I had been back at Asticou about five weeks when I realized that the passive receiver of language learning was not working for me, and I spent a weekend thinking about some of the challenges I had gone through in the previous year. I kept coming back to the tutor’s analysis — I wasn’t letting go. Except I had, at least to the extent I could i.e. the extent that was within my personality and my learning style, and it hadn’t worked. I needed a different option. Since letting go wasn’t working, what if I took full control?
Lots of people might read that sentence and think, “Oh, of course, the student has to drive their own learning, be responsible, be engaged, etc.”. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about something much more dramatic.
I went into my first interview on the Monday morning and it was with a teacher I knew well. He started by saying, “Today we’re going to …” and I stopped him there. I said, “No, we’re not. Here’s what we’re going to work on…we’re going to talk about the work I do at CIDA, my three main tasks, and an experience from the past. And the only thing you’re going to note for feedback is if I get gender wrong.” Nothing about pronunciation, nothing about structure, nothing about vocabulary. Just gender. He tried to argue, and I said no, this was the new game plan, I kept making gender errors and I needed to fix it. 45 minutes, only gender feedback. He relented.
The second interview, the third interview that day, and two more the next day. I gave them their topics, and only on gender for feedback. They felt they were able to give me more, but I hemmed them in and said gender only. The second night, I took their data and analysed the crap out of it. I was convinced that there were some patterns or rules I could discern that would help. I swear, I had asked multiple teachers for the rules and had been told repeatedly that I just had to memorize it for the various words. I knew it was crap, but I couldn’t prove it. (Future teachers later told me of course it was crap and gave me the rules, but Asticou apparently didn’t believe in them.) Anyway.
On day 3, I went in and did the same thing — just gender feedback. But this time, I had my rules ready. In 45 minute interviews, I went from making 30-40 gender mistakes on words to making 1 or 2, and sometimes none. Gender problem fixed.
On day 4 & 5, I focused on some structures and eliminated another batch of errors. Over the next three weeks, I worked through four or five “problems” that I had been having for almost a year of training, major stumbling blocks. I used to get a page of feedback in interviews; I dropped to a handful of mistakes. Finally, a feeling of progress.
I found out that I could get more “training” by asking for a supplemental tutor, which I did when I was six weeks from my hours expiring. In the morning, I had Asticou interviews; in the afternoon, I had the tutor. With the tutor, we quickly dumped the work conversations and focused on weird and wide-ranging topics, some of them intensely personal, so that I would deliberately struggle with my structures. She also agreed to record some words for me that I mispronounced during our sessions. She would say it once normally, once or twice slowly, then normal, with space in between for me to repeat it too. Classic “learning by tape” technique. But whereas lots of those things were generic words, I combed through three months of feedback on pronunciation errors to find common words that I would need for work — multilateral, organization, policy, process, bilateral, meetings, etc. Most of them I was fine on, but often when speaking quickly, I’d drop a syllable or anglicize the pronunciation. I learned to slow down for those words, to control my pronunciation before moving on. Words I used regularly, a frequency distribution if you will, not some random “office” words that I might use.
Teachers in my interviews were asking, “Why are you still here? Go, get tested, get early parole!”. Repeatedly, I told them, “I’m here until I run out of hours.” I was down to about a month left, and they were giving me interviews with those teachers who taught more advanced students, partly just because it was summer and they were covering off. One day, I ended up with Gemma again.
This is the time where you might think the story takes that classic fictional spin where the student impresses the teacher, and violins play in the background. But this is real life, and that woman was a witch. She was the third interview of the day, and I’d already aced the previous two. Both of them had said, “Go, do the test, stop wasting time.” Gemma, by contrast, asked me, “So, how many hours do you have left before your test?”. I told her, expecting a compliment. Nope, she asked if I could get more. I said, slowly, “Nooooo”, and she said, “Oh well, miracles happen.” Fucking cow. I said, “Okay, we’re done here.” She tried to give me my feedback sheet and I crumpled it up, and left it on her desk. I told her she was a worthless piece of skin, and no wonder nobody at the school liked her and she needed the union to help her keep her job. I left her sputtering, and went to see the director. I informed him if I was ever assigned to her again, for any purpose in the last month, I’d file a harassment complaint the next day. I still think I should have done it anyway.
