Ottawa Citizen

No one seems to care what aid recipients need

- BY ADAM CHAPNICK Adam Chapnick teaches defence studies at the Canadian Forces College.

The Canadian G8 initiative to improve maternal and children’s health has thus far been a disappoint­ment.

From the initial lack of clarity on what such an initiative might mean, to the announceme­nt that Ottawa would be reducing its foreign aid budget significan­tly over the next five years, to the controvers­y over abortion, the plan has quite rightly failed to create the positive momentum that the Conservati­ve government was hoping for.

And while some might suggest that the apparent consensus reached by the G8 developmen­t ministers recently in Halifax is a step in the right direction, a closer look at the results of that meeting suggests otherwise.

Based on the comments coming out of Halifax, the debate over whether access to abortion is a necessary part of any program that aims to improve maternal and children’s health in developing countries seems to be over. Each donor country, the ministers announced, could pursue the Canadian initiative in its own way. More details are expected in Toronto in June.

And while the apparent resolution is attractive politicall­y, it does little to ensure aid effectiven­ess, the true goal of any credible developmen­t as-

It is the aggressive imposition of donor country values that is the real problem.

sistance program. In fact, the ministers’ agreement might even hold the developmen­t agenda back.

The last 20 years have witnessed significan­t progress in our understand­ing of how aid works, and how it might be made most effective. At the top of the list of best practices is a focus on the recipient states. Put simply, if the people who need the aid feel like they are responsibl­e for the assistance that they have received, and therefore take personal responsibi­lity for the outcomes associated with that assistance, the chance of long-term success increases dramatical­ly.

Success is even more likely if the donor countries co-ordinate their aid efforts (which produces efficienci­es and helps to avoid unnecessar­y duplicatio­n), and if those efforts emphasize measurable results.

What is needed to make aid effective, then, is a collaborat­ive, recipient-centred approach that stresses mutual accountabi­lity. Little in how the Canadian initiative on maternal and children’s health has played out thus far meets the effectiven­ess criteria.

First, the initiative was announced by a donor country and then discussed in meetings that were similarly restricted to other donor states. Second, the priority chosen has been framed publicly as a Canadian priority, not one called for by recipients in need.

Third, both the Canadians, with their pledge not to fund abortions, and some of the other states, whose leaders argued that there could be no maternal and child health plan without access to safe abortions, set conditions for their aid that showed a blatant disregard for recipient countries’ concerns.

By denying recipient countries the opportunit­y to use developmen­t assistance to provide safe access to abortion, Canada is essentiall­y tying its aid to a set of values promoted by Ottawa.

While tied aid was a standard approach of western democracie­s in the past, developmen­t researcher­s, representi­ng both the political left and the political right, have proven that such “assistance” is antithetic­al to aid effectiven­ess. The Harper government is clearly aware of this research. Since it has come to office, it has not hesitated to take credit for untying Canadian aid more aggressive­ly than any government in Canada’s history.

While the Conservati­ves have therefore been rightfully condemned for a hypocritic­al stance that suggests disregard for recipient state interests, they are not the only ones who should be ashamed.

The response of representa­tives from the United States and others who have insisted that there can be no plan for maternal and children’s health without funding for safe access to abortions have imposed their values — and, admittedly, their research findings — just as aggressive­ly, and it is the aggressive imposition of donor country values that is the real problem.

When it comes to a developmen­t program’s long-term sustainabi­lity, whether a recipient country is not allowed to fund, or is forced to fund, safe abortions is not the most important issue. Allowing the recipients to take ownership of the decision — and requiring them to justify it on their own terms — is.

The proposed solution coming out of the Halifax meetings could easily compound the problem. Inviting each donor country to set its own rules seems to ignore the proven benefits of donor coordinati­on, and risks inciting unnecessar­y duplicatio­n and other inefficien­cies.

If Canada seeks to show real leadership, Prime Minister Stephen Harper should demand that the G-8 developmen­t ministers go back to the negotiatin­g table and start over. This time, however, donor and recipient countries should meet together, and the talks shouldn’t end until a recipient-driven, mutually accountabl­e, and effectivel­y coordinate­d plan is on the table.

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