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Canadians disapprove of linking foreign aid to trade

Most Canadians want to give to poorer countries, and many want to give far more - but the idea of linking aid to our economic interests turns people off, a new poll finds.

Arguments that aid brings commercial benefits actually undermine support for foreign aid, suggesting that Ottawa's move toward focusing aid on countries with deeper trading ties won't win Canadians' backing.

"For them, it's not about selling stuff. It's not about us getting an advantage. It's about us giving money for development," said Innovative Research Group pollster Simon MacDougall.

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In February, the Conservative government revamped Canada's bilateral aid program, dropping countries from Africa, the world's poorest continent, from the list of major aid recipients, and adding some from the Americas - notably those with whom Canada has recently signed free-trade deals, or started trade talks: Peru, Colombia and the Caribbean. However, the Conservatives have also untied all food aid so that it doesn't have to be bought in Canada. In addition, they've promised that all kinds of aid will be untied by 2012 so none of it has to be purchased through contracts with Canadian companies.

A poll conducted by Innovative Research Group for the Munk Centre for International Studies found that 61 per cent of respondents believe foreign aid does more good than harm.

And half, or 49 per cent, support the idea of more than doubling aid to late prime minister Lester B. Pearson's goal of 0.7 per cent of the size of the Canadian economy - an increase to about $10-billion per year. (Canada now spends about $4.1-billion on aid.)

The poll used an internet panel with 1,383 respondents, a sample size that is typically considered accurate within 2.6 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. However, an internet panel is not a random sample so does not have a statistically valid margin of error.

The poll was conducted as the Munk Centre prepares for a debate on aid today as part of its Munk Debates series.

But the pollsters also tried to test some ideas about what drives support or opposition to aid through "regressions." They asked people what they thought of some arguments for and against it, and then checked if the arguments changed their support for aid in general.

They found that one argument stood out in persuading people that aid is beneficial - essentially that poverty wreaks havoc, and wealthy nations have an interest in making the world a better place: "Given that extreme poverty can cause civil wars, epidemics and regional instability in the developing world it is in the interest of wealthy nations to provide foreign aid."

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Some arguments, like the idea that rich nations have a moral responsibility to aid poor ones, in the same way people pay taxes to help poor people, garnered wide agreement, but didn't actually make people more supportive of foreign aid.

But another statement that was supposed to be positive about foreign aid actually had a negative effect on support: "By improving the quality of life of people in developing countries, wealthy nations' foreign aid programs help create bigger markets for their goods and services."

It's not that everyone rebelled at the concept that aid nets trade - in fact, 58 per cent said it made them more likely to believe aid does more good than harm, and only 21 per cent said it made them more negative.

But when they were tested to see if their support for aid had really changed, the argument had backfired. Those who accepted a link between aid and trade didn't become more positive about supporting aid - but those who rejected the link between aid and commercial interests became more negative about giving aid.

For some, raising commercial benefits may taint the altruistic impulse of giving aid to make the world a better place.

Gerry Barr, the president of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, an aid advocacy organization, suggested that perhaps raising a trade argument makes people suspicious that the aid is a Trojan horse: that the real goal is selling Canadian goods, and aid is just a lure.

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"It may amount to a conclusion that that is deceptively wrong as a claim - that most often aid is not well-used when it is used as an instrument for the promotion of trade," he said.

In fact, the most effective argument against foreign aid turned out to be something like that: that aid is a means to commercial exploitation.

The statement, "Because foreign aid is often conditional on recipient nations opening their economies to Western goods and services it encourages the economic exploitation of the poor countries" was the most persuasive in turning respondents away from aid.

But the most commonly heard criticism of foreign aid - that it is mismanaged by donors and users, or stolen by corrupt foreign officials - was widely accepted as a negative factor, but it had little impact in changing peoples' minds, and turning them off foreign aid.

Canadians don't seem to buy the arguments that free trade is a better means to lift poor nations out of poverty than aid. When they heard it, more said it actually made them more positive about aid than negative - although it obviously had a bigger impact with those who believe it, because it did have some effect in dialling down support for aid.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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