Issue 23 - Article 13

Canadian international humanitarian assistance

May 29, 2003
Natalie Folster

Canada’s programme of official humanitarian assistance is relatively modest, accounting for some 2.5% of global expenditure, down from 6% in 1992–93. In real terms, the funds allocated to humanitarian aid have declined over the decade, from C$111,092,000 in 1990/91 (about US$72m) to some C$99,616,921 (US$65m) in 2000/01. However, this is part of an overall reduction in Canada’s overseas development aid (ODA); the proportion of ODA spent on humanitarian assistance has in fact increased since the late 1980s, and now accounts for between 7% and 8% of annual ODA, up from an average of around 3.5% throughout the 1990s. Canada is now committed to doubling its ODA by 2010. After a decade and a half of cuts to the aid budget, this marks a renewal of Canada’s commitment to devote 0.7% of its GNP to foreign aid – a pledge made 30 years ago, but never achieved.

The international humanitarian assistance programme is managed by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). It is a responsive fund, which means that grants are made based on requests from eligible relief organisations. These are experienced Canadian NGOs and international appeals made through the UN and the International Red Cross. CIDA does not provide emergency relief directly to other governments. In allocating resources, CIDA has traditionally relied on its NGO partners and the UN to assess needs and prioritise their requests for funds.

The proportion of Canadian international humanitarian assistance channelled through the UN agencies has fluctuated over the 1990s, from a high of almost 72% to just over 56% in 2000–20001; recently, there has been a small shift (5%–8%) in favour of Canadian NGOs. Funding to the Red Cross, CIDA’s most significant partner in the administration of government-funded humanitarian relief, has increased slightly over the past decade, and currently accounts for 22.3% of the international humanitarian assistance budget.

CIDA has five primary funding categories in its humanitarian assistance programme: core funding for the international humanitarian aid programme and its implementing agents; complex emergencies; natural disasters; disaster preparedness; and ‘special projects’. There have been wide annual fluctuations in the resources allocated for each of these, in part explained by the unpredictability of individual catastrophes, in part the result of political and economic factors influencing the response (or lack thereof) to a particular crisis.

CIDA’s figures reveal that relief in complex emergencies makes up the majority of disbursements, ranging from a high-point of 76.7% of total international humanitarian assistance in 1990–91 to a low of 45.9% in 1997–98, and making up about 50% of expenditure in 2001. Overall, the proportion of the humanitarian aid budget devoted to complex emergencies in Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Middle East has declined, while there been a corresponding increase in Canadian involvement in relief efforts in the Balkans since 1998–99.

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Institutional developments

Following an independent evaluation of the Canadian response to Hurricane Mitch, and the recommendations of an analysis of the humanitarian aid programme, both commissioned by CIDA in 1999, it was decided to establish an emergency response unit at CIDA. The unit was set up in response to perceived weaknesses in CIDA’s ability to respond effectively to international crises. Beforehand, the common practice in the event of an emergency was for all humanitarian aid staff members but one to drop what they were doing and organise the response to the latest crisis. There was also a sense that neither CIDA’s development assistance field offices nor the UN resident representatives knew enough about the humanitarian relief system. Officials believed that CIDA was not always receiving information early enough to decide what the Canadian response to a crisis should be. Thus, a field presence was deemed necessary to make rapid needs assessments. The mechanism was formalised in 2001, and is administered by the Canadian Red Cross. It will provide logistical support to a Canadian Humanitarian Assessment Team (drawn from a roster of Canadians who can be deployed on short notice from within CIDA, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) and NGOs); offer training to international humanitarian groups; and deal with public inquiries in response to international disasters.

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The political context

Humanitarian relief comprises a very small portion of Canada’s entire aid budget, which is itself generally of little interest to the average Canadian taxpayer. As such, it appears to have been insulated from the political pressures which have shaped the broader aid programme and foreign policy overall – pressure from domestic commercial interests seeking overseas markets for their goods; Canadian domestic politics, and the perceived need to maintain a presence in over 100 countries as a reflection of Canada’s multicultural heritage; and Canada’s cultivation of its ‘honest broker’ middle-power position on the international stage, which includes peacekeeping. This role of ‘international humanitarian’ may, however, be more image than substance these days – Canada has fewer peacekeepers serving abroad than Bangladesh.

