Country of Focus – IAR submission

IAR Submission: John Sinclair

Subject: Focus: core recommendations… and some key footnotes.

  • focus country selection should be overwhelmingly driven by pro-poor, UN Agenda 2030 policy criteria, not residual drivers from Harper-era commercial/ political motivation (e.g. Colombia and Mongolia)


  • focus at the country level is sound policy in development effectiveness terms. For a meaningful ODA presence and significant policy influence, a critical mass of presence, financial and human, is needed. With a likely fixed ODA budget pool, too many priority countries means sub-optimal impact, developmental and in terms of partnership credibility. [1]This might be in 2016 terms perhaps an annual[2] budget of say $50m or maybe more for a very vulnerable LDC/fragile state like Haiti or an Ethiopia. . We are a small donor and for impact we need a sustained, substantive presence, including decentralised Canadian development cooperation staff.  An optimal number of focus/core countries, based upon Canadian policy considerations, and also best practice as displayed by similarly-minded bilateral donors (notably Nordics, UK, Dutch), might be say 15-20 countries. PM Harper increased the number from 20 to 25, perhaps to give the impression of being more generous, but of course with a fixed overall budget each of them received less ODA.  He also chose to drop some small but very poor African LDCs which offered no ‘geopolitical’ gains.


  • Good focused development programing needs to be built around a professionally strong and empowered decentralised programming team. Canada is somewhat a laggard[3] in this approach compared to most of our peers. But this is the basis of a healthy collegial relationship with any focus country.


  • Under a new focus policy, a small number (10-15) of ‘other’ 2nd tier aid presence countries might be identified and provided with modest levels of bilateral aid for reasons of historic or other linkages, e.g. such to complete ongoing multi-year commitments. Of note, this has been the key political rationale for a special regional programme with the Caribbean.


  • One concern on focus expressed by some (e.g. CSOs, academics) is that it risks us neglecting a class of usually smaller, resource–poor countries, so-called ‘orphans’, who have no special political friends or strategic interest to big powers or other major donors. These critics suggest that a mid-sized donor like Canada might specifically focus on such countries as a sign of its ‘empathy’ – give more aid to a few relatively under-aided countries. A superior approach to the ‘orphan country’ problem is by recognising the greater effectiveness of multilateral entities such as UN agencies like UNDP and MFIs like the ADB). They are best placed to get aid to possible ‘orphan’ countries. Ensuring orphan countries are not forgotten should certainly be a responsibility for sympathetic bilaterals such as Canada, but not by direct management, but rather by using our position on the executive boards of multilateral entities to insist that they allocate money[4] /effort in this way. This means that support for ‘orphans’ is spread across the whole donor community, perhaps requiring better, increase core funding of such as UNDP or the ADB. The rare exception for a direct role might be where Canada has special historical ties, such as to the Caribbean and some other small Commonwealth countries, but these countries are not orphans but actually receive higher than average aid per capita.


  • To build solid partnership relations and provide predictable[5] resource transfers, a Canadian list of focus countries should be reviewed no more than once every four years/on a change of government, with a strong predisposition to continuity if the country is still low-income/LDC/fragile country. Their annual budget should be based upon commitments[6] under a mutually agreed multi-year framework.  Our programming should be based upon a mutually agreed programming framework, a partnership agreement with the recipient government. [ We might seek to encourage a role for their CSOs/local think-tanks in designing that framework.]


  • firm and transparent selection criteria aligned with ODAA Act principles should apply. Focus Countries selected should be predominantly (75-80%) low-income/least developed and fragile states (g7+), We should eliminate commercial or political weight in their selection.


  • Focus is not just a list of countries, but should involve a complementary concentration of GAC financial/ODA and human resources in designing and delivering programs. Optimally 80% of bilateral ODA might be devoted to focus countries and 80% of that go to low-income LDCs/fragiles.


