Wrestling with the forces of aid populism in Canada and beyond

Challenging populism in foreign aid: a post-election agenda for Canada?

by Nov 7, 2019

IJ Spotlight

In partnership with SAGE Publications, one article of key significance from every new issue of International Journal is chosen to be featured in the IJ Spotlight Series. The unabridged version of this article was originally published in Vol. 73 No. 1.

International development pundits were put through their paces in Canada’s now concluded federal election campaign. A proposal to axe 25% of Canada’s $6 billion foreign aid budget by Conservative leader Andrew Scheer to provide tax breaks to striving Canadians wanting to “get ahead” provoked many observers to debunk his claims and caution against aid cuts. Unfortunately, this opprobrium missed a valuable opportunity to address the wider challenge of populist sentiment in development policy, both in Canada and further afield.

Horse-trading global aid spending for domestic gain is increasingly evident in political bargains struck in many countries. In Australia, the government of Tony Abbott slashed $11 billion off the aid budget to “get its domestic economic house in order.” US President Trump has repeatedly sought cuts of around $4 billion and to win over “friends” such as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a (possibly) impeachment-worthy conversation. The UK may have pledged to allocate 0.7% of GNI as Official Development Assistance but is diluting the definition of ODA to qualify more national spending as aid.

Populist politicians are redefining the narrative for global engagement on which development spending heavily relies. President Trump imagines a competition between globalism and patriotism, claiming the former as “a religious pall” causing states to “ignore their own national interests”. In 2015, UK Prime Minister David Cameron committed to “tackling global challenges in the national interest” though inquiries have shown this has scattered aid to government departments with limited capacity and competing priorities. Meanwhile, in continental Europe, aid is now framed as the fix for irregular migration, even if evidence of success is mixed.

We are now witnessing the political repurposing of aid in many countries to serve the cause of nationalism, even as it directly challenges evidence of good development practice.

The rise of aid populism is puzzling. Aid policy does not conclusively drive voter behaviour at the ballot box and support for aid is not strongly correlated with actual expenditures. Aid has always provided an opportunity for fiscal conservatives to scale back spending with limited domestic electoral backlash. Nonetheless, right-leaning parties have on occasion done the opposite, catalysing compassionate development policies like Stephen Harper’s spending on maternal and child health or George Bush Jr. game-changing investment in AIDS antiretrovirals in Africa.

Nowadays, populists use foreign aid to cultivate – rather than respond to – their public. In the last decade, aid has transitioned away from signalling a state’s moral compass, to serving as an actual map for electoral success. For example, because the drivers and effects of foreign aid are both complex and poorly understood, the public tends to overestimate the size of aid budgets and undervalue its impact and value. Through shrewd political calculations, aid policy is designed to appeal to political bases and avoid damaging a party’s prospects among more centrist voters. Aid serves as an effective wedge between right and left, exploited to polarise electorates and win at the polls.

Still, there are remedies for countries like Canada that are new to the vagaries of aid populism but increasingly susceptible to its forces. The cultivation of bipartisan alliances elsewhere has restrained the scale of damage to aid’s aims and agendas. US congressional support across the aisle still safeguards the aid budget against the President’s worst nationalist impulses and permitted an unexpected expansion of US development finance. In the UK, cross-party commitment may have emerged from a desire to shed the Tory’s ‘nasty party‘ image, but it has also been the foundation for robust legislation like the International Development Act and the International Development Bill that enshrined the 0.7% global aid target. It also helps to buttress institutions like the IDC and ICAI to ensure government accountability for its aid allocation and policies.

As aid becomes the inevitable handmaiden to domestic political battles, narratives that advance a principled national interest can help to draw attention to the interdependency between global development progress and safer, healthier and more prosperous communities at home. Whether it is tackling climate change or active conflicts, these “win-win” benefits of foreign aid are some of the sturdiest and most convincing arguments in the eyes of voters. Admittedly, they are also the most vulnerable to empty political posturing given poor verification systems to assess the quantum of mutual gains and the contributions made by individual states.

Alongside better evidence, we need to foster a sense of solidarity and common cause among the world’s poor that transcends geographic and cultural borders. Anchoring the foreign aid project among citizens in shared circumstance of deprivation can avoid the ongoing tragedy of our political leaders seeking their own electoral fortunes by pitting the interests of those in an inner-city ghetto against those in a squalid favela. With his (albeit narrow) election win, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may yet have an opportunity to leverage Canadian values like inclusivity and social justice to build such transnational bridges and reign in the recent band of horse-trading aid populists once and for all.

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Nilima Gulrajani is a CIC Visiting Fellow, applying organisational and management theory to study trends and practices in the field of international development cooperation.