By Stephen Brown
In the early 2010s, the Canadian government, under Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, developed a special interest in Mongolia. In 2014, after a flurry of diplomatic visits, Canada designated Mongolia a “country of focus” for its development assistance. This decision placed Mongolia on Canada’s list of 25 countries in which it would concentrate its foreign aid and committed Canada to building a privileged development relationship with Mongolia. But major aid never really flowed, and any signs of an enhanced partnership had fizzled out by 2022. What went wrong?
A weak starting point
Canada did not have a bilateral development program in Mongolia in 2014, when it decided to concentrate its aid there. It had only opened an embassy in Ulaanbaatar in 2008, at the urging of Canadian mining companies. It thus had limited experience and knowledge of development issues on the ground. As a result, it was poorly placed to quickly build up an aid program.
A poorly designed program
Canada wanted its aid to focus on the extractive sector in order to bring benefits to its own mining companies. Within a couple of years, Canada launched two major aid projects worth Cdn$27 million, both of which supported the extractive sector.
It is hard to build a development program almost from scratch. And there must have been a lot of pressure to get projects up and running fast. The Canadian government conducted little consultation with local actors and, rather than hold an open call for proposals, awarded the grants to a Canadian for-profit consultancy (then known as Agriteam, now Alinea International) and a Canadian NGO (Canadian Executive Service Organization [CESO], now Catalyste+).
Both projects focused on bringing Canadians to Mongolia to train local people. For instance, CESO sent 77 Canadians to Mongolia, almost all on short-term missions. This form of aid, capacity building, has been widely criticized for many decades for being expensive and not especially effective. While I was conducting interviews in Ulaanbaatar in 2018 for a research project, several Mongolians criticized the projects for bringing in only Canadians, most of whom knew nothing about the Mongolian context. One Mongolian, whose organization received Canadian “experts”, complained that “mostly one has to train them first”. Why not use the funds to hire Mongolians or people of other nationalities who have more relevant knowledge and experience? Or give the money to Mongolian organizations to organize their own activities?
It could be that these projects achieved some important results. An official evaluation would be required to provide clear answers. However, the design of the projects and their chosen aid modality suggest that they were flawed from the start. Even though the two projects have ended, the websites of Global Affairs Canada and the two organizations have trouble making a convincing case that the projects had much impact.
A confusing “theory of change”
A Canadian Embassy official in Ulaanbaatar flatly admitted to me, “We’re here because of the mining”. But it was never clear that more mining would reduce poverty, which is the legislated central purpose of Canadian aid. In theory, the Mongolian government could use the extra mining-related revenue to finance poverty reduction programs. However, its record in doing so was rather weak. Even the World Bank has warned that Mongolia has becoming overly “addicted” to mineral wealth. Had Canada wanted to help diversify the economy and pursue more promising paths to poverty reduction, the government of Mongolia had a long list of other sectors in which it was seeking assistance.
The same Canadian Embassy official stated that “The aid program is designed to help Canadian investment”. However, it was also unclear how the mining-focused aid program would actually benefit Canadian companies. Assuming it succeeded in improving the investment environment in the extractive sector, which is far from clear, Canadian companies could make more profits.
However, even before Mongolia became a “country of focus”, Julian Dierkes pointed out in a blog post that there was hardly any significant Canadian involvement in mining in Mongolia, with one notable exception – Ivanhoe, later renamed Turquoise Hill. As he noted, it was “a stretch to call Ivanhoe Mines a Canadian company in any aspect other than its mailing address and the location for its corporate headquarters”. Moreover, it has since been sold to Rio Tinto, a British-Australian behemoth. So there aren’t actually any major Canadian mining interests in Mongolia. And Canadian companies can receive support from the trade section at the Canadian embassy there. As in the past, they can obtain licences without support from the Canadian aid program.
Senior Trade Commissioner Steve Basadur is pleased to be at the PDAC 2020 Convention in Toronto to discuss Canada-Mongolia cooperation in the mining sector. pic.twitter.com/JYjys6X5YM
— Canada in Mongolia (@CanadaMongolia) March 3, 2020
Canada’s “flavour of the month” approach to development assistance
For decades, no matter which party is in power in Ottawa, the Canadian government tends to pursue a “flavour of the month” approach to development assistance. It frequently designates new sectors and new countries on which it wants to focus its aid. Much of this is about ministerial pet projects and branding. As a result, when a new minister or a new government takes over, priorities shift. After the Liberals, under Justin Trudeau, were elected in 2015, they de-emphasized the place of mining in the aid program and recast the overall aid program as “feminist”, with an overarching focus on women, girls and gender equality. They also eliminated the practice of maintaining an (ever-changing) list of countries of focus. As a result, both Mongolia and mining soon lost their place of privilege in the Canadian aid program.