I knew I was as ready as I ever would be, regardless of what the cows thought.
And all of us except one failed. The one who passed? The weakest one among us. Partly as her “stories” for telling what she did for a living were pretty simple in comparisons — she was a clerk who did very basic admin work. No one asked her how she answered the phone or sorted the mail. No follow-up questions, ever.
One of the other people in the group was a policy analyst, like me, and during their test, they were asked to explain “How do you go about analysing a policy?”. Umm, what? That question makes no sense. It’s like asking a car mechanic what steps they do to “mechanize” a car. Asking how to do research or do data analysis might be real questions, but an analyst couldn’t answer it well in english, let alone french.
Whatever, we tried, we failed. So back to the grindstone.
Except now that we had our reading and writing done, we could concentrate 100% on oral. This meant interviews every day, two or three per day depending on the day’s rotation. You would go to the teacher’s office, they would ask you questions, you would answer, and they would give you a list of all the errors you made that day. I was following their methodology, but it wasn’t really helping me. I didn’t feel like I was progressing at all.
And I had a time clock clicking away my countdown. For work, I was set to go to New York for three months. I had to go in early September, so whether or not I was done or not, I was leaving the school at that time. So, I pushed and pushed for the eighth month, and I tried the test again just before I went to New York. I failed, again. Although, technically, you don’t fail. You get a level, “A”, which is basic, but I needed “B” intermediate to graduate.
I went off to New York for three months, a hotbed of linguistic diversity, and I did listen some days to the french translation of some of the speeches, but my comprehension wasn’t high enough to do it when it counted. I couldn’t speak it well enough with other delegates, it would seem too unprofessional to speak french so badly in representing my country, but it was never an issue fortunately. When I came back to work in Ottawa, I thought I would go back right away to the school but they had no space for me at the time, and I had to wait until the new fiscal year. I convinced my boss to give me a tutor for a few hours a week to keep my hand in, and it was the best experience I could have had.
My first tutor
I don’t mean that he was the best teacher and I suddenly “got” it. Quite the contrary. Every session was a demoralizing battle of wills. We struggled and fought daily. But after about three weeks, he thought he would “show” me that I wasn’t as good as I thought. So he brought in a recording he made of a news item off the radio, talking about corruption and business practices. Then when it was done, he asked me what it was about. So I told him. And I got it all right.
He was shocked, incredulous even, that I understood it. I said it was easy, it was a topic that was familiar to me, so I grasped it easily. Plus it was radio french, with a clear crisp speaker. It broke the ice between us and we started talking about “how to learn”, not the learning. He told me, with some trepidation, that he thought I was the worst student he had ever had — not in a bad way, that I couldn’t learn, but that I was so quick to figure out his method and jump ahead, I would throw up roadblocks to how it worked long before I tried it. I wasn’t “letting go” to just learn the language from him.
It was the start of a break-through for me. I realized, perhaps for the first time, that the passive reception method they were using, counting on, was not going to work for me. I don’t work that way in anything. A slightly different nuance than “control freak”, but that’s close enough for this purpose. And I was ruminating on that when I went back to Asticou in April.
Since I was now facing two strikes on my language test, with a rumour that you could only do three or you were “out” (and for me possibly out of a job), my work coordinator basically said “Stay at the school until you run out of hours”. Which was about 3.5 months. Nothing like a guillotine hanging over your head to motivate you, I suppose. (Note that I didn’t know then what I know now, which is that the 3x rumour wasn’t exactly true — nor was losing my job necessarily true. It just meant that I would have used up all my formal training allowance, and I would have to do the rest on my own dime, and I would still have another six months to actually pass. Even then, I would have likely been moved to an English Essential position leaving me free to keep working on it while still working. In other words, I likely had some options, although not guaranteed by a long shot.)
I settled back in the routine at Asticou, just interviews, and doing my own work on the side. And while I was actively trying to “let go” and see what happened, I was back at my plateau from the previous fall, before I went to New York. I could speak french well enough to handle the questions, but my pronunciation and grammatical structures were too error-ridden to pass. I was holding steady on my plateau, but I wasn’t progressing.
