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Canada’s humanitarian aid in the Americas: Searching for an identity

François Audet

Humanitarian efforts reveal a lack of focus.

With the exception of Haiti, Canadian humanitarian action in the Americas amounts to little compared to the resources devoted to aid activities in Africa or Southeast Asia. This perhaps reflects the fact that countries in the Americas are better equipped on the structural and organizational levels to deal with the risks and hazards that can result in humanitarian disasters. Furthermore, it seems that too few strategies have been developed in terms of risk reduction, disaster prevention and climate change mitigation.

Figure 1: Humanitarian aid spending by the Government of Canada, by region (2008-2009)
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Source: Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Statistical Report on International Assistance, 2008-2009

Over the past several years we have observed some uncertainty regarding the regional priorities of the Canadian government. In this funding muddle, the American and African continents are pitted against one another, competing to be granted “priority” status by Canada. Within this dynamic, even if the Americas have obtained “preferred” status, the region still appears to be the neglected child of Canadian humanitarian efforts. In fact, apart from Haiti, the region receives very little funding for humanitarian activities, corresponding to only eight per cent of the overall humanitarian aid budget (see Figure 1). For example, Colombia and Peru, with $4 million and $0.8 million respectively, were the only two countries to receive funding categorized as “humanitarian” assistance in 2008-2009, despite crises in Honduras and Cuba (hurricanes) and in Bolivia (La Niña). Statistics presented in the Statistical Report on International Assistance for 2008-2009 by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) seem to reflect the policy of geographical concentration that arose out of the debate on aid efficiency.

Out of the total Canadian aid budget, less than 15 per cent is accounted for in the “Fragile States and Countries Experiencing a Humanitarian Crisis” category. No other country in the Americas is listed in the top 20 beneficiary countries for this type of humanitarian aid, except for Haiti, which ranks as tenth overall (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Top 15 beneficiary countries of Canadian humanitarian aid (2008-2009)
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Source: Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Statistical Report on International Assistance, 2008-2009

The question is whether maintaining humanitarian activities in the Americas is justified. It is obvious that the different continents are not equally vulnerable. For example, according to Maplecroft (2010), in the Western Hemisphere only Colombia and Haiti have high levels of risk. Likewise, the large majority of CAPs, the United Nations Consolidated Appeals Processes, do not apply to the Americas. Nevertheless, vulnerability linked to climate change, to the risk of flooding and to tropical storms is high for the Caribbean, Central America and certain regions of South America. If we include the political instability of some countries (Honduras, Haiti and Colombia) and the economic polarization that is widespread throughout almost the entire region, not to mention the geopolitical interests linked to natural resources, regional security, and immigration, which have varying incidence rates in Canada, it seems logical that Canada should continue to pay particular attention to the Americas.

The humanitarian projects that have been financed in the past few years are generally those which have been implemented by Canadian organizations already on the ground. Capitalizing on the established presence of these organizations and in the context of rapid bilateral spending, the projects are often run by Canadian NGOs or UN agencies such as UNICEF in Honduras or the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees in Colombia. As well, there are very few projects that target capacity-building in risk management for local institutions. The Canadian Red Cross’s “First Responder Initiative” is a notable exception to this rule. Launched November 2010, this program aims to strengthen national Red Cross societies in four countries in Central America and the Caribbean.

Still, too few activities focus on risk reduction, disaster prevention and climate change, even though uncertain weather conditions (hurricanes, tropical storms, droughts, floods, etc.) are the main cause of humanitarian crises in the region. Canada, like many other donor countries, has taken a long time to carry out support measures to mitigate the effects of the region’s unpredictable climate. Although risk reduction and disaster prevention are now part of the rhetoric, these concepts have been slow to translate into concrete programs and projects.

Haiti, an exceptional case, but for how much longer?

Haiti enjoys a special position when it comes to Canadian aid policy. Many official documents and analyses describe a complex humanitarian situation and highlight the challenges the island state faces. Those interested in Haiti know that the problem goes well beyond the 2010 earthquake, and that this country went through multiple political upheavals and environmental disasters over the past few decades. It is also reasonable to imagine that this instability will continue not for years, but for decades to come. Despite the amount of funds invested and efforts carried out so far, Haiti’s socio-environmental vulnerability still makes it quite susceptible to humanitarian disasters. In other words, (re)building Haiti will take a long time.

As a result, Haiti’s importance in Canadian foreign policy has been acknowledged, as well as its strategic position for regional security. But will it be feasible for Canada to continue committing the substantial resources it has offered so far over the longer term? This question is fundamental, as much for Canada as it is for Haiti. As the need arises, Canada’s communication policy and those of the organizations involved in Haiti’s reconstruction will have to be reviewed in order to inform Canadians about the challenges and delays that affect the current response to the situation, which could call into question funding commitments that have already been made.

Beyond investments and efforts already carried out in the reconstruction, the current context is at a crucial point in terms of international relations and Canadian diplomatic representation. Is Canada providing the public service with the means to properly fulfill its mandate? Is Canada’s role and participation in the Interim Committee for the Reconstruction of Haiti equal to the funding invested in Haiti? The fact that there was no delegate or special envoy for such an important portfolio would seem to mean that the action behind the scenes, which is so important in this context, will take place without Canada’s influence.

Several conclusions can be drawn on Canadian humanitarian action in the Americas. First, apart from Haiti, the region is not a priority with regard to disaster management issues. As well, despite regional interdependence in terms of climate risks, the Canadian approach is limited to “emergency response” instead of emphasizing prevention and risk reduction. Finally, Haiti is the regional priority and a country of great significance for Canadian foreign policy. Nevertheless, better co-ordination of Canadian initiatives and diplomatic involvement proportional to the significant investments made in the country will be necessary to respond to Haiti’s needs. Canadian humanitarian action in general, and in the Americas in particular, is still searching for its identity. Canada must establish its role in terms of humanitarian issues and involvement. This will enable Canada not only to clearly define its priorities but also to determine how to maximize the impact of the aid it allocates.


François Audet is the Executive Director of the Canadian Research Institute on Humanitarian Crisis and Aid (OCCAH), affiliated with CÉRIUM (Centre for International Studies and Research at the Université de Montréal). He is also Associate Researcher at the Canada Research Chair in Canadian Foreign and Defense Policy at Université du Québec à Montréal.



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