Thursday, 5 July 2012

O Canada, you give with glowing hearts

Back in the 1970s when a committee was appointed to investigate how Australian agricultural research could be deployed in the aid program, one model was seen as being suitable – Canada’s International Development Research Centre

It shouldn’t surprise that both Canada and Australia want to contribute aid, and have been giving back to those less fortunate for some time. Both countries share similar heritages (established under British rule during the days of Empire), and similar places in the world (developed, middle power countries).

3 minute video: Australian's commenting on our expenditure on foreign aid, World Vision Australia.
I was in Canada at the end of 2010 and was surprised by the extent of media coverage around foreign aid and people giving something back. Pleasantly surprised, because the coverage was largely positive and focused on achievements and outcomes. And not the flow of dollars.

One series of articles focused on rebuilding efforts in Pakistan, following the 2005 earthquake. A feature of this coverage was how foreign aid had changed perceptions in Pakistan of those delivering aid for the better.

Another article focused on the number of small philanthropic organisations – some 4866 holding about C$12.6 billion in assets – started by people in place of contributing to NGOs. This sector is growing, and is part of a broad reshaping of the aid environment.

A key part of the reshaping of the aid environment is the divergence of views on what constitutes good aid, and what needs to be done to ‘fix’ the problems of development.

From debt cancellation to stopping all but emergency aid, or relying on market forces or criticising market forces, there are plenty of ideas on how to accelerate development and end poverty.

The merits of each are for individuals to decide – perhaps after a bit of research and thought.

Where that leads is an interesting journey, that may end with a view that one solution does not work across all situations.

Take the fistula hospital operated by Catherine Hamlin in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The issue – of women developing a fistula during extended child-birth, and then being ostracised by their villages – goes beyond debt cancellation which will not help those women. Emergency aid does not help, nor can the market be relied on.

What has helped is a strategic and focussed intervention, linking medical expertise, training and compassion to the issue. It is a particular situation where that approach fits.

Canadian Flag, Spatial Mongrel CC BY
Flag flap, Spatial Mongrel CC BY 2.0
The two themes covered in the Canadian press offer two very different viewpoints. The first is the response to a major disaster, an earthquake, and the value of aid deployment that follows. Such crises garner the major proportion of media attention, and usually attract high levels of giving. The Boxing Day tsunami is another example, with Australians responding by making donations to multiple funds.

These funds go to immediate needs first, and to longer-term rebuilding second, as that is what is demanded. The second article, on the rise of small philanthropic responses demonstrates how those willing to get involved focus on one issue – building a school, working with children with HIV/AIDS, or playgrounds in Afghanistan. 

ACIAR’s model, borrowing and building on the Canadian IDRC is an example of how a tailored approach works, in our case for agricultural research. Since we started in 1982 we have focused our projects on areas of priority. 

This continues today, even as the broader environment changes. We continue to refine the model, to fit those changes, and will work to ensure that we deliver strategic interventions into the future.

Warren Page, ACIAR Communications Manager

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