Ottawa Rethinking Foreign Aid

By her own admission, Susan Whelan was not the logical choice to be Canada's top social worker to the world. A small-business lawyer and daughter of former agriculture minister Eugene Whelan, the MP for Essex, near Windsor, Ont.

Ottawa Rethinking Foreign Aid

By her own admission, Susan Whelan was not the logical choice to be Canada's top social worker to the world. A small-business lawyer and daughter of former agriculture minister Eugene Whelan, the MP for Essex, near Windsor, Ont., spent her first eight years on the Liberal backbenches mostly concerned with domestic economic matters. She had been parliamentary secretary to the National Revenue minister, sat on the finance committee and, for the past five years, chaired the House of Commons industry committee. But in January, after Toronto MP Maria Minna suddenly flamed out in a series of minor controversies, the Prime Minister named the hard-nosed Whelan as Minister of International Cooperation. She suddenly found herself responsible for, among other things, the Canadian International Development Agency - just as the government was rediscovering its global conscience.

So far, she's making some tentative converts, both because of her own efforts and through impeccable timing. It does her little harm that she was handed the reins at a time when her government has committed $500 million for aid to Africa, in addition to annual eight-per-cent increases in official development assistance for the next eight years. But Whelan, 39, has also used her first nine months well, travelling widely, learning the ropes of the complex portfolio, and overseeing completion of a new policy statement, Canada Making a Difference in the World, a major re-think in how Canada directs FOREIGN AID. "You have here a young cabinet minister with an obvious level of tenacity and intelligence who, above all, wants to do well," says Gerry Barr, president of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation.

For the world's have-not countries, the true test of performance will be how well CIDA's new policy directives translate in the real world. It's no secret the old way wasn't working. Danielle Goldfarb, a policy analyst with the C.D. Howe Institute, says one problem was that Canada tried to do everything for everybody at the same time as its global assistance pot was shrinking (from 0.45 per cent of GNP in 1990 to 0.25 per cent today). And it is sprinkling its now paltry $2.2 billion in aid to over 100 countries, meaning few get enough to make a difference. For instance, a decade ago, 16 countries received more than $20 million. Today, only five do. "I don't mean to sound callous," says Goldfarb, "but we can't do it all."

Another trap Canada fell into, adds Goldfarb, was trying to be a Boy Scout to all needy countries, even corrupt dictatorships. "The research indicates that in countries where the leadership is committed to reform, governing well and reducing the level of corruption, aid actually is effective," she says. "But you find the opposite in countries where governments don't have that commitment." Canadian Alliance MP Deepak Obhrai knows all about how good intentions can disappear without a trace. His homeland, Tanzania, from which he emigrated in 1977 at the age of 27, was a favoured destination of assistance from Canada and other western nations throughout much of the 1960s and '70s. It remains an African basket case. "I went back there for a visit last year," he says, "and there was nothing to tell me where all the money went."

Whelan accepts some of the criticism. But she adamantly refutes charges that much of Canada's past overseas spending has gone down the drain. She rhymes off programs to eradicate polio, reduce the cost of tuberculosis treatment, expand educational opportunities and the numerous clean water projects Canada has championed around the world. In most areas, except Africa, there has been an increase in life expectancy, schooling and infant survival. "You can't say it's Canada's dollar that did this, but together Canada and other countries have made a huge difference," she maintains.

Still, CIDA's policy shift seeks to address most of the critics' concerns. Although Ottawa is not about to drop any countries from its recipient list, Whelan notes that new spending will be telescoped to, at most, a dozen countries, primarily in Africa. She intends to announce the recipient nations later this fall, based on the level of need and the local governments' commitment to reform. As well, Whelan says Canada will pare down what it does to a few core programs, such as education and health care. "This will be an opportunity to show our leadership," she told Maclean's. "We can concentrate on sectors, concentrate in areas we're involved in, so I think we'll have a greater impact."

As a statement of intentions, CIDA's new approach has elicited mostly praise. But problems persist. The Throne Speech pledge could last only until February, 2004, when Jean Chrétien, who has only recently rediscovered his humanitarian side while searching for a feel-good legacy, departs the scene. Paul Martin may not share the same zeal once he, as expected, becomes prime minister. Nor is Whelan assured of a sufficient duration at CIDA to see the changes through. She is being touted as a replacement for Solicitor General Lawrence MacAulay, should he be fired over apparent ethical lapses. The most that can be said is that Canada has taken the first step toward getting back into the international development game. The world's needy can only hope it is serious about staying at the table for the duration and that it has learned to play its cards better.

Maclean's October 28, 2002