Foreign aid carries with it a lot of myths. We hear tales of hopelessness from the war-torn and overpopulated Third World. We hear harrowing tales of how much we give – it’s a matter of national pride. We’re bombarded with miracle-cures for world hunger and poverty, from GMO crops to microcredit loans. At the core of it all, there’s one central message: foreign aid is failing to fix the world.

Admittedly, there’s more than a bit of truth to that, though not for the reasons usually cited. Canadians don’t actually give that much only around 0.31% of our GDP, compared to an internationally recognized target of 0.7%, as established by our own Lester Pearson. The US gives even less, at 0.19%. We had made progress, doubling spending between 2001 and 2011, but recent Conservative cuts have reversed this, chopping 7.5% of it this year, drawing fire from the OECD. Aid?
Lately, they’ve started to talk of going further. Julian Fantino, Minister of International Corporation recently laid out plans to transform the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), allowing it to “align itself more closely with the private sector“, particularly the mining industry. Under his plan, aid would be tied to development of “extractive industries”, as well as help promote “Canadian interests” abroad. He even announced funding, amidst all the cuts, for a new $25 million “Extractive Industry Institute” at Simon Fraser University.

Fantino has already faced some harsh criticism, and has retreated to say that he’s not partnering with the Canadian mining industry directly, but has remained steadfast in stating that he’s focused on using it to promote Canadian businesses overseas and encourage “development of extractive industries” locally.

For those familiar with these issues, it’s an absolutely horrifying position to take. Primary extractive industries are the keystones of Third World economies. They do little, if anything to alleviate poverty because very little value is added to the raw exports, and because rampant poverty makes resource extraction a lot cheaper (land and labour prices). Resource-rich continents like Africa and Latin America have laboured for decades exporting lumber, minerals and cash crops to no avail.

Of course, there’s another particularly ugly dimension to all this, which is the Canadian mining industry, the largest on earth. More mining companies call Canada home than any other country, due in no small part to the refusal of our government to prosecute firms for foreign crimes. Canada’s mining industry is internationally notorious for human rights abuses, particularly against indigenous groups living on mineral-rich lands. Tailoring humanitarian assistance programs to help promote this kind of “development” is nothing but an attempt at turning aid workers into the foot-soldiers of neo-colonialism, much like missionaries played in older eras.

Harper’s Legacy
Further evidence of how the Conservatives now plan to wield foreign aid was demonstrated in the wake of the vote to recognize Palestine (somewhat) at the United Nations. Having withdrawn envoys to the UN and Palestinian Authority, Foreign Minister John Baird has warned of “consequences”, with many fearing that he’ll cut aid to the Palestinian Authority. Such blatant political use of aid makes the real purpose clear: leverage. Those nations who play along with Canada’s (and Harper’s) geopolitical goals will be rewarded, and those who don’t must risk being cut off.

In other recent, aid-related news, the Conservatives narrowly rejected Bill C-398, a proposal to export generic drugs such as HIV/AIDS medication to impoverished countries. Supporters estimated that this decision could have helped thousands or even millions of AIDS sufferers, and even the Globe and Mail is not shying away from the term “genocide“. This is the same government, of course, who defended asbestos exports to poorer and less regulated countries before the collapse of the industry.

This new focus of foreign policy from the Conservative government is not going unnoticed worldwide. I’ve never been a big believer in nationalist myths about Canada’s noble “image” worldwide, but it’s hard to deny that our reputation has deteriorated of late. Did you know that Canada was refused a seat at the UN Security Council in 2010? That there’s been numerous protests outside Canadian embassies and consulates over the past months – Washington, Thessaloniki, Iran, India, and the Philippines? The hawkish and hard-line position taken issues ranging from Palestine to Kyoto isn’t going unnoticed, and it’s redefining how people around the globe see our country.
Aid doesn’t accomplish much. For every dollar wealthy Western nations like ours send to regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, a dozen or so flow back in debt repayment. That doesn’t count the dirt-cheap imports and cut-rate labour we gain, nor what’s been taken over five centuries of European colonization and expansion. It doesn’t include the large amounts of foreign aid which never leaves our hands (like more than 80% of America’s aid to Cambodia in 2010). And it totally ignores the role of institutions like the IMF and World Bank who foist “structural adjustment” (austerity) policies on poor nations in exchange for refinancing their debts. If aid is costing us so much, then why are we turning such a a profit?

These countries are not poor due to a lack of aid, or because they haven’t yet had enough mining projects. They’re poor because a small number of ultra-rich nations (Canada included) rule the world and collect most of it’s wealth, no matter where the work is done or where the resources are extracted. Until that changes, expect to see a lot more infomercials about starving African children.

Can foreign aid “fix” poverty? No. That doesn’t mean, though, that conditions would improve if it went away. Aid is like an emergency room – it doesn’t solve any problems but the most urgent – it’s there to make sure you see tomorrow. If you don’t, those other problems don’t matter much. Nobody wants to think about these horrors if they can avoid it, but the sad fact is that this kind of aid is desperately needed. Without it, enormous numbers of people will die. Isn’t that reason enough to continue?

Charity denied is no substitute for justice.