Canadian aid policy has rarely been a priority issue among elected officials, who generally focus on domestic concerns. As part of ODA, the international humanitarian assistance programme falls under the purview of two parliamentary committees: the Public Accounts Committee, which oversees all government expenditure, and the Foreign Affairs Committee, whose sub-committee on Human Rights and International Development is the forum for discussions of aid policy. In addition to its routine review of CIDA’s annual budget estimates, the Foreign Affairs Committee and its sub-committee hold hearings on selected topics chosen by committee members. This agenda is largely dictated by current events, and focused on briefing members on various issues rather than examining policy issues in detail. The only documentation on aid policy and its implementation that parliament is required to consider on a regular basis are CIDA’s annual Performance Report and Report on Planning and Priorities, which are general overviews of the entire development assistance programme and self-assessments of performance.

In addition to its own – little-used – oversight mechanisms, parliament receives annual reports from the Office of Auditor-General (OAG) on the activities of all federal government departments and programmes. This report is made public, generally receives prominent coverage in the national media and has become an important influence on public discourse and government policy. Although various aspects of CIDA have been scrutinised over the past decade, the international humanitarian assistance programme has never been examined, in part again because of its small size. Nonetheless, CIDA has introduced some significant reforms in response to criticisms contained in the Auditor-General’s reports.

The NGO sector

Canada is home to a well-organised lobby of NGOs involved in international development and relief work. On occasion, NGOs have been able to influence Canadian aid policy through direct representations to government decision-makers, and by mobilising public support through the media. CIDA holds regular, formal consultations with representatives of NGOs, the academic community and the commercial private sector on aid policy issues in general. It also offers training on the Sphere initiative. However, some NGOs are critical of a trend in the consultation process towards seeking consensus among all ‘stakeholders’ on policy directions, rather than on determining what course of action would most effectively fulfil the stated objectives of the aid programme.

In 1998, a group of Canadian NGOs decided that they needed a forum for discussion of international humanitarian assistance policy, and through which they could lobby the government on policy issues. The result was the Policy and Advocacy Group for Emergency Relief (PAGER). PAGER includes observers from CIDA and DFAIT, and is cited as a relatively rare example of sustained cooperation between CIDA, DFAIT and the NGO sector. The group meets on an ad hoc basis, with a focus on sharing information rather than solving problems.

Canadian NGOs as a whole perform a useful role in scrutinising CIDA’s international humanitarian assistance programme. However, it would be wrong to regard the NGO community as a unified bloc, confronting or cooperating with the government. There exist significant differences of opinion among them. For example, some NGOs oppose CIDA’s Emergency Response Unit on the grounds that it compromises the neutrality of other Canadian organisations working in the field. Particularly contentious is the maintenance and direct disbursal by CIDA of a stockpile of emergency supplies. This reserve, left over from Canadian disaster preparedness for Y2K, is stored at a military base in Ontario. Some of these goods have been delivered by Canadian officials in emergencies in Mozambique and El Salvador. CIDA defends its actions on the grounds that it needs information from the field in order to know how to respond. Further, the agency says that this stockpile is very small, amounting to 30 tonnes of supplies; enough for two planeloads. The policy now is to reserve this supply for immediate response to crises in the Western hemisphere.

Natalie Folster works in the Policy Branch of the Canadian International Development Agency.

References and further reading

Reports of the Auditor-General of Canada (Ottawa: Canada, Office of the Auditor-General, 1991–2002),

Robert Miller, Aid as Peacemaker: Canadian Development Assistance and Third World Conflict (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1992).

David Morrison, Aid and Ebb Tide: A History of CIDA and Canadian Development Assistance (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier Press, 1998).


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