  • Thematic focus (e.g. MNCH) is a distinct policy issue and best dealt with separately. The best practice consensus, to which Canada has always signed up, is the Paris Declaration mantra of ‘country ownership’. Canada should not be trying to impose its policy priorities on countries, exploiting the vulnerability of the poorest countries. Agenda 2030 reiterates the message of country ownership, indicating that each recipient should set the tone and content of the development relationship. We, of course, via our hopefully improved programming dialogue and decentralisation, will be close enough to them to convincingly share many of our most important insights and make them aware of our special competences. But that is fundamentally different from arriving with our plan in hand for running their The latter is old-fashioned neo-colonialism and should be passé in a quality partnership[7].


  • Focus countries would also be prime Canadian candidates for important non-aid policies such as trade preferences, investment, educational partnerships, etc. This is more true now than ever in a world where we see successfully developing LDCs and MICs as important longer-term trading and investment partners. It also makes good sense in a Canadian government that see major synergy gains from a whole of government



John Sinclair – Aug 2016

[1] A realistic target might be to be say the 5th largest donor to the LDCs/fragiles in our revised list of priority countries within next 2 years – it takes time to develop new programming, especially in these countries with their weaker absorptive capacity. We will need in parallel to new funding, to upgrade our field presence by greater decentralisation.

[2] Recall that a typical aid project in today’s world where programmatic aid is the developmental optimum, may have a multi-year budget of $100m.  [for large IFIs the optimum size for a 4-5 year project might be $300-500m]. The old style $10m CIDA project is not something any but the poorest of developing country governments would welcome as optimal. That size is closer to a large NGO project, a good vehicle for piloting but likely to have limited direct national impact/relevance/ substantial bureaucratic overhead costs to both donor and recipient.

[3] A major impediment to decentralization can be the discomfort that senior management in CIDA/GAC feel at having important decisions effectively taken closer to the client than to the DM or Minister. This was always a false excuse; a Minister’s input is optimally strategic, not micro-detail.  This concern is even less justified now with internet and video conferencing. The World Bank is decentralized almost everywhere now since the late-90s, after resisting board members like Canada for years. Decentralisation is inevitably modestly more expensive but there are major gains in quality, trust and effectiveness. [ click above link to separate blog]

[4] we need in parallel to ensure they have the incremental core ODA funding to carry out this task… and Canada needs to drastically reduce its past practice of ear-marking fund allocation in the UN and the IFIs

[5] Predictability is a key topic for aid-dependent LDCs. Their budget situation is often very fragile, even without a global crisis. Their programming for basic services like education and health is often very dependent on a steady flow of core funding from several donors. It is a difficult balancing act for the finance minister of a typical LDC.

[6] See separate IAR submission by John Sinclair entitled ‘A new GAC programming style for LDCs’. Our own formally one-year budget cycle does not forbid multi-year commitments.  In Canada we plan domestically on a multi-year basis with no problems and aid is a tiny % of any Canadian federal budget. If we have a financial crisis, no LDC is going to sue us for breach of contract, indeed we will likely be all getting together in the G20 for a global recovery plan. For many years CIDA had multi-year planning framework (IPFs, Indicative Planning Frameworks). These were usually shared with recipients so that they know for several years what financial support they could expect … and put into their budget planning framework. It is easy and indeed more strategic for a cabinet, theirs and ours, to plan on that basis.  It and creates stability in our own country programming and IAE budgeting.

[7] In a world where Canada is seeking broad relationship/partnerships for non-development reasons such as support via votes for a UN Security Council seat, we need trusting, respectful relationships with developing countries. Bullying is bad practice and we do not even have the relative strength to succeed in this unCanadian role.


Programming for LDCs – IAR submission

IAR Submission: John Sinclair Aug 11/2016. filed under Journalism

Subject: A new GAC programming style for Least Developed Countries (LDCs)

This submission focuses on how we might better deliver Agenda 2030 in the field. Effective implementation of Agenda 2030 will require enhancements to our traditional programming approaches. These will be not just for the core pro-poor focus of Agenda’s SDGs but also because we now better understand the importance of partnerships for effective delivery. It will focus on a new generation of multi-stakeholder bilateral aid, something which became somewhat neglected in the Harper years.