I am a not a linguist by anyone’s definition. I’m not very eloquent in speaking English, let alone any other language. I can write pretty well in English, and I edit even better, but other languages were never my strength. I grew up in Peterborough, which was not exactly the hub of linguistic diversity. Or any other kind of diversity, for that matter, at the time, although it’s changed a lot since I was a kid.
We started French in grade 4 or 5 as I recall. I was okay, mostly because I was a good student, not because I had an aptitude for it. One year we did “French Xmas” i.e. we made yule log cakes, basically made lunch for the other teachers and one or two parents. I don’t even remember if we got to have any ourselves, other than the cake. I do remember that we got to go into the teacher’s lounge, and for the era, being shocked to see teachers acting normal instead of like their classroom personas. Some of them laughed. One of them was smoking. But that was the only oven/kitchen in the school, so we used it.
I remember I didn’t particularly like French when I was in Grade 8, although I think mostly I was just bored. I got in trouble a few times for not trying harder, which royally pissed me off mostly because my version of not trying still meant I was ahead of 60% of the class. Which meant I tried even less for awhile. Going into Grade 9, French wasn’t mandatory for me. And I was having trouble fitting it into my schedule. I remember talking to my dad about it, and given that it wasn’t like French was a useful tool in Peterborough, he convinced me it was likely a waste of time and I signed up for an extra hour of tech classes. There’s irony in there, not too deep, given my complete inability with anything mechanical and the fact that I am a Canadian government employee who could, in theory, use french daily. However, I dropped it in Grade 9, and never picked it up.
I had no interest in university, but ended up eventually at Foreign Affairs where it is a requirement for all new full-time employees to be completely fluent — you don’t even start if you’re a Foreign Service Officer until you’ve completed your training. I was much more interested in it now, even took a class at Cité Collegiale to try and bolster my ability, but I wasn’t making much headway until I was hired at CIDA. At the time, their New Development Officer program was still evolving, and they were recruiting new officers with the promise of language training. I was one of the lucky ones at the time who ended up in a position that required it (multilateral), and I was approved for language training.
Formal language training
Before starting training, I was sent to the PSC for a “diagnostic test”. This is a two part test — first they test your ability to learn “any” language at all, and then they test you for whatever language you are going to be studying.
For the ability test, they gave me written language and oral comprehension tests for several different languages (mostly African). They try to do it with languages you are likely to know nothing about, so that you’re not giving memory answers, but analytical answers. The written was easy, and I was off the charts for ability. For the oral listening test, they gave me a language where the word for house, friend, and snake were all very similar — I don’t remember the specifics, but if the word (something like bon in French) ended with the last sound going up in tone, it meant friend, if it went down it meant snake, and if it was flat, it was house. They would say the word, and you had to choose house, snake or friend. Then they would put it in a long sentence of words you never heard before, with the word in the middle somewhere, and then you would choose based on how it sounded in context, which word it was.
I bombed the test big time. The test put me right on the “pass/fail” line for whether I was capable of learning a language, although that’s not exactly accurate. It is actually a test of whether you can learn the language within the timeframe that the government is willing to pay for you to be on language training. Different languages, different timeframes, but it basically said I would need the full allotment of time available, and even then, it was 50/50 if I would be fully ready at the end of the training.
The second part of the test was to see if I remembered anything from having taken french before (a “false” beginner) or if I had retained none of it (a “true” beginner). The logic was that many people said they were starting at zero, but then they started doing it, and realized “Hey, I remember how to introduce myself, talk about the weather, etc.”. My test? Truly zero. I retained none of my elementary school french. But I was still barely within the time limit, so I could start at the beginning, Bloc 1.
Lots of people would be thrilled with being approved for language training, but I started in January of 1998, coming off two of the worst years of my life. Professionally things were going well, but I was a personal mess, partly because my father died in the fall of ’96. Most of the grief process was kept at bay when I was busy, but when things quieted down, and I had time to reflect, I missed him a lot. Other stuff was wreaking havoc with my psyche, some by choice, some by timing, but I really wasn’t in the right frame of mind to be sitting navel gazing for 7 hours a day at a language school. Yet off I went.
