Media commentary has been remarkably lenient regarding Bev Oda’s record at the end of her five-year stint as Canada’s Minister of International Cooperation. Coverage has by and large ignored how, under her watch, the government systematically undermined both the fundamental purpose of Canadian foreign aid, which is to fight poverty in developing countries, and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) itself.

Though the vast majority of voices in the media condemn her peccadillos, most are praising the focus, transparency, accountability and greater effectiveness she brought to CIDA. Lacking, however, is a more sober examination of these claims that Oda has made about herself and that others are parroting.

“The last five years have seen a significant deterioration in Canada’s will and capacity to help those in greatest need”.

Oda’s main effort to achieve greater focus was naming in 2009 three themes and 20 countries in which Canada will concentrate its assistance. This is hardly a new strategy. Only four years earlier, Paul Martin’s government announced five sectors and 25 countries. Previous governments and ministers had also picked their pet areas. As a result, officials at CIDA and NGOs and their partners in developing countries either artificially reframe their activities to match the thème du jour or change their proposals to match official Canadian priorities – rather than responding to local needs. Neither response is good for long-term development, nor is the instability caused by such constant shifts.

On transparency, CIDA has indeed in recent years released more information on where money is being spent. For instance, its website makes “far more relevant information available online”. How decisions are made, however, remains as mysterious as ever. Why was KAIROS, a widely respected NGO, denied funding despite a very strong assessment from experts at CIDA and Foreign Affairs, while the Lundin Foundation, an NGO recently created by a group of mining and oil companies, received $4.5 million? Far from being transparent, the decision-making process is so opaque that CIDA has been described as “a secretive star chamber”. Even MPs complain they cannot get answers from CIDA and have to rely on access-to-information requests that, when they finally are answered, often have the useful information blacked out. Without transparency (i.e., information), true accountability is impossible. The lack of transparency and accountability was one the key findings of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s recent review of Canada’s foreign aid. It was released barely two weeks before Oda resigned, but already seems forgotten.

Media accounts often emphasized Oda’s leadership in untying aid, allowing goods and services to be obtained wherever they are the best value for money, rather than necessarily in Canada. Untying aid is Oda’s biggest unambiguous contribution to the effectiveness of Canadian aid. The part of the story that remained untold is that nearly all Western donors had already eliminated tied aid by then and that Canada was one of the last holdouts.

The media has ignored or underemphasized a few of Oda’s other legacies. For instance, over a period of five years, she oversaw the freezing of Canadian aid for two years, followed by significant cuts in the last budget. Also under Oda, CIDA increasingly turned NGOs from development partners into service providers and effectively gagged them. Many NGOs that criticized government policies had their next application for CIDA funding rejected. NGOs are now afraid to speak out. CBC’s The House had trouble finding an NGO representative who would talk on the air for a recent segment on Oda’s legacy. The one who agreed to do so carefully avoided saying anything negative about Oda, CIDA or the government. Such self-censorship is exactly what the Harper government wants, and Oda helped achieve it.

Most of Oda’s actual legacy did not really originate with her. She obediently followed orders—as when she told her staff to alter the document in which she had approved KAIROS’s funding application. She initially dissimulated about this and, despite charges of contempt of Parliament, never revealed who told her to reverse her decision. Such loyalty to her political masters illustrates why she was an effective minister from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s perspective, if not for the purposes of poverty reduction.

In fact, while Oda was minister, the government increasingly instrumentalized CIDA for purposes other than fighting poverty – despite 2008 legislation that defined poverty reduction as the core purpose of Canadian aid. The best example of the diversion of foreign aid to further Canadian security interests was the size and nature of the Canadian aid program in Kandahar. It is hard for assistance to have a lasting impact in the middle of an armed insurgency. Moreover, it was designed to support Canadian military operations, rather than long-term development, and much of it was therefore wasted. Ultimately, it failed to be of much use to the Canadian Forces either.

In another instance where CIDA prioritized Canadian interests, the current list of countries of concentration and the latest budget cuts both reduce assistance to poor African countries, while shifting resources to middle-income countries in Latin America that are more important for Canadian trade. Oda also provided incentives for NGOs to work with Canadian mining companies, and even admitted that she made no distinction between Canada’s trade and foreign policy interests and actual development goals.

The one major impact that Oda personally had on CIDA was her micromanaging. Rather than trusting the development professionals at CIDA, she insisted on making countless decisions herself, resulting in long delays without any tangible value added. Alongside the politicization of aid, this type of meddling degraded morale at CIDA and contributed to the premature departure of highly valuable development professionals.

Don’t be fooled by those whose blandly repeat Oda’s mantras of focus, transparency and accountability. The last five years have seen a significant deterioration in Canada’s will and capacity to help those in greatest need. Sadly, that is Bev Oda’s real legacy.

Stephen Brown is the editor of a new book on CIDA and Canadian foreign aid and a member of the McLeod Group.

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