CIDA Merger Is Fine, But Fundamental Questions of Policy Remain Unresolved

Roland Paris on CIDA being folded into DFAIT.
By: /
March 22, 2013
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Thursday’s announcement that the Canadian International Development Agency will be folded into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade leaves critical questions about Canada’s aid policy unanswered.

First, regardless of whether aid policy is run from CIDA or a new mega-ministry, will our development spending prioritize the reduction of poverty or the promotion of Canadian commercial interests? Ottawa has recently pushed for the latter. In November, International Development Minister Julian Fantino signalled that Canadian aid policy would place greater emphasis on partnerships with the private sector and working to promote Canadian interests abroad.

There is nothing wrong with public-private partnerships in development. On the contrary, creating conditions for sustainable, market-driven growth in developing societies seems to be the single best remedy for poverty. Whether such partnerships should be geared towards advancing Canadian commercial interests, however, is a different question. Canada already has an export development agency and a trade commissioner service. Our international trade minister has been working energetically to open new markets for our firms and investors. Canada’s engagement in Africa, for instance, including recent trips by both the trade minister and the Prime Minister, has increasingly focused on creating opportunities for Canadian extractive industries. Given all of these efforts to promote Canadian economic interests abroad, would it not make sense to dedicate our aid spending to projects that have the greatest chance of sustainably reducing poverty, even if they do not benefit Canadian companies?

Second, will there be greater stability or consistency in our aid policy under the new arrangements? Development assistance requires long-term commitments to projects and countries. Yet, Canadian governments of all political stripes have reinvented our “long term” aid priorities every few years. Most recently, the Conservatives announced in 2009 that, in the interests of maximizing the effectiveness of Canadian development assistance, spending would concentrate on 20 “countries of focus.” Now, however, the concept of focus countries may be falling out of favour . The most consistent feature of Canadian aid policy has been its inconsistency. Will folding CIDA into DFAIT do anything to remedy this problem?

Third, will the process of integrating the two departments divert them from their primary work? Last decade’s separation and subsequent reunification of the foreign affairs and international trade halves of DFAIT were demoralizing distractions. Integrating CIDA and DFAIT will involve more than just relocating personnel. Potentially divisive issues will need to be resolved: How will the new mega-department recognize and preserve the expertise in development? Although governments have the undisputed right to set their own policy priorities, how will individual decisions on aid spending be protected from excessive politicization? How will the three ministers work together? And how will these new arrangements remedy, rather than worsen, the already-acute delays in decision-making in the offices of both the foreign minister and the international development minister?

Merging CIDA and DFAIT is not a bad idea in itself, nor is it novel: CIDA started its life as a part of DFAIT and several other countries have integrated their foreign affairs and international development ministries. As we have learned many times, however, the process of bureaucratic reorganization can solve some problems but create new ones – particularly when fundamental questions of policy remain unresolved.

This comment was previously published in the Globe and Mail.

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