Here’s something else you need to understand, if you’ve never experienced learning as an adult something new as complex as a language. It’s not the same as just learning in university. I was always an awesome student, breezed through the last part of high school and my undergrad, struggled at law school, but back on top in my Master’s work. So I was used to being good at learning. Apparently I’m not good at learning when it comes to actually learning from someone else. It became really clear that (a) languages are meant to be learned from someone else, an interactive process where the other person is really important to the learning, and (b) that I’m not that kind of learner, having learned most of my stuff from my academic studies from my own reading, not a download from the professors and teachers. So I struggled.
It was almost the perfect storm for bad learning, in my respects. First, I wasn’t good at learning from others, and I had no idea how to learn to do that as an adult. I was almost learning how to learn again. Second, I wasn’t particularly gifted at languages, and I really didn’t enjoy it. Third, I wasn’t in a very good upbeat head space. Fourth, I was at Asticou, the PSC’s official language school.
There are generally two stories about people who went to Asticou — one, the story of a friend of mine who liked languages, got in with a group of DFAITers talking about the issues of the day, was in a group with others who were good at learning languages or at least a strong aptitude and thus could move quickly through some of the basics. Two, those who went to Asticou, thought it was akin to prison life, dreaded it, survived it, and eventually got the heck out. Guess which story is mine?
Yes, you guessed correctly. The daily grind wore me down, the perfect storm sapping my energy quickly. Forget the fact that I needed the levels to remain employed, i.e. no stress (!), but it’s basically going to do something every day, not being good at it, and being told “Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.”. The only thing that kept me going was that I wasn’t the only one struggling. We were all dealing with the same struggle. Some who had some french before, but which erased after about Bloc 3 or 4 (the learning was in Blocs 1-15 to get to B levels). Some of the teachers were awesome, and made it fun. Others were like Nurse Ratchet.
I remember one in particular, Gemma. She was horrible. I was really struggling the one day with one of the exercises. I had been at it for about 5 months at this point, we were listening to a cassette recording of one of the lessons, and the job was basically to listen to the phrases and then “fill in the blank” based on what was said. Relatively easy, if you weren’t really struggling. So we went around the room, and people took their best shot. Some got it, some didn’t. When it came to me, I had no idea what words to put in the blank. The recording was lousy, it was 20 feet away, I was really struggling even to hear it, and so instead, I was following along with the transcript in the back. Trying to train my ear to hear the language and understand it. Even that was taxing me.
So the first time by, I said, “I’m just reading as we go”, and basically to skip me. The second time it came to me, I expected her to skip me, so I gave sort of a shrug. I was embarrassed, I was frustrated, but I couldn’t do the exercise. Her response? She said, “That’s okay, go back to sleep.”
Let me pause here for a moment. Ask yourself if the above description to this point sounds like I would respond well to this. I did not. I basically said, “Excuse me?”. The tone was clear to everyone else in the room that the temperature had dropped 20 degrees, but not to her, she just repeated it. I stopped her there, and said, “No, I don’t think you understand how offensive that was. I am really struggling here, trying my best, not sleeping, and it is beyond frustrating. And your ridiculously unprofessional attitude doesn’t help.”
I left the room and went to speak to the director of the school. I waited to speak to him, shut the door, and said, “Normally I try to struggle through conversations with you in French, but that is not what I’m going to do now. I’m going to be crystal clear with what I have to say.” I told him the story, along with some other examples where she had been incredibly demoralizing for the other students as well. His response was basically that he knew she sucked, but there was absolutely nothing he could do about it because she was active in the union and his hands were tied. I informed him that the day would be my last in her class and he could find another solution, or I would have my department handle the problem — we were paying way too much money for me to be at the school with that level of support.
Meanwhile, the teacher had been a bit shocked at my departure from the class, and the rest of the students had to explain to her that I was justifiably pissed off. Two of the other students spoke to the school director, and there was miraculously a rotation in the assigned teachers. I’d like to take full credit for that, but it was actually time for them to reassess people anyway — putting some of the “faster” learners together and putting the “slower” ones together too. She ended up with the faster ones, I was with a much better teacher with the slower ones. Along with some people who were facing the same challenges as me.
As we entered our seventh ring of hell, errr, seventh month of training, they said, “Good news, time for your tests!”. We were ready for the reading test, and even the written more or less. I aced the reading (an exemption i.e. the level that says you never have to be tested again for that one), and passed the written (a mid-range “B” level which is intermediate level, and the level I needed for work).