The submission also recognises a key new reality of the last decade. Recipient partners, even LDCs and fragiles, are no longer passive, but rather determined masters of their own development agendas. They are almost all better governed, with more demanding citizens, than when back in 2005, the Paris Declaration Principles on ‘country ownership’ / ’country in the driver’s seat’ were agreed.

As context to my thinking I am including below hyperlinks to two recent submissions to the IAR:[ these files are elsewhere on this website .js]
¬ Is Canada ready to be a better development cooperation partner? OpenCanada. July 6/2016.
¬ Decentralisation. An instrument of choice. July 2016
Also you might explore other contextual papers on my personal website:

Some key premises:

¬ Canada/GAC will be anxious in the light of the more intense international focus on the poorest under Agenda 2030 to be seen to be taking early steps to commit new funds for programming for LDCs and fragile countries (fragiles comprise almost half of all UN listed LDCs).
o The world’s poorest people largely live in LDCs, overwhelmingly in Africa and South Asia. Over the next decade, the world’s poorest people will be increasingly concentrated in LDCs.
o While there are significant pockets of the poorest in some LMICs, these are mainly in China and India (300m!) where the solutions lie in tackling their internal inequality. This is no argument for them or other MICs being considered as priorities for scarce Canadian bilateral aid.
¬ The list of priority countries will need to be revisited in a post-consultations presentation to Cabinet. My no-brainer for that review is to recommend immediate action to increase Canadian aid for LDCs. Canada should plan now to allocate them most — say 80 percent — of our bilateral ODA, even if it is only formally announced in Budget 2017. A new priority country list is needed which should be overwhelmingly LDCs by number. Of course there will be issues of absorptive capacity, but that is precisely why LDCs should be our future priority and why enhanced decentralisation, offering closer knowledge of LDC needs, will be an important part of the implementation strategy.

¬ Canada as part of being ‘back’ should commit in Budget 2017 to meet the UN’s LDC aid target of 0.15% of GNI. The same budget statement could propose a steady increases in ODA levels over this Parliament’s life close to the peak, obviously judged affordable, under another Trudeau back in 1975, namely 0.54% of GNI. Finally, even if only stated aspirationally, we should indicate our approach to reaching the core UN 0.7 percent target ‘invented’ by Lester Pearson.

¬ Our new approach needs to offer stability. Predictability in this uncertain world has become a very attractive asset. Our multi-year aid budget framework, with its International Assistance Envelope (IAE), needs to transparently provide a three- or better four-year budget planning framework for each priority country.. This would not be legally binding for Canada if we have a fiscal crisis. However, this would be an important reassurance to a recipient LDC.

Enhanced bilateral programming:

As noted in my reference paper, I believe that our future as an effective donor will demand a much stronger emphasis on being a good partner. Partnership is the new ‘norm’ in global debate. An enhanced development cooperation partnership would also be seen as a key entry point to developing the longer-term partnerships we will be seeking as a trading nation with these same countries in a few years’ time.

Donors will increasingly be acting in a responsive mode, working within priorities set by the recipient government. It will not be for Canada to tell a Rwanda or a Bangladesh how they should do ‘development’. We do not have, unlike countries like the US, UK or French, a history of being a bully. But we have been too often guilty of paternalism which undermines the maturing of developing country governments. If we want to insist on particular priorities that do not fit within their national plan or their SDG targets, we should expect to need convincing arguments or local supporters.

The ground-rules for shaping bilateral aid have changed substantially over the last decade or so. Canada has, perhaps sometimes reluctantly, followed the trend to programmatic modes in a few key recipient countries where the majority of other donors were already using thematic approaches of multi-donor SWAps [e.g. the $ 1 billion plus health Swap or sector–wide approach in Bangladesh] and/or working within JASs [ Joint Assistance Strategy].

This world will be even more the norm in future. There will be little or no space, certainly limited policy influence, for a middle-sized donor which chooses to deliver its bilateral programming via small $2-4 million projects essentially like an NGO. We have pumped money by the $ hundred millions into thematic health mechanism like the Global Fund, but if we want to influence health policy, say to ensure gender equity goals in access, in a Tanzania, we will need to partner with the Nordics, the Brits and Germans in that country’s Health Systems SWAp.

