Show Me the Money: The Role of Official Development Aid (ODA) in the Development Sector

Interview by Sahaana Ranganathan

DISCLOSURE: The author has worked in the same organization as the interviewee.

The question of money is often at the forefront of my classes and conversations surrounding sustainable development. Many countries around the world, namely “developed” countries, provide foreign aid in the form of official development assistance (ODA), with the stated purpose of promoting the “economic development and welfare of developing countries.” [1]. And while there is heated debate and controversy regarding the political and social implications of such funding, the specifics regarding ODA and how NGOs apply for government funding are seldom discussed explicitly.

I sat down with Dimitri Rousseau, an expert in development funding, to shed some light on the field of applying for funding from the Government of Canada. As Dimitri explains, there are three major mechanisms for receiving funding from Global Affairs Canada (GAC), including requests for proposals, which are published on the buy and sell portal; calls for proposals; and unsolicited proposals.

“The buy and sell portal is for government contracts,” he notes. “These are projects that are designed already but the Canadian government needs a partner, either a civil society organization or private sector organization, to implement the project… The second mechanism is the ‘calls for proposals’ from the partnership branch at GAC. In a given year, there are one or two[and]they don’t tend to be very common. Very often they’ll be multi-country proposals and they’ll be part of a broader commitment…The third way you can get Government of Canada funding is[through] unsolicited proposals. This idea really comes from the civil society side of things. For example, if we identify some needs with local partners in a particular country, say on climate change, we have a couple of meetings with the donor and explore the potential with them…. They have recently streamlined [this process]. Instead of providing a preliminary proposal that’s 10 pages, you just have to [submit a]concept note [which is] 5 pages.”

Many countries provide assistance in the form of money to other countries, and they are, as such, referred to as donor countries. Canada is considered to be the 9th largest donor country, but its ODA represents only 0.27% of its Gross National Income (GNI), which is concerning since the expectation is that donor countries’ ODA should represent 0.7% of their GNI [2]. This makes the money available for the development sector more limited than it should be, especially in the context of funding applications available to NGOs and international NGOs (INGOs).

Regarding the potential competition between INGOs in funding applications, Dimitri says, “there are two ways to see it. On the one hand, very often we apply for funding with partners in the sector, so we’re not rivals. But that being said, it’s a really competitive sector. The reality is there’s not that much money available from the donor. As I said, whenever there’s a call for proposals, you’ll have over 100 organizations that apply. The usual global organizations that you can think of but there’s also smaller organizations that apply.”

Funding from GAC is also often centred around specific thematic areas, which can change depending on the government’s policy towards international development. Notably, during the Harper administration, there was a push to make aid more proactive. This included the adoption of the Official Development Assistance and Accountability Act, a 2008 bill that prioritized Canada’s core aid objective as poverty reduction [3]. In contrast, under the successive Trudeau government, there was a slight shift in priorities towards the Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP), which was influenced by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) [4]. The FIAP is grounded in a recognition “that supporting gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls is the best way to build a more peaceful, more inclusive and more prosperous world.“ [5]. When the Liberal government was re-elected in 2019, the flagship FIAP framework remained in place [6]. So, how do these policy changes under different governments impact those applying for funding?

As Dimitri highlights, “it depends on the organization because…the amount of funding that goes to aid hasn’t changed significantly whether it was the Conservatives or Liberals in power. What does change is the priorities. If you’re an organization that works on gender quality and women’s rights, then obviously, the FIAP [as the major thematic priority will]increase your chances of getting funding.” Dimitri explains that under the previous government, which prioritized economic development and poverty, organizations that have projects working on those themes had increased chances of getting funding. However, there hasn’t been a situation wherein the amount of ODA available to organizations has decreased.

Yet, in the 2019 election, Andrew Scheer announced his desire to make changes to the available aid by promising to cut foreign aid spending by 25% [7]. This raised concerns within the development sector; however, as Dimitri indicates, “There is a lot of advocacy from the sector and dialogue with GAC. Often, when there’s an announcement of funding from Global Affairs, it’s usually the result of two to three years of dialogue with civil society. A good example is the paid and unpaid care agenda. There are a few organizations who’ve been advocating to make care work a priority…There’s lots of advocacy effort from the policy side of these organizations and eventually that leads to funding being available for it. My experience is no matter who’s in power, there is a seat at the table for civil society organizations.”

Official development assistance is an important factor in building global partnerships, fostering sustainable development, and promoting economic cooperation. In light of the ongoing debates around ODA and international development as a whole, understanding those details of how funding works within a national context is a critical step toward having more constructive conversations around the subject and making the necessary changes to the system.

[1] Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). “Net ODA.” OECD.

[2] Donor Tracker. “Canada at a Glance.” Accessed March 10th, 2021

[3] Brown, Stephen. “The Instrumentalization of Foreign Aid Under the Harper Government.” Studies in political economy 97, no. 1 (2016): 18–36.

[4] Government of Canada. “Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy.” Canada International Assistance Priorities. Last modified January 14th, 2021.

[5] Government of Canada. “Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy.” Canada International Assistance Priorities. Last modified January 14th, 2021.

[6] Donor Tracker. “Canada at a Glance.” Accessed March 10th, 2021

[7] “Scheer promises to slash foreign aid spending by 25 percent.” CBC, October 1st, 2019.