But we were all struggling with our oral abilities. We couldn’t figure out why we were being tested, it made no sense. Most of us in the “slower” group were not doing the ideal student routine. We weren’t watching french TV, we weren’t listening to french radio, we hadn’t gotten french boyfriends or girlfriends, we weren’t spending extra time at night studying. We were barely making it through the day, and by the end, we were mentally exhausted. Three of the people in my class had kids, one of them with young ones with health issues. I have no idea how they were even on their feet some days. My psyche was starting to spin a bit out of control for other reasons, but french wasn’t helping. An entire day spent hearing all your errors is not conducive to a strong positive ego.
I am doing a series of articles on the book “Rethinking Canadian Aid” (University of Ottawa Press, 2015), and now it’s time for “Chapter 17: Conclusion: Rethinking Canadian Development Cooperation — Towards Renewed Partnerships?” by David R. Black, Stephen Brown and Molly den Heyer as the three editors. Their conclusion, and the title of the book, is that things are a-changing when it comes to Canadian aid, and whether it is under Harper’s governance or over a longer time period, it is time to rethink Canadian aid as a result. Except I don’t think that is the conclusion I get from a more critical review of the text. Bear in mind that I am not reading it as an academic, I’m reading and critiquing it from the perspective of a manager — does it hold any resonance for me, does it identify the key factors at play, does it ring true? Generally, no. Noting, of course, it wasn’t written for the likes of me.
Note too that I am not disagreeing with their conclusion i.e. that aid partnerships might benefit from a re-think in terms of foundations, international partnerships, partnerships with Canadian stakeholders and intra-governmental partnerships, but rather that this book doesn’t provide the evidence to get us there.
Their main argument is that “aid in Canada has shifted”, either overtime or under the recent Conservative government. In terms of principles, they argue that humane goals (i.e. altruism) have been replaced by self-interested goals (i.e. commercial trade goals). This shows up through the book — introduction, chapters 1, 4, 7, 9, 15 and 16. The sub-argument is that power has shifted, tied aid has gone down but private sector trade interests have gone up. Equally, they argue that specific policies around humanitarian aid (chapter 2), use of force (chapters 8, 13, & 14), gender equality (chapter 11), and Children-in-Development have all turned toward poorer development outcomes. Combined with changed management for whole-of-government approaches and a focus on aid effectiveness (introduction, chapter 1), the conclusion is that principles + policy + management have changed for the worse, and it is time to rethink Canadian aid.
Except, as I said above and my critique of each chapter, I’m not convinced the lines of evidence are there. When it comes to principles, the argument is that it is no longer about humane goals and only about trade — yet Swiss kicks that argument to the curb really well in Chapter 6. Reality backed by hardcore stats, not spin supported by anecdotes and rhetoric.
For policies, some of the analysis is decent but focused on such small sample sizes that even a first-year statistics student could tell you that they were statistically insignificant. Decent premises, but with few facts other than anecdotes, combined with projects representing a tenth of a percent of the overall budget. Pick a different set of projects and you would see “no change” at all.
For management, it is argued that it represents a wholesale change to new factors, but the same factors have always been there. Not as prominently discussed, but equally present. Results, data, short-term focus over long-term focus. Nothing new for CIDA or development pressures. And, more importantly, equally present in domestic organizations as well. The push for clearly demonstrable short-term results is not driven by aid effectiveness changes but rather by the current government’s overall approach to measuring results in any organization. The real question is if this produces a real difference for CIDA, or just run of the mill adaptation.
I think the book could have come to the right lines of evidence if they had tackled slightly different questions. First and foremost, they should have asked “what is development”, both in terms of what it means to Canadians as well as what it means in aid circles. For example, private sector development is a popular target for NGOs who argue that it shouldn’t be done and by the private sector who argues that governments can’t do it. Yet PSD is one of the few avenues that will generate new resources to sustain development gains. New monies have to go into the country, and since aid isn’t sustainable, it has to be the private sector that generates it in the long term. Like through trade. This isn’t to say everyone should do everything possible related to trade and call it development, but rather that a thorough examination of the types of PSD projects and their likelihood of producing strong development results would be a good basis for further analysis. If you want to conclude that Canada is doing it wrong, it would help to first establish that projects of Type A are generally good and projects of Type B are usually less effective and that as a result of ties to Canadian business, ask if Canada is now doing more type B than type A. That analytical framework would work for any of the sub-policies, but you need to show the framework rather than assume the outcomes and cherry-pick projects that support your premise.