Mongolia never was anywhere near being a top-25 recipient of Canadian aid. In 2020, it came in 46th. And Canada never became a significant donor from the Mongolian perspective. In 2020, it provided only 1% of the bilateral aid Mongolia received from Western countries, a smaller share than Hungary and Poland.
What went wrong? Ostensibly, Canada’s enhanced development partnership with Mongolia was poorly planned and executed, propelled by political and commercial interests rather than poverty reduction concerns and aid effectiveness principles. And then Canada dropped the partnership before it ever took off.
About Stephen Brown
Stephen Brown is a Professor at the School of Political Studies, University of Ottawa. Much of his research focuses on foreign aid, especially Canada’s. This blog entry draws from his article “Mining self-interest? Canadian foreign aid and the extractive sector in Mongolia”, published in the Canadian Journal of Development Studies.
I have no comment on the ins and outs of Canadian foreign policy over changes of administrations in Ottawa.
But the statement that ‘there was hardly any significant Canadian involvement in mining in Mongolia, with one notable exception – Ivanhoe, later renamed Turquoise Hill’ is so totally inaccurate as to demand correction. I will first respond to that, and then make some broader comments on this post.
An economist at Mongolia’s Institute for Strategic Studies just this week gave a presentation in which he stated that Canada has been the largest source of FDI in Mongolia, with a total of US$8.1 billion cumulative investment, and that almost all has been in mining. (See the panel on China-Mongolia Relations recently organized by LSE IDEAS.) There have been dozens of other Mongolian companies active at quite large scale in the Mongolian mining sector since the 1990s. Just from memory; QGX, Entree, Centerra, Asia Gold, UGL, Khan Resources, Prophecy, Erdene Resources. Many others similar or smaller. Many are still active. Canadian firms have tended to be involved in exploration, but some also got involved in production. They were frequently bought out by larger firms if they found and demonstrated value in areas where they worked.
More broadly, the fact that overdependence on mining is not healthy does not mean that support to strengthening the governance of the extractive sector (the purpose of the projects you describe) does not produce benefits for Mongolia. The fact that growth in mining does not automatically translate into poverty reduction does not mean that it cannot, and should not, and that the Mongolian government should not make a strong effort to improve the poverty reduction impact of mining development. Diversification is also important and there have long been vast Mongolian government programs (with donor support) aimed at diversifying the economy and avoiding the ‘resource curse’. It is amusing that you write that “EVEN (my caps) the World Bank has warned that Mongolia has become overly ‘addicted’ to mineral wealth.” Of course the World Bank, and the IMF, and the ADB, and JICA and EBRD and everyone involved in any way in the Mongolian economy since the mining boom started has warned against this; it is a vitally important and a very basic theme in development in resource rich countries. Solutions are not easy to find, but ignoring mining, where Canada has considerable expertise, is definitely not one. Improving the management of the mining sector, attracting world class companies, introducing proper licensing requirements, including environmental and gender impact assessments; these are part of avoiding the problems associated with mineral wealth. You suggest strongly that the purpose of Canadian aid projects in the mining sector was to help Mongolian companies in their commercial dealings, including obtaining licenses — you suggest that they should have just obtained such help from the Canadian embassy. But this is quite off the mark. If creating greater transparency, greater community engagement and greater monitoring of social and environmental impact in the sector benefits Canadian companies who are playing by the rules and following Canadian standards in their work, that’s a very good thing. That’s what the projects were designed to do, not help Mongolian miners get contracts.
Thanks for attention.
You seem to have misunderstood many of my points. I would you invite you and other readers to consult the article on which this blog is based, which provides fuller arguments and evidence. It is available at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/epdf/10.1080/02255189.2023.2184330.
Unless you care to demonstrate how I have misunderstood your points and point out errors in what I just posted, thanks, but I will not reread your article. If your main concern is inconsistencies and inefficiencies in Canadian foreign aid that’s not a topic of particular interest to me; the whole foreign aid industry certainly is prone to waste and supply driven decisions that often, but not always, fail to achieve the intended benefits. If your issue is with the decision to provide technical assistance in the mining sector, then you make some unjustifiable assumptions, as I have pointed out. Thanks again.“