Why diaspora voices matter.
For the most part, Canadians aren’t aware of our country’s significant role in the international development sector. Canada is the ninth largest OECD DAC donor and has contributed $5.8 billion on official development assistance (ODA) in 2019. There are many international initiatives that we should be proud of as Canadians, but we are far from perfect.
International assistance should aim to go out of business
Former USAID ambassador Mark Green said, “I believe the purpose of foreign assistance should be ending its need to exist. … Each of our programs should look forward to the day when we can end it. And around the world, we should measure our work by how far each investment moves us closer to that day.”
Green has an excellent point. While he was speaking with the United States in mind, generally this concept should hold true for all donor nations.
The purpose of spending billions of dollars in foreign aid is the hope that those foreign states can pick themselves up and take the wheel. International development should never be a long-term crutch. It is far from ideal if a state develops a dependency on foreign aid. International development is about cooperation and empowerment of peoples so that locals can lead in the solutions to their problems. At some point, the local government and its people should be able to carry out solutions thus rendering international assistance unnecessary.
While much of Canada’s international development comes in the form of emergency relief (for example, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic), billions of Canadian taxpayer dollars go to assisting populations of states with unstable government institutions. To demonstrate the point, the top three recipient countries of Canada’s bilateral contributions in 2018 were Afghanistan, Syria, and Ethiopia (link).
The Canadian government often executes its international development in the form of contributions to large multi-lateral organizations. This is important in serving countries with humanitarian issues. However, in the context of making the international development sector go out of business, we have to think seriously about long-term strategy. Giving money to multilateral international organizations is a good idea, but it isn’t sufficient when we want to accomplish Green’s long-term goal of ending the international assistance sector.
Filling in the Gaps
Governments are often unstable because they fail to satisfy the expectations that the public has of them. The trust of its citizens is an underappreciated aspect of stable governance. Governments struggle with retaining their legitimacy and capacity to serve their people. The reason for this failure may differ (war, natural disasters, faltering democratic institutions, etc.). These gaps in the public service, regardless of the reason, must be filled. For many developing countries, it is the international assistance sector that comes to fill these gaps.
As much as we hate to admit it, large multilateral organizations profit from humanitarian crises. Not to diminish the excellent services they provide to those who are desperately in need, without gaps in the public services in recipient countries these organizations have no reason to exist. Instead, large NGOs are incentivized to be a crutch.
If foreign nations and multilateral organizations are constantly filling the gaps for local governments, these institutions are never able to become stable.
So what is the solution?
Local voices on development and engaging the diaspora
We believe that it is crucial to engage grassroots organizations. It is the grassroots civil society organizations that empower locals with the capacity to fill in the gaps that the government isn’t able to fill. What differentiates these groups from large multilateral humanitarian organizations is that grassroots have a deep respect and understanding for the local culture.
International assistance should respect more than the immediate basic needs of humanitarian crises. It should also seek to encourage and empower the recipients with the ability to freely practice their culture and traditions. By doing so, foreign assistance returns the power to the people. Locals can take the reigns and lead their countries forward.
When local people are empowered, so are the people who represent them. Unstable governments have a greater chance of regaining their legitimacy when the local people are empowered to fill in the gaps. When large multilateral NGOs are always in the equation, people won’t be able to stand for themselves. When multiple grassroots organizations take their place in the equation, long-term sustainable development is possible.
Canadian international assistance should take into account what people from these communities have to say. Without these voices, without an understanding of local culture, traditions, and faith, an international assistance strategy that aims to go out of business is impossible.
This is where diaspora voices come into play.
Canada is a multicultural country. We are a land of immigrants. We are a collage of cultures, traditions, and religions. Engagement with people who understand the lives of the aid recipients who receive Canadian international development is essential when making decisions about our foreign aid.
Diaspora communities not only understand the lived experience in other countries, but also the lived experience of Canada. The unique perspective of both Canadian and foreign cultures, traditions, and religion would allow for Canadian development to aim for the end goal. These communities have a distinct interest in keeping their eye on the prize: true independence from aid and the proliferation of their values.