Equally, however, if people want to say a “whole-of-government” policy is bad for development, presumably they mean it produces either the wrong results or at least less effective results than other purer policies. Great, if that is true, it should be easy to show which ones work better, why, how they produce better results, and then, to apply to the Canadian context, show how Canada is now choosing less effective projects. Except none of the articles in the book can meet that bar. Instead, it uses rhetoric and spin to say “better to do it another way, worse to do it this way” (with no evidence) and then say “see, they’re doing it the wrong way”.
Finally, if they want to rethink aid, I would expect them to talk about the other things that affect development and don’t get much attention normally. Things like migration, remittances, investment (as mentioned in Chapter 1 briefly). Or redistributive politics within a country (like the BRICs).
If I had evidence of THAT, I might agree there is a need to rethink Canadian aid. But if the principles haven’t changed allocations (as per Swiss), if the policies only change for minor levels of investment or with only anecdotal projects, and if management focus for government changed rather than aid management itself changing, then I think a different measuring stick is needed. I had hoped this book would be it, but it wasn’t. Maybe it never intended to be.
I am doing a series of articles on the book “Rethinking Canadian Aid” (University of Ottawa Press, 2015), and now it’s time for “Chapter 16: Undermining Foreign Aid: The Extractive Sector and the Recommercialization of Canadian Development Assistance” by Stephen Brown. In the words of the author, “This chapter argues that the new initiative [of funding mining projects] was emblematic of a new turn in Canadian development assistance — namely, the explicit recommercialization of aid. Canadian trade interests have always underpinned Canadian aid to a certain extent (Morrison 1998). However, a clear trend in the 2000s, under Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, and the Stephen Harper minority government, had been to move away from commercial self-interest.”
As I started the chapter, I suspected I was going to have a problem with the thesis. In short, I don’t think it’s true, not even in the sense that it could be part of a trend — I disagree that it is commercialization let alone re-commercialization, nor do I think it is part of a trend as Brown sees it. But I was interested to see his lines of evidence. Even more so when he raises the bar so high: “Though undoubtedly some benefits will accrue to poor people in developing countries, the emphasis on extractives is an ineffective and potentially illegal use of ODA funds that will benefit wealthy mining companies more.“
Let’s start first with the argument that funding labour market training is a subsidy. I’m honestly not sure where to begin…perhaps with the fact that the WTO, which is kind of interested in anything remotely looking like a subsidy, says it is not a subsidy and never has been. Trust me, they looked at Japan’s funding of telecoms in Asia in the 90s and later, with their aid budget, and in a far more direct manner than here, and it wasn’t a subsidy then, so even less so now.
Or maybe I’ll start with the ILO and various labour agreements that require developed countries to help develop the local labour force. Or maybe I’ll look domestically at every donor in the world that has an equivalent labour market training program aimed at their own economy, providing the basis for much of GDP growth. Or maybe I’ll look at the fact that technical or vocational training has always been considered “dirty” in elitist aid circles particularly for academics, preferring instead to argue in favour of high-tech tertiary education or basic education, unless it looks like micro-credit for a ditch-digger to buy a shovel.
Or maybe I’ll start by pointing out that the approach (LM training) either stands on its own or doesn’t, is a subsidy or not, regardless of whether a Canadian company or NGO hires them or not. It’s either an acceptable effective aid technique or not, and the OECD gurus who look at best practices say it is. Exactly the same as for domestic labour markets in every other country in the world — training for the jobs that are available, not the ones the academics think are sexy or palatable. Training + job = wages and a chance at sustainable development. The presence of the Canadian company may make it look opportunistic, or even self-serving, but that colourizing doesn’t make it a subsidy.
The next point I really like is that the CSR projects were joint NGO/company/CIDA partnerships, but this was terrible apparently. Brown suggests instead, that as with some other projects, the company could and should have just contracted with the NGO themselves, and there was no need for CIDA funding. It’s a good argument, as long as you don’t poke at it a bit.
