how that leads to a conclusion that ideology has aligned with sound policy in this decision.

    2) Given that AP acknowledges that lack of evidence in measuring the effectiveness of development work, his paragraph that concludes that "a great deal of foreign assistance is ineffective and unaccountable" and "largely wasted", comes off a tad silly.

    3) I wish AP would have just stuck to the real story here, and maybe even do some more digging: the Tories just cut funding to an NGO that was receiving two thirds of its funding from the very agency it was set up to lobby. Now, I think there are reasons to give organizations like this seed money to get started, but this sounds like ongoing funding. In this case that amounted to $1.8 million for the CCIC on foreign aid. There are a large number of organization that have been provided seed money by the government of Canada to be advocacy groups in in their respective fields (and who similarly lobby the government that assisted in their creation). How many are getting ongoing funding? For how many years? And how much money are we talking? How many are rigorously evaluated (and I mean rigorously with respect to both process and outcomes)? That would be an interesting story to read.