So how do we proceed?

First we need to build up our local professional presence. As the reference document on decentralisation notes, GAC senior management must assure that this team, based in our embassy are seen by their peers, as strong professionals under a senior manager, with substantial delegated authority. One of the worse failing for a donor working in partnership mode is if its senior representative on the ground is not seen as trusted by his/her own HQ to take shared decisions within the local dialogue framework.

For me, based on my many years of practical experience in Egypt, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, complementary to that core Canadian presence should be a Project Support Unit (PSU). This is a small contracted team of local /national professionals who provide specialised technical skills and, often most valuable, local contacts who can guide one through the particularities of local politics and government practices. These are cheap options, especially when compared to paying to flying a Canadian across the world to a two-day meeting.

But any CIDA insider will know PSUs are a much criticised mechanisms. TB says the contracts are inconsistent with TB rules [rules designed for projects in downtown Kanata.]. HQ-based professionals, who are unwilling to go and live in a Cairo, say the PSU staff are ‘stealing’ all the interesting work… and do not have Canadian degrees, only several decades of local experience and a PhD from the Sorbonne. And, dare I say it, Ambassadors are sometimes jealous at the privileged contacts that the development team ‘gains’ through the PSU.

Second, we need to reach understandings with our partners, most critically the host government, but also other donors and CSOs, on what indeed are the development priorities that the partnerships need to support. These will be increasingly framed by the priorities the country set for its approach/main targets under Agenda 2030. This is just the process that Canada must also now follow for itself under the Universality principle of the Agenda.

We should be starting now under the IAR to reshape the priorities we chose for ourselves. In partnership mode they should not just be our preferences, but also programming directions that we know are shared with likely partners, both priority recipients and other donors.

We should also recognise that we will be somewhat in catch-up mode. This can be a plus. We can avoid the mistakes of others. We can be open to possible new partners. In my reference paper I ask whether we would be ready to boldly work with Cuba and Brazil on a health programme for an African country.

The Canadian – Country X Development Partnership Strategy:

Canada/CIDA (as other donors) has a long history of planning its development cooperation on a multi-year thematic basis. These country strategies have had many names over the years, but a new approach for a priority list of mainly LDCs will be largely a fresh start. This strategy would be a joint partnership product, not something that in the past would have been just for ourselves. Often these strategies were never shared with the partner country or published for Canadians to see.

Let’s call the new product a Canada – Country X Development Partnership Strategy (DPS]. This new partnership strategy would be framed around the country’s national development plan, something designed to meet Agenda 2030 goals, notably that for poverty elimination, but customized to the country situation. Canadians will need to revisit their own views on development priorities in light of analyzing what Agenda 2030 means for ourselves

These new DPSs may take several rounds of dialogue between partners to be concluded. The DPS will need to first respect the recipient country’s development situation and policy priorities, then examine how our own technical capabilities and policy preferences best fit. Moreover, if the developing country has a Joint Assistance Strategy (JAS) in place with its many other donors, those perspectives will need to be recognised by the new Canadian DPS.

Only when much of this vital groundwork is done will we get into the real world of delivering aid. Projects and programmes take time to become operational. In our clunky, inflexible, paperwork-heavy Canadian bureaucratic world a small project can easily take 12-18 month before anything happens on the ground.

This description, especially for the unfamiliar, can seem daunting. It should make it clear why development cooperation programming needs to be well-rooted in trusting, sustained partnerships. For Canada to be truly ‘back’, it needs to be preparing now, (to be frank, several months ago), for this major effort, just as we are insisting the UN does for its share in implementing Agenda 2030 under the heading ‘Fit for Purpose’. GAC will need new human resources, experienced hands. We need to rebuild our friendships with other donors and start exploring the possibilities of working with totally new ones.

Can GAC be ready by November to launch a first ‘test’ wave of a dozen new joint development strategies?