Like the fact that he’s right about other experience with this type of approach, particularly for environmental groups working in developed countries (and noted later for the headaches with the extractive industry abroad). What did they find? The NGOs, academics, critics everywhere came to the conclusion that when the private company contracted directly with the NGOs, it was just their attempt to put lipstick on a pig. Instead of a real partnership, NGOs felt a power imbalance and that the company was in charge. So they came up with a possible solution. Rather than it just being the NGO and the company, they would involve a third party to help balance out the power. Like a government partner, one not driven by the bottom-line (the company) or only having goals without accountability (NGOs). Depending on the developed country’s situation, and governance situation, the “best practice” was to include a local government or a national government, or both. In developing countries, the local and national governments are often quite weak and suspected of being corrupt — so the NGOs wanted an outside, trustworthy partner. Like a donor. So Canada, through CIDA, followed the best practice, but this apparently is evidence that they are in the company’s pocket? It must be nice to be an academic with a slippery sense of accountability for your rhetoric to say “It’s bad if you do and bad if you don’t”, either way, you get to publish something critical I suppose.
But I’m a real-world manager, not an academic. And I kind of think it’s probably better to follow the NGOs’ own best practices and be involved rather than not. I really like how it’s terrible that the company is getting money in one paragraph to do the project, and in the next, saying “no, the NGOs are doing the projects”. Does that mean the NGOs, who are also funding the project, are subsidizing the company too? I’m seriously confused by the logic chain for this argument. Then it gets really confused — it’s terrible, but then he states “The mining companies’ inputs are mainly financial and the projects themselves do not differ substantively from traditional aid projects” and that there are almost no funds from CIDA at all (minuscule budget). WTF? Whose argument was he trying to make?
Sarcasm aside, I do give him a nod that “The reasons CIDA has promoted these partnerships are unclear” and that “there is insufficient coordination among the various parties in explaining the initiative’s nature and rationale to the Canadian public. Many actors involved may also lack an understanding of the issues, or even lack competence in public relations.” It’s a very important point, albeit not in the negative way Brown portrays it. Absolutely true. That’s why they are called “pilot projects” and they are only a small amount of money. Because it is not a tried and true approach for CIDA, they are dipping their toes in to respond to the private sector, NGO and local recipient demand, and are not going to be definitive at day one.
Do you know what else started like that? AIDS projects. There were groups advocating that treating AIDS was just a waste of money and that donors should have let them die and focused their resources on the living. Farther back, basic education was considered a waste of money initially — focus on the adults and get the immediate bang for your donor dollar, not wait 20 years for basic education investments to kick in. Bed nets. Landmine removal. All of them started with pilot projects that were vague and ambiguous about their development goals, nature and rationale. 10 years afterwards, there was a lot to say based on those pilot projects — if only to say in some cases that they didn’t work. Even on a bureaucratic level, you don’t spend millions of dollars on consultations and policy development to give guidance to 0.1% of your budget. However, Brown is right to raise it as an issue — because it is pretty good evidence of where more work is needed, and where interest will lie in the future in figuring out what works or not, as opposed to focusing attention on whether doing it represents a complete reorientation of the entire aid budget. And while Brown seems to think the evidence is “already in” (citing the hyperbole of some of the other chapters), most of it is rhetoric without any real comparative evidence. That’s what is really needed, and the reality is it will only come with pilot projects.
Going back to the roles and interests of the mining companies, Brown has several paragraphs of why different groups have an interest and what role they might play. I’m really disappointed with this section as it could be a much larger piece and talk intelligently about the struggles in the types of projects. It’s a good summary, just too brief.
I was surprised when I reached the end of the chapter, as there was nothing else about “illegal use” of funds (which was a huge bar to meet), nor about how it fits into a broader supposed trend of commercialization and self-interest (which Swiss kicked to the curb in an earlier chapter — while others might be forgiven for not knowing that piece was there in the book, Brown is one of the editors!).
Let’s look at how it could be “illegal use” of aid funds. There are five ways it could be “illegal”, although one is more “not right”, than illegal. First, as discussed above, it could be a subsidy under WTO rules (Brown sometimes uses the term above in a more generic layman sense, but that is like saying paying for someone’s lunch is subsidizing their lifestyle — a generic sense doesn’t rise to the level of what a subsidy means legally). The WTO has looked at these types of expenditures ad nauseum. Everyone hates subsidies, but some generic subsidy-like behaviour is allowable without it being a legal subsidy. These ones are not subsidies and therefore are not illegal as per WTO rules or trade agreements.
