Ebola and Canadian aid

Last weekend I attended a great ebola awareness raising event hosted by Kitchener-Waterloo’s Liberian community. The event sought to raise local awareness and donations towards the ebola crisis affecting Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Having lived in the latter and having spent time in all three thanks to my work with TakingITGlobal in 2005/2006, I attended as I’d like to do my part to help address the short and long-term issues regarding healthcare in the region. I’m in regular contact with friends who give me first hand accounts of the struggles of lockdowns, price increases and tragedies.

Also in attendance were our two KW Members of Parliament, Stephen Woodworth and Peter Braid. They spoke about the Canadian government’s commitment to region, and to addressing the crisis, in particular as it relates to the government’s contribution of approximately $35 million in aid to be channeled through partner organizations like the World Health Organization and the Red Cross.

While these contributions of our tax dollars are to be applauded, it masks the realities of changes to our overseas development assistance spending that has seen funding to these three countries decrease significantly over the past decade. The decrease in funding to these countries is part and parcel of a shift in strategies regarding our aid disbursements that the ruling Conservative party introduced in 2009. Then, in an effort to focus Canadian aid on countries that were aligned with our foreign policy priorities and had the capacity to absorb and effectively administer these funds, 80% of Canadian ODA was focused on a group of 20 countries. This was more recently altered to see 90% of Canadian ODA focused on 25 countries (see full list here). We’ve essentially abandoned a non-emergency/crisis role in most countries in order to focus on long-term development in a select few.

Now I’m not linking the ebola crisis to these decreases in funding or strategic shifts. However I will argue that withdrawing our long-term support from countries at the bottom of the human development list further limits their ability to build the capacity in their health care systems that is integral to having a fighting chance at limiting the spread of the disease. The focus on 25 strategic countries leaves a significant gap for the poorest countries that need the most assistance. Is this strategy more effective than a broader set of countries? I’d love to see evidence of this.

Perhaps more important, this question of focus builds on a false argument.

This approach leaves us to believe that we’re focusing x dollars on y countries because that’s the total numbers of dollars we have to spend. While I realize that their are multiple spending priorities at home, why not trade short-term bandaids for long-term capacity building in more countries? We rank in the bottow half of OECD spending on ODA as a percentage of gross national income (beside Spain and Portugal) while Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and the UK more than double our per capita spend. Nudging our spending in this regard would allow for the proper funding of long-term capacity building projects in more countries, in particular around health and education, and would gradually shift the focus from emergency to long-term capacity.

My Canada is one that plays a leading role around the world in long-term development initiatives, not one that gradually pulls away as it has for the past decade.  Moreover given the focus on efficiency and effectiveness is a necessary one, our mission should be to collaborate with other countries and organizations on this long-term capacity building so as to ensure the reduction of duplication and administrative hurdles for recipient countries. Our current approach of limiting both our dollars and our targets leaves us with little legitimacy to take on such a role. This needs to change.

If the ebola crisis teaches us anything it’s that we should do more. And given the impending budget surplus, it’s clear that we can do more. Now it’s a question of whether we’ll have the leadership and foresight to do so.