McLeod Group Blog

CIDA’s Dead-End Merger

May 18, 2013

Is the CIDA amalgamation another flawed move?  Can this latest political manoeuvre yield better outcomes for the poor? Or is the promise of policy coherence and effectiveness a mirage?

The costs of the transition, ranging from the mundanities of new business cards and the switch-over of all software protocols to the further losses of morale and skills as staff are shuffled out or into new roles, will be high.  It might seem that the hidden goal is budget savings, at the cost of further diminution in Canada’s international profile.

Most development practitioners see this move as ineffective or worse in the present Canadian policy environment.  Cohesion around a flawed policy means lost effectiveness.  It might lead CIDA and Canada further and irreversibly down the path to being an even more diminished and disinterested performer in the world of international development co-operation.

This amalgamation is supposedly about greater policy coherence, but the opening steps were hardly a great advertisement for the approach.  It appears CIDA’s (and probably also DFAIT’s) most senior bureaucrats only learnt of the decision just a day ahead of the budget document being published.  Only after the budget, did they go off to find out how others had actually coped, such as the Swedes and Danes.  And somebody forgot to include our huge contribution to the World Bank, controlled by the Finance Department in the amalgamation plan.

In reality, effective coherence needs neither new controls or amalgamation.  CIDA was kept separate by past Prime Ministers, Conservative and Liberal, to protect the space needed to allow international development to have a meaningful voice in public policy.  It was done to shelter CIDA’s staff and its dedicated ODA budget from the otherwise greater institutional power… and greed …of other Ministers and their senior officials.  Amalgamation was seen as a threat, not an effectiveness advantage.  That risk of vulnerability to short-term interests, often rooted in domestic politics or the power of business lobbyists, is even more real today.

Policy coherence has been achieved for decades with a standalone CIDA via the routine bureaucratic practice of dialogue, fancily named ‘interdepartmental consultation’.   Overseas, CIDA staff have always worked as regular diplomats in our Embassies, meeting daily with their trade and political colleagues.  Coherence without formal amalgamation is well-illustrated by the Whole of Government process for Afghanistan or by the Canadian diplomatic initiative that led to the international land-mine’ treaty, implemented by CIDA programming.

CIDA in the past has been significantly involved in helping shape Canada’s approach on global development issues such as debt or tariff reform.  It played a substantive role in delivering Canada’s ‘soft power’.  Regretfully, that sort of effectiveness is certainly ‘no-no’ behaviour in today’s highly centralised Harper government.

Amalgamation as planned will be largely about tighter day-to-day political control.  There seems to be no bold plan to improve the ‘give and take’ needed for effective policy coherence, both strategic and operational.  Neither the Budget document nor Minister Baird talked about a coherence-promoting role for CIDA staff, despite their almost daily interaction with developing country leaderships.  Even less is said about listening to what developing countries, poorest and emerging, themselves want.  Yet political openness to simple dialogue could bring important coherence gains to our international development stance.

Amalgamation is also supposedly about greater effectiveness.  Donors, including the Harper Government, and their development partners (aid recipients in old-talk) have signed on, via a series of major international conferences, to a code of conduct for more effective partnership.  Key to that is the Paris Declaration, of which Minister Fantino said he had never heard.  This agreement on enhanced development effectiveness discourages many of the very things that today’s amalgamation is most about – pushing our own agendas and interests in the guise of ‘aid’ and designing projects our way, not engaging and respecting the needs of the beneficiary countries.  This same flawed approach led to the wasting of tax-payers’ money on white elephants like the $50m Dahla dam in Afghanistan, rather than the empowering of the poor and vulnerable in fragile states.

The very name ‘CIDA’ will be wiped off the map.  We will be throwing away a brand name with a reputation earned over six decades.  Canadian businessmen would pay millions of dollars to buy such national goodwill.  Instead CIDA’s demise will become a point of puzzlement and often sadness at a lost friend for many senior bureaucrats and politicians in emerging economies.  These people who once worked closely with CIDA are often now the power-brokers with whom we seek business relationships or support in international fora.  [Note: in contrast, the Nordics sensibly protected the names, SIDA and DANIDA, under their amalgamations].

Minister Fantino will have a shiny new title, but in practice his role will be effectively reduced to ‘concurrence’ seeker and messenger boy for Mr. Baird.  Their respective political staff will no doubt squabble endlessly over turf.  The pile of pending projects, now shuffling to and fro between Sussex Drive and Gatineau, will only grow, as will the possible level of lapsed funds.  In the meanwhile our international credibility will decline further with both recipients and our DAC donor partners.

In all of this amalgamation confusion, there will be no real increase in the engagement of Canadian political leaders and their advisors with the realities of the increasingly complex world of global development.   Even the very word ‘co-operation’ is being dropped from the Minister’s title.

Can the to-be-merged top bureaucrats, help fill the creativity and understanding gap?  One fears not. The fact they were not party to this so fundamental decision shows the chasm of trust between bureaucracy and the country’s political leadership.  As for working level staff, in old CIDA or the trade and political arms of DFAIT, the synergy gains are almost all mythical.  DFAIT staff are not development experts, but rather specialists in the talkfests and policy briefs that Mr. Baird reportedly hates. The likelihood is that only a few policy and technical support units will actually merge.  Post-amalgamation skilled front-line staff will still be waiting for decisions by people who have limited empathy or knowledge of development.  In this world of the ‘chill’, more experienced personnel will choose to leave CIDA.

Amalgamation is a dead-end, even if unavoidable.  Canada’s interface with the developing world will be further diminished at the very time we most need strong partnerships.  There will be no inclusiveness, no consultations seeking new ideas, no reality-checks. Policy coherence will be pre-packaged in the PMO. Unquestioning implementation will be even more the institutional ‘norm’.