A second option could be if it violated a human rights tenet somehow; not only is there no evidence of that, it actually goes to expand human rights, giving some a voice they would not have had earlier and taking the edge off pure capitalism. Some might think it is lipstick on a pig, but it’s not illegal.
A third option would be domestic bid-rigging. If Canada said to country X, we’ll give you more aid money if you give Canadian company A the contract rather than Canadian company B, company B would have a valid complaint against the government that it illegally gave an unfair advantage to one Canadian company over another. No evidence of that, however.
A fourth option would be international bid-rigging. If Canada said to country X, we’re thinking of funding an aid project if you hire a Canadian company to do your extractive work (kind of quid-pro-quo-tied-aid policy, or extortion), you would think that would violate some law somewhere. It doesn’t. In fact, most countries have a different word for it. Trade. Or diplomacy, depending on who is doing the talking. Brown hints that there is evidence of this, that Canada promised more aid if the company got to mine locally, but there is nothing illegal about this. The aid isn’t a bribe going into someone’s pocket. It still might be unethical to some, or good diplomacy to others, but nothing illegal about it.
A fifth and final possibility would be if Canada was funding a purely commercial project with no aid benefit with aid money and claiming it as ODA. You would also be apt to think this was illegal somehow, but it’s not. Canada funds projects out of the international assistance envelope which funds lots of international organizations as well as some of Canada’s operations abroad. Not all of it is development. So there is no restriction on the envelope that says it is only for ODA-eligible aid — all assistance comes out of that envelope. So nothing illegal about the source of funds. After the fact, Canada calculates whether the project was ODAable or not, and reports it to the OECD. The OECD may or may not agree with our classification. If they don’t, they will deduct it from our reportable stats. Again, not illegal, just not “right”. If this is confusing, look at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. We make an assessed contribution each year, based on a share of the approved budget of the FAO. But the FAO is not only about development. There’s a really complicated methodology that is periodically reviewed by the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee that estimates the FAO’s work is about 50% for the benefit of developing countries (a requirement to be ODA) and 50% is for the benefit of developed countries (such as food safety). So, if Canada’s assessed contribution in a given year is $10M, then $10M will come out of the International Assistance Envelope (IAE) with $5M being recorded as ODA. The fact that the other $5M is not “aid” yet is coming out of the IAE doesn’t make it illegal but it would be wrong to record $10M as ODA-eligible when we submitted our stats to the OECD.
I also want to address Brown’s suggestion that Canada’s tied aid policy, and specifically food aid, was changed to make Canada more “pure”. It wasn’t, particularly not for food aid. There are three huge problems with food aid — domestic oversupply, transportation costs, and expiry dates.
In Canada, there are specific sectors where we have an overabundance of production. I won’t go into specifics, but we do (it can be easily looked up, we get complaints about it at the WTO all the time). If we were to just dump it on the market, it would reduce prices and undercut production capacity. So we want to give away some of our excess, but the producers want some compensation for their costs in producing it. Food aid money seems like a perfect fit, right? Paying producers to grow food for developing countries who need food.
Except it costs a LOT of money to ship it. Extremely inefficient. Plus there are expiry dates by which some of it is unusable. In terms of efficiency, it makes a lot more sense to just give the money to someone like the World Food Programme, have them find a food source as close as possible to the need, and purchase it there. Plus, if it happens to be a neighbouring developing country, the other developing country gets the benefit of the purchase while the recipient gets the food (a double benefit). While much more complex, this is not unlike food banks preferring to get cash donations rather than food donations — they can stretch cash farther with discount purchases, lower their transport and storage fees = more people served. While we may have sung and danced about untied aid, the food aid was the most egregious form of it, not only for inefficiencies and potential ineffectiveness, it was also just straight out a pain in the patootie to manage. Now they can just write cheques, for the most part, no muss, no fuss. The change was more logistical than philosophical.
In the end, I expected and hoped for more, given the high initial bar. Unfortunately, the evidence just wasn’t there.