McLeod Group Blog

Goodbye to All That: The Death of CIDA

Goodbye to All That: The Death of CIDA

March 23, 2013

The execution of CIDA has been applauded by at least two former foreign ministers (Barbara McDougall and Lloyd Axworthy) and proclaimed to be reasonable “in principle” by a wide variety of academics and journalists—pointing to Scandinavian models for evidence, deploring CIDA’s past mismanagement, and citing the need for a coherent foreign policy. A common story line for many commentators, most of whom don’t know any more about the Paris Declaration than Julian Fantino, is that aid never worked anyway.  And some NGOs, perhaps hoping to make their bread fall jam-side up, have been cautiously optimistic about the potential of the new arrangement, reminiscent of apologists after the Anschluss.

Some NGOs have been negative, but this has been written off as sour grapes, because after all, CIDA is in thrall to NGOs, which long ago captured the agency’s money and brains and ran off with them to Lalaland.

If CIDA has been mismanaged in recent years—and few would disagree—it isn’t because it wasn’t under the control of DFAIT. It’s because it was under the control of the PMO. The ever-changing sectoral and geographic priorities, the cutting of bilateral aid to very poor countries and the opening of new aid programs in middle-income Peru and Colombia were not decided by CIDA management or even by the CIDA minister. None of this was done without DFAIT knowledge and permission, and none of it was done or inspired by NGOs.

When outsiders speak of the need for foreign policy coherence, they frequently mean that the aid budget should be spent mostly on pushing Canada’s commercial and political interests, and that CIDA should not be fiddling around with ideas like poverty and poor people—presumably because these have nothing to do with Canadian interests. CIDA critics and many in the cabinet, it seems, have lost sight of the purpose of development assistance, and of the cost to everyone when poverty jumps borders, spreading pollution, disease, illegal migration and very dangerous ideas. They don’t see any long term value or even long term self-interest in peace and development abroad, except in its immediate relevance to the commercial interest of the day. You’d think they haven’t noticed the fact that central Africa, where there is a lot of Canadian investment and even more potential, is in flames. That they haven’t noticed what’s been going on across North Africa or the growing economic nationalism of Latin America.

They seem to think that development comes only from trade-driven economic growth and that Canada’s primary contribution should be the promotion of Canadian commercial interests. Not satisfied with all of the other budgets and departments that promote Canadian trade and investment abroad, they want more, and they’ll take it now from poor countries where Canada has no investments, and from poor people who, after all, are no concern of ours.

NGOs have never received more than a small proportion of the CIDA budget, and CIDA was never in thrall to them. Every CIDA dime that has ever gone to an NGO has been counted and watched and monitored and evaluated. Every nickel was and is subject to a contract or a contribution agreement just like the ones CIDA signs with companies, consultants and foreign governments. CIDA funded NGOs because they did good work, because they reached places and people that CIDA could not, and because they were effective in meeting the objectives enshrined in the ODA Accountability Act. They exemplified in action the language that every Canadian government has used to justify development assistance to the Canadian taxpayer.  Over the last two or three years, funding to some good NGOs has been completely axed, while many others have been pushed to the edge of bankruptcy, awaiting CIDA decisions that in some cases have been held up for two years. CIDA didn’t need to merge with DFAIT to accomplish this.

Yes, in principle joined-up management of Canada’s overall foreign policy could work. But it isn’t going to fix what’s really broken. What’s really broken is Canada’s diminished understanding of the world, and the world’s diminished expectations of Canada. The quality of Canada’s aid program has declined in consistent harmony with our dwindling reputation and capacity in an increasingly complex world. We can surely